Tuesday, February 12, 2008

The Randi Weingarten Succession Obsession

Part 2: Who will sit on the throne?
Part 1 is here.

With Ed McElroy's announcement that he would retire in July as AFT President, Randi Weingarten's succession is clear. Our sources say McElroy was pushed – check for water boarding with Leo Casey holding the bucket.

For anyone who doubts Weingarten won't tell a bald-faced lie, the funniest line in Elizabeth Green's NY Sun piece was:

Ms. Weingarten said she urged Mr. McElroy not to leave as recently as last Friday, in a lengthy private conversation. But she said that, having failed to persuade him, she will consider replacing him.

Actually, a lawyer's "lie" as I'm sure she actually said those words. Insiders at the UFT say she has been getting ready for the move for a long time, her plan being to use a national forum to help Hillary get elected. Ooops! Actually, if Obama is the candidate and loses to McCain, Hillary becomes very viable in 2012, so think long-term. Who do you think the Weingarten/Clinton forces will really be rooting for?) An Obama loss and AFT HQ becomes Hillary Central.

For anyone with doubts the UFT/AFT is run as a monarchy, we knew this scenario back in the early 90's when Weingarten was designated as Sandy Feldman's successor in the UFT. Expect that any successor in the UFT would then be in line to succeed Weingarten as AFT President, and though we can expect a long run for her in that position, don't discount that factor in choosing a possible successor at the UFT.

In the Green piece, Randi says:
Ms. Weingarten named one consideration that will drive her next steps: ensuring the continuing strength of the UFT.

Will Weingarten pull a "Shanker" and be President of the UFT and AFT, maybe for life?
Both Shanker and Feldman left the UFT soon after an election so they could appoint a successor who would have a few years to get their feet wet before having to run for election. Her moves so far logically leads the way to "ensure the continuing strength of the UFT" will be for her to remain as President for the forseeable future. Thus, there's a chance Randi will run again in 2010 for UFT President given that no clear successor has emerged as she continues to muddy the waters. She said she would finish her current term so that gives her 2 years in a dual role to decide. (Not that she does things for money, but if you add up the AFT, UFT, NYSUT salaries and stipends, it's a lot of guacamole.)

More likely, the people mentioned as "successors" will be given slices of the organization to keep watch over while Weingarten parachutes in and out of town as needed. The relatively weak showing by the ICE/TJC opposition in the 2007 was very important to this strategy, as is maintaining New Action as an in house phony "opposition" to confuse the membership. The question is: Will any of these people pay the same obsessive attention to ICE and TJC as Weingarten does. (We'll write more about this soon.)

The lack of a clear successor is counter to what Shanker and Feldman did - Feldman ran the union while Shanker was gone and Weingarten did so many things for many years before she took over that she practically functioned as a co-president. A lot of it has to do with Randi's massive insecurities and the fear that once she gives up the reigns, the horse is out of the barn.

(By the way, it should be pointed out that the UFT rank and file is irrelevant in all this. The basic moves will be made within Unity Caucus, which is not really a democracy either, but they are the important players here. There are hints of new leadership being put in place in the secretive organization which functions as a coven, with long-time leader chief of witchcraft and penultimate hack, Jeff Zahler rumored on the way out.)

The list of "successors" is just part of the show
Randi gave Green a list of possible successors – UFT vice presidents Michelle Bodden, Michael Mulgrew, and Richard Farkas, staff director Leroy Barr, New York State United Teachers Vice President Maria Neira, and a Manhattan District Rep, Evelyn DeJesus.

Note the names that have disappeared from the list from Green's article last month – hack supreme Leo Casey, VP Carmen Alvarez, who made the fatal mistake of saying she would be willing to take the job (water boarding to follow) and Michael Mendel, who was kicked upstairs after being removed as staff director, not a good sign. (By the way, many of us love Michael, one of the good guys.)

Neira has been around and has risen to AFT and NYSUT VP but is not very visible and we assume Randi will want her at the AFT as VP. DeJesus is popular and capable, but as a District Rep is so too far down the totem pole.

Note the balance – two Hispanics, two African-Americans, two whites, three males and three females. Farkas is on the list only as part of the balancing act. (One day I'll tell you a few Farkas stories.) Asians and American Indians are out of luck, as are hermaphrodites.

