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It’s been nearly three years since Michael Mulgrew was elected to his first full term at the helm of the United Federation of Teachers, which means election season has arrived for New York City’s teachers union.
As would-be candidates work to meet Wednesday’s deadline to collect the signatures they need to get on the ballots in April, we’ll be keeping you up to date on Mulgrew’s re-election bid and about what to expect from the changing union landscape.
What is clear is that there won’t be much suspense in the race for UFT president, as Mulgrew will almost certainly coast to a second full term. He’s backed by the union’s longtime dominant party, Unity, whose presidential candidate typically wins by a landslide. Three years ago, Mulgrew received 91 percent of the vote.
The unified support that the union’s leadership typically receives is one of many ways that the union has remained powerful in the face of threats. In other ways, too, the elections are about more than Mulgrew. There will be hundreds of positions on the ballot, including 90 executive board positions and delegates to the national and state unions, many with significant ability to impact decision-making. The vote totals also offer an opportunity to gauge dissent within the union — and this year, the dissenters are working hard to harness their power.
Two groups are lining up against Unity’s slate of candidates this year. New Action, a longstanding faction that often opposes Unity positions but supports Mulgrew for president, is nominating a full slate of candidates. They’re counting on members’ knowledge of New Action’s positions — which include opposing the use of test scores in teacher evaluations and supporting limits on mayoral control — to earn them votes, according to caucus co-chair Jonathan Halabi.
Halabi compared the group to the Working Families Party, which usually endorses Democratic candidates but sometimes puts forth candidates of its own. “We support the leadership when they’re right and we don’t when they’re wrong,” he said. “It’s kind of an easy sell.”
Another group, the Movement of Rank-and-File Educators, is nominating a slate of candidates who have staked out positions on teacher evaluations and charter schools that differ dramatically from Unity’s. MORE bills itself as “the social justice caucus” and takes inspiration from the group that won leadership of Chicago’s teachers union in 2010. The caucus wants less standardized testing, union opposition to school closures and co-locations, and a new contract that includes retroactive pay raises, among other changes.
MORE came together last May, uniting a number of opposition groups within the UFT and taking the reins for the Independent Coalition of Educators and Teachers for a Just Contract, which together earned a small percentage of votes in the last election. Unlike New Action, MORE is shooting for the top by nominating Julie Cavanaugh, a chapter leader at P.S. 15 in Red Hook, as a presidential candidate.
MORE’s relatively recent genesis is likely to make a citywide campaign difficult, though. A recent after-school appearance by Cavanaugh at Murry Bergtraum High School in lower Manhattan, where chapter leader John Elfrank-Dana is a MORE member, attracted just 14 union members. Elfrank-Dana (whose writing GothamSchools has published before) said last-minute publicity and other school events that afternoon had cut into attendance, but he admitted he was disappointed at the turnout, which he estimated at one-fifth of his own members.
“There’s just so much apathy,” he said.
Unlike Halabi, who said he expects New Action to retain significant clout on the union’s executive board, Cavanaugh downplayed her hopes for specific election victories. MORE’s focus is on uniting opposition within the union and increasing voter turnout generally, she said, since turnout among active teachers has been less than 25 percent in the last two elections.
As usual, the Unity caucus will face no formal challenge from the right. Educators 4 Excellence, the advocacy group of teachers that has opposed the union leadership on teacher pay and evaluations, will not be jumping into the fray. Its executive director, Jonathan Schliefer, said the group encourages teachers to become leaders in their schools, including as union chapter leaders, but is focusing its efforts on policy lobbying.
Certain to make an impact are retirees, whose votes go overwhelmingly to Unity. It’s worth watching how big that impact turns out to be, since those votes have gained influence through a rule change made by the UFT this January. The total number of retirees’ votes counted had been capped at 18,000 since 1989, which meant that an individual retiree’s vote counted for less than an active member’s vote — about seven-tenths of a vote in 2010. The union raised that cap to 23,500 retiree votes in January, and because a high percentage of retirees vote, Mulgrew could potentially receive an even higher share of the votes than in 2010.
What’s happening now? Petitions to get on the ballot, which require anywhere from 100 signatures for delegate and executive board positions to 900 signatures for officer positions, are due Wednesday. Ballots will be mailed to union members on April 3, and members will have three weeks to fill out their ballots, which must be returned by April 24. They’ll be able to select a candidate for each of the hundreds of open positions — or they can vote for a caucus’s entire slate.
The votes will be publicly counted on April 25, about two weeks later than they were counted in 2010. UFT Secretary Michael Mendel attributed the delay to Hurricane Sandy. “It moved the whole calendar back for every single thing,” he said, pointing to the teacher evaluation negotiations with the city that Sandy also put on hold. The election calendar is approved by a bipartisan committee that includes members from MORE and New Action, he added.
Much of the electioneering will take place in teachers’ school mailboxes, which the Department of Education has said can be used to distribute union campaign literature. But after weeks of requests from individual union members, including Elfrank-Dana, representatives of the Unity Caucus have agreed to schedule debates with other candidates. Leroy Barr, the union’s staff director, today told the chapter leader of Brooklyn’s Franklin Delano Roosevelt High School — Marian Swerdlow, a founding member of Teachers for a Just Contract — that a union official would participate in a debate in early April.
Barr said the debate at FDR was the first the caucus had agreed to, but he said it might not be the last.
The debate joins the leaflets and a trip to Florida by Mulgrew this week to speak at an annual retirees’ luncheon as visible evidence of the campaign. But for the most part, election season doesn’t disrupt the union’s regular activities, including the annual lobby day in Albany that will take place tomorrow, according to Mendel.
“It’s business as usual,” he said.
This story also appeared on GothamSchools.org on March 5, 2013.