Every year 2,000 delegates elected by the members of the 1300 locals representing the 600,000 New York State United Teacher members gather, usually rotating annually between Buffalo and New York City, to set policy for the organization, listen to a range of speeches, honor their own and, until this year, listen to a speech by the State Commissioner and ask him questions from the floor.
While teachers in New York City struggled under the yoke of Mike Bloomberg, locals outside the city sliced budgets to comply with the 2% property tax cap, CUNY and SUNY faced increasingly proscriptive ukases from chancellors and urban upstate cities faced increasing poverty. Over the last few years the Question and Answer sessions with the Commissioner have become more and more testy. This year, no Commissioner, no members of the Regents.
Apparently the testiness spread within NYSUT leadership: Was the leadership too aloof from the membership? Was the leadership reactive rather than proactive? A few months ago the behind the scenes finger-pointed increased until an opposition slate emerged.
The opposing slates were both part of Unity, the majority caucus.
NYSUT leadership – the President, Secretary/Treasurer, three Vice Presidenst, at-large Directors and Directors from geographic districts are elected for two year terms in even numbered years.
The Unity Caucus met Friday night – Michael Mulgrew moved that the caucus not endorse candidates and the convention Unity members be freed from caucus discipline. In the past caucus members committed to support candidates selected within the caucus, similar to Democrats selecting candidates in Democratic primaries.
Saturday was an awkward day, beginning with a candidates forum. There were three slates: the Iannuzzi slate (the incumbents), the McGee slate (the insurgents) and a slate from the MORE opposition caucus in New York City.
Each slate divided up the time allotted among their candidates: the audience cheered loudly for “their guy/gal,” was a little like an 8th grade GO election.
Committees met, resolutions were debated, honors and awards to members, a tribute to Peter Seeger, and, finally the locals moved to their election sites at 4:30 pm.
Each delegate casts a weighted vote – if a local has 1,000 members and sends ten delegates the delegates would carry 100 votes each.
Each delegate affixes a sticker to their ballot and bubbles in their choices on a scannable ballot. The ballots are counted by an outside organization.
While the exact votes were not announced the rumors are the McGee slate won with about 60% of the total votes cast.
Both slates, the Iannuzzi and the McGee slates spoke passionately about the need for all parties to coalesce- the importance of the union over the ambitions of either side – delegate after delegate pleaded for unity – committed to fight together for the membership – it was an impressive display of commitment to ideals of the union. Randi Weingarten made one of her best speeches – again, a call to fight together for members, for families, for students, she slammed Cuomo in the strongest terms.
At the end of the convention Karen McGee made her maiden speech – impressive – she reminded us she was the first female President in a union in which 70% of the membership was women. She’s an excellent public speaker.
One of the most popular resolutions was calling on the Board of Regents to “immediately” fire the commissioner.
While the Governor’s support for charter schools received all the ink, it will be interesting to see the result of one section of the law giving the city and state comptrollers the right to audit charter schools. The increase in state aid was substantial, the limitations on the use of student test scores and vague comments from the Governor about the need to modify APPR (teacher evaluation) did not mollify the members.
Sitting with 2,000 like-minded union members is an emotional high – converting the passion to changes in state laws and regulations are another matter.
Singing, arm in arm, Solidarity Forever is emotionally satisfying – the hard work begins after the convention delegates return to their localities around the state.
The Governor, the Attorney General, the Comptroller, the 150 members of the Assembly and the 63 members of the Senate will be on the ballot in November.
Cuomo’s opponent, probably Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino is a conservative Republican, pro charter school, anti-Dream Act, anti-marriage equality, on the other side of just about every issue that NYSUT supports. Parent anger could jeopardize the re-election of some legislators; there are a dozen vacant seats in the legislature. How can the 600,000 NYSUT members use their clout the change the direction of state education policy?
The new NYSUT leadership will have an immediate test.