In the early seventies the National Education Association (NEA) and the American Federation of Teachers, (AFT) locals in New York State merged into a single state federation – the New York State United Teachers (NYSUT). There was considerable doubt that the merger would succeed, the organizations came from starkly different cultures – a union affiliated with the AFL-CIO and a “professional” organization.
NYSUT is incredibly diverse – New York City, locals with 100 or fewer members deep in the Adirondacks, high wealth suburbs, college teachers in the CUNY system and across the state in the SUNY system. Per capita funding is one of the most disparate in the nation; upstate urban communities have seen industry flee and the inner cities face increasingly deep poverty and less and less revenue.
NYSUT is not a union – it is a federation of 1300 local chapters. NYSUT uses dues dollars to establish and staff regional support centers around the state – the centers provide labor relations specialists and attorneys who negotiate contracts and support the locals as well as lobbying in Albany.
New York City, teachers, teachers outside of New York City and college teachers belong to different pension funds, CUNY and SUNY have chancellors selected by appointed Boards, the Board of Regents appoints a state commissioner while New York City is a mayoral control city.
For decades Tom Hobart led the NYSUT federation with élan. Tom skillfully guided the extremely diverse elements within the federation. Tom and Toni Cortese, his first vice president balanced the complexities of the needs of 600,000 members and, from the UFT, Alan Lubin, guided the political/lobbying side across the state.
NYSUT collected millions of dollars in voluntary political contributions (Committee on Political Education – COPE) and for many years has been the major contributor to political campaigns – both Republicans and Democrats.
Some months ago the unity of this extremely diverse organization began to fray. The incumbents are being challenged by a new slate – all the candidates within the same caucus (See Revive NYSUT here and a blog supporting the insurgents here)
The annual NYSUT Representative Assembly will begin on Friday evening April 4th and the election will take place on the evening of April 5th.
Rumors abound about the reasons that the split is irreconcilable:
* have the incumbents mismanaged the fiscal side of NYSUT?
* have the incumbents been tone deaf to the needs of members?
* has the split been engineered by the larger locals?
Interestingly this a not a philosophical split between different caucuses – all the candidates are within the Unity Caucus – the caucus that has dominated the federation for decades.
For the anti-Unity folk it’s a Randi Weingarten plot, the press points to a dispute between Vice President Andy Palotta and President Dick Iannuzzi. Others just think that NYSUT has been slow to respond to the attacks on public education by the governor, the commissioner and most members of the board of regents.
Iannuzzi is losing ground among local unions whose delegates will vote at a convention in early April.
Philip Rumore, president of the Buffalo Federation of Teachers, said his members are frustrated that the current leadership wasn’t as aggressive as they’d hoped in responding to the state’s rollout of the controversial Common Core standards.
“Many of the Buffalo teachers have not been satisfied with the positions that NYSUT has taken,” Rumore told Capital on Wednesday. “Let’s put it this way: If anything, we are leaning toward a change in direction, but we haven’t made a formal decision yet.”
Yonkers Federation of Teachers president Patricia Puleo said her union’s delegates are free to decide for themselves who they’ll vote for in April, and she questioned whether new leadership would make a difference in how the state Education Department goes forward with implementation of the Common Core standards. But she recognized that the city’s teachers have grown frustrated.
“People are so upset that they are willing to make whatever changes they can,” Puleo said.
Kevin Ahern, president of the Syracuse Teachers Association, said his delegates aren’t sure how they’ll vote.
“We have to do what is best for our local, and we are waiting until we have thoroughly discussed where both slates are at in terms of what will work best for us in the long term,” Ahern said.
Rochester Teachers Association president Adam Urbanski said teachers have been dissatisfied with Iannuzzi’s handling of some issues in the past, they “have also noted a marked change in his position with the call for a moratorium and with spearheading the vote of no confidence against Commissioner King,” he said.
“I think there is considerable dissatisfaction with the way things have turned out,” Urbanski continued, “and I think they want a stronger position to be taken by NYSUT than NYSUT has managed to take until now. There is absolutely no question about that. But they don’t want change for the sake of change; they want change in position and the issues to be the focus point, not personalities.”
United University Professions, a union of about 33,000 SUNY professors and other employees, will back the challengers.
Higher education institutions in the state are facing different issues than elementary and secondary schools, and UUP president Frederick Kowal said a primary focus has been the financial troubles of Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn, which might close. He’s unhappy with NYSUT’s involvement in professors’ fight to keep it open.
