As spring bursts across the city over a hundred thousand teachers (and guidance counselor, school secretaries, etc.) are filling out their ballots in the triennial UFT elections. On the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the UFT members will be electing their fifth president, following in the tradition of Charlie Cogen, Al Shanker, Sandy Feldman and Randi Weingarten.
Michael Mulgrew was appointed by the Executive Board when Weingarten left to assume the national presidency and this is his first run for a full term.
The UFT has always been characterized by the active involvement of members. Once each month over a thousand delegates, elected in their schools, attend the Delegate Assembly. It’s an interesting experience. As you walk into union headquarters you pass a gauntlet of flyer distributors. The three political caucuses, the Communist Party, members espousing one cause or another. A long table of weighted down with massive piles of agendas and minutes and leaflets announcing this and that.
The meetings often overflow with latecomers watching and participating via tele-conference from other rooms in the building.
The meeting begins with a lengthy president’s report, moves into a question period, a section in which members can move to add items to the agenda, and a series of motions. The debate is vigorous.
Twice a month on Monday nights the Executive Board meets, any member can attend and make a one-minute speech.
I served on the Executive Board for many years, in the beginning as the youngest member. In my first year I made a motion to change the union constitution to add Chapter Leaders to the Delegate Assembly, Delegate Assemblies only consisted of school elected delegates, not the Chapter Leaders. Jules Kolodny, one of the founders of the union spoke against me and my motion only garnered a handful of votes. A year later Jules introduced the same motion and it passed overwhelmingly. He told me, “Sometimes good ideas need time to mature.”
The union currently consists of three caucuses, essentially political parties. Unity has lead the union since it’s inception. The New Action Coalition (NAC) cross-endorses some candidates with Unity, agrees on some issues and disagrees on others. The Independent Coalition of Educators (ICE) is the opposition.
The current union newspaper gives each party pages to campaign and the caucuses list policies that they support.
Decades ago the union was divided along ideological lines with the opposition parties on the left and Shanker-lead Unity in the center.
These are exceptionally difficult times for teacher union leaders. Not only assaults on core principles, i.e., tenure, seniority, pay for performance, dismissal rules, but a floundering economy. Los Angeles sent out 5,000 pink slips, Detroit is closing 45 schools, Kansas City is closing half their schools, city after city can’t meet their bills. The NYS budget battle nears a conclusion, the only question is the depth of the cuts, and, will they result in layoffs, and, oh yes, stalled contract talks.
Mike Bloomberg is the Mayor for at least four more years, Obama-Duncan in the White House till at least 2012. The union president has to decide how can s/he best protect members in times of trouble. The easy, and popular approach would be to slam Bloomberg and Obama-Duncan and all electeds who don’t support you and bask in the cheers of your members.
In the complex world of politics, to paraphrase The Prince, “your enemies enemy is my friend.” You may oppose Bloomberg on some issues and work with him on others. You may fight him over teacher tenure but totally work with him on increasing funds for education.
Union leaders have to be mature, they have to realize that they are not aggrandizing their egos, but are representing over 100,000 members in perilous times.
I voted for Unity because I think Mulgrew understands the dangers and the risks. He toiled for years as a classroom teacher, he engages teachers in schools virtually every day. I fear the opposition is so angry and hostile that could lose all that the union has gained in it’s fifty years.
The thousand plus members who crowd into the Delegate Assembly each month is a sign of the health of the union. The free flow of ideas from the membership to the leadership of what democratic trade unionism is about.
The ballots are counted on April 7th.