This page is concerned with how UFT members can get more involved both in supporting their colleagues and making the union more responsive, democratic and accountable.
Our union has a legion of sworn enemies. We are under attack from time to time by liberals as well as conservatives, the respectable press, the attention-grabbing tabloids and more than a few right-wing think tanks. With a constant drumbeat of union-bashing, it is hardly surprising that union members would be reluctant to criticize the policies and practices of their union. Wouldn’t that provide comfort to the enemy?
The union-bashing of the last decade which reached a high-water mark in the Supreme Court’s Janus v. AFSCME (138 S.Ct. 2448) decision of 2018, denying public employee unions the ability to collect agency fees from nonmembers, has promoted an agenda wholly different from what motivates union supporters to examine the strengths and weaknesses of their unions.
Much of the well-crafted propaganda against teacher tenure, collective bargaining rights and union-led opposition to school choice proposals expresses at heart the compulsive appetite on the part of the country’s economic elites to see the entire educational sector deregulated and transformed into something along the lines of for-profit enterprises.
During the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, media audiences have been informed about powerful union bosses who bend politicians to their will and damn whatever the schoolchildren need. The stories are exaggerated and, in some instances, completely false, but one kernel of truth within the myth is that when it comes to the UFT most of the union’s power is concentrated at the top.
Michael Mulgrew can make headlines, intimidate candidates for office, and help usher in major DOE policy changes through behind-the-scenes agreements with the City. The regrettable, more complete truth is that, at the school level, the union’s weakness in protecting its members is painfully evident each and every day.
For anyone wondering whether such unfavorable facts should be allowed to undermine the union’s official message and cause disunity, we have a question. What is it we support when we support our union?
Let’s grant that much of the union leadership works very hard and that we share a common purpose with them. But there should be more to a union than the services it provides, the protection of benefits, the social causes it espouses, or the anniversaries it commemorates. The real everyday solidarity and support we gave our school colleagues are an essential part of our being a union. The effort to collectively bring more dignity to our work, to work without fear, to use our knowledge and judgment as professionals, and to have a voice in our schools are likewise essential.
The union’s best potential for improving the working lives of its members depends on calling on the strength of its rank-and-file members. Not all of the problems we face as a union can be laid at the feet of the union leadership. Our union is in need of fundamental change. Such change requires an expanded role for the membership. It is simply not enough to consume the services, attend meetings, and applaud the speeches.
What follows is a look at some of the ways that members currently participate in the union and how such participation could improve the union. We will look at UFT elections, its meetings and forums, school chapters and union media. We welcome comments below.
Unions are typically membership organizations with elected officers and as such they stand in contrast to many other types of organizations in society. With the self-financing of their membership, they provide a way to counter the power of privately run organizations, funded with corporate largesse or the deep pockets of the very wealthy. Regular elections are an essential part of any democratically run union and members have a compelling interest to participate.
As provided by the UFT Constitution, an election for union officers, including vice presidents, executive board members and convention delegates is conducted every three years. The voting is done by mail with ballots tallied by an independent auditor.
It goes without saying that those who are elected have a valid claim to speak for us. The union leadership not only speaks for educators, it determines union policies and negotiates agreements with the City, allowing for practices that may remain in place for years. So if we are disappointed in their performance of these duties, it would seem that we have only ourselves and our colleagues to blame. Yet despite the many excellent reasons to vote, participation by active members is abysmally low. In 2019, there were barely 40,000 votes cast out of a union membership that is boasted to be upwards of 180,000.
There has recently been an interest in introducing online voting to make the logistics of returning a ballot more convenient. However, any explanation of the low voter participation among active members must consider the fact that our union’s elections rarely bring any surprises. The UFT is effectively a one-party union, and there are some specific rules and practices that have allowed the Unity Caucus to avoid any serious electoral challenges since the early years of the union’s history. One part of the arrangement is the question of whose votes are counted.
As a UFT press release announcing the 2019 results put it:
“Eligible voters included teachers, paraprofessionals, school secretaries, occupational and physical therapists, guidance counselors, psychologists, social workers, administrative law judges, registered nurses, family childcare providers and other active and retired members.”
This sprawling electorate is obviously beyond the reach of effective campaigning by the relatively smaller caucuses, run by teachers, hoping to contest Unity’s control of leadership positions. Although the ballots returned by retired members are capped for the final tally (currently the cap is 23,500) given the low participation of active members the retiree vote is typically 40 percent to half of the votes submitted!
One observer described this set-up as a “fortress against internal opposition.”
The term “UFT machine” was not recently coined by disgruntled members on the sidelines of union politics. It is the term chosen by a founder of our union,
David Selden, to describe electoral procedures put in place by Albert Shanker in the early 1960s which he described in The Teacher Rebellion. These rules include slate voting which allow for dozens of Executive Board candidates and hundreds of convention delegates to be selected at a single stroke. The other feature is a winner-take-all rule so that caucuses receiving less than an outright majority receive no representation in the elected bodies at all.
Another aspect of the machine which is the leadership’s monopoly of the union-owned media will be dealt with in a later section. Here we will turn to look at how several of the elected bodies, the Delegate Assembly and the Executive Board allow for the participation of rank-and-file members.