Universities have also faced state aid cuts. NYSUT launched an advertising campaign earlier this month advocating boosts in funding for SUNY and CUNY. But Kowal said his union has had to rely on its own lobbying.
“There needs to be a consistent and long-running commitment to the needs of members and locals,” Kowal said. “It’s just not enough to see a flurry of activity as a contested election approaches.”
Sometime late Saturday night the votes will be counted and the incumbents or the insurgents will prevail. What is crucially important is that the transition, if it occurs, is an orderly transition. The worst thing that could happen is if the losers attempt to undercut the winners.
Politics is complicated, it’s easy to attack the governor or the commissioner or the legislature, and it’s difficult to impact policy decisions. You influence lawmakers one vote, one meeting at a time, by developing relationships. As Tip O’Neill, the one-time Speaker of the House of Representatives so famously noted, “All politics is local.”
A contingent of CUNY students was meeting with an Albany legislator; they were vigorously demanding more money for the city colleges to prevent a tuition increase. The legislator asked whether the students would campaign for higher taxes, or, what programs should they reduce to add funds to colleges, the students got frustrated, angry, and threatened, “We won’t vote for you – we’ll campaign against you.” The legislator asked, “Will you work with me to find a solution?” The students angrily stalked out of the office. The legislator took the sign-in list and ran it into the computer – none of the students were registered Democrats – they were not eligible to vote in the primary in which candidates were selected.
An hour later we met with a lobbyist and some clients – they advocated for legislation and left a detailed folder with a suggested bill.
In my former school district the school board, the superintendent, the parent associations and school union leaders met with all the local legislators and provided them with a legislative agenda for the district and followed up with Albany visits and visits to the legislator’s community office.
One would hope that teacher union local presidents have excellent relationships with local electeds, that they communicate regularly, that with the assistance of the NYSUT lobbying team they are a presence in their district. Impacting policy is not an e-blast or a one-time trip to Albany – it is a day-to-day process.
For the UFT the major issue is negotiating a contract and relief from the onerous requirements of the teacher evaluation plan, for CUNY the fight is over Pathways, for SUNY the proposed closing of Downstate Medical Center, outside of New York City the property tax cap, all locals are fighting for increased state aid, locals and groups of locals have diverse interests and needs.
The voters are the elected delegates representing the membership of the 1300 local unions. The “voters” vote in proportion to the members they represent – local unions decide on the number of delegates to send to the Representative Assembly. Each voter bubbles in the candidates of their choice on a ballot with a barcode – the ballots are scanned and the totals available a few hours after the closing of the polls – Saturday night.
While it is commonplace to speculate about backroom deals and grand strategies frequently disagreements are what they seem. Members of organizations become dissatisfied and an alternate leader emerges – this is what democracy is all about.
Will the representatives of the 600,000 member NYSUT decide to stick with the current leadership or opt for a new team – I suspect they will opt for the new team.
Leaders require a “third ear,” Joyce Brown, a psychologist and President of FIT describes her process,
I have a third ear. I listen, and I really pay attention and try very hard to understand the nuances. I tell people that I will listen to what they say, and will try to incorporate what I can from their suggestions if I think they fit the objective we’re trying to achieve. If we’re not going to do what they’re suggesting, I’ll tell them why. I think people deserve that. I will tell you why, and then we will proceed. I think it works, because people feel that they were listened to, and were given the respect of an answer about why I might disagree. You gain a lot by being respectful of people’s ideas.
The current NYSUT leadership appears to have lost contact with their membership – too many members feel the leadership is neither listening nor leading. Leadership requires a deft touch – the membership goals may be unrealistic – do you follow the membership even though you know the path is futile or guide the membership to another path, even though they are reluctant?
In New York City Michael Mulgrew is a popular leader – he won the last union election with almost 90% of the vote, there is an active opposition, a former very oppositional mayor – with currently a much friendlier mayor Mulgrew will have to negotiate a contract and satisfy his members – some may have unrealistic expectations. Senior teachers want as much money as possible to augment their pensions; younger members want job security and “respect,” aka, better working conditions. Mulgrew will have to check the pulse of his membership and craft an agreement that satisfies members across the board.
Apparently NYSUT leadership was unable to find a middle ground, hence the leadership struggle.
The members will decide.
On a personal note: I have worked with candidates on both sides of the struggle and have always found them dedicated and hard-working – I hope that once the membership decides the factions can come together for the benefit of the membership.