Weingarten does divide and conquer
In an organization like the UFT and its controlling Unity caucus, having a clear line of succession (ie. Feldman and Weingarten) is important in order to give someone time to get around the union, make themselves well-known and establish a support network. In monarchies (and corporations too), having no clear successor leads to palace infighting as people jockey for position. It could lead to cracks in the Unity machine that might be hard to repair. But Weingarten is not known for her foresight.

Bodden is the most polished and has been rumored for years as the obvious choice. She is also the popular choice of many people on the inside, who think she has a real teacher/educator's (as opposed to Randi's lawyer) view. Some were hoping for a simple passing of the baton hoping she would make much-needed changes. That may be her doom. I will say here that I like her (more doom) and had some direct experience with her when Randi put me on a committee she headed in the late 90's. I was impressed with her knowledge of teaching/learning issues and the way she dealt with people. With a vacuum left by Weingarten's absence, even the opposition would have a hard time being critical of Bodden, initially, at least, as we would expect little change in UFT policy other than cosmetic.

But making public appearances is not enough, and as Elementary School VP Bodden has not been put in enough of the type of positions that would give her a bigger presence in the union, something that should have occurred given it was clear for the last 3 years that Weingarten would be moving up this summer. When people on the inside said she was the chosen one I disputed them, saying if that was so, she would have started to play a similar role to the one Randi played with Feldman. When instead of Bodden, Randi moved Mendel into a phony position as her "assistant" that was a bad sign for Bodden. The obvious move would have been to give it to her or make her staff director at that time.

Randi has undermined Bodden by pushing the fast-rising Mulgrew. Leroy Barr's recent appointment as staff director (a giant leap and he's very far from ready to run the UFT) is also a bad sign for Bodden. Was Barr's appointment a move to split Bodden's African-American supporters? And what about the male/female issue? Is Randi channeling the Democratic primary? Weingarten pushed out short-term hack supremo Jeff Zahler as staff director after dumping Mendel from that job (he had replaced the dumped Liz Langiulli who had replaced the retired (forced out?) Tom Pappas.)

AFT staffers, see what you have to look forward to?

Mulgrew has a lean and hungry look, is ambitious and has the sharpest knife, so if there's any infighting – if Randi let's them fight it out freestyle – he could emerge. It is more likely he will be the enforcer holding down the fort when Randi is traveling, maybe ultimately as Staff Director, playing the strongman role Pappas played for Sandy and Randi.

This is right out of Machiavelli, or maybe the Howard Wolfson consultants' book of holding onto power. Create lots of candidates and make sure no one emerges who can take control and threaten Weingarten when she is at the AFT. As we pointed out in Part 1, whoever controls the reigns in the UFT (or rather Unity Caucus) controls the AFT. Can Weingarten take the risk that someone who gets too powerful (as she did) would not one day turn on her?

Historical lessons
When Dave Selden left the UFT to take over the AFT (1968-1974) he watched the man he had mentored, Al Shanker, grow enormously powerful, backed by an iron tight Unity Caucus machine, which he used in 1974 to depose Selden. Lesson: Your mentoree may knife you in the back. (Selden wrote a book about it all.)

Shanker went through a number of potential successors (remember Herb Magidson circa 1975), many of whom fell by the wayside because they proved to be too liberal on communism and foreign policy, before settling on his trusted assistant Sandy Feldman (also a fellow traveler in Social Democrats USA which we don't have time to go into), who for a long time was not considered up to snuff to run the UFT. But she proved herself over years as the UFT staff director and Shanker finally handed over power in 1984.

Soon after Weingarten came on board as a lawyer at the UFT, she became the hand-chosen successor to Feldman without a day of teaching (they quickly moved to get her certified and into a school where she served part time for 6 years other than a full-time 6 month period). This caused some measure of resentment in Unity Caucus as there were people who expected a continuation of "earning your spurs" in the line of succession.

The insider choice to replace Feldman was Alan Lubin (who came up through the ranks as chapter leader, district rep, boro rep). Lubin was kicked upstate and became a NYSUT VP to make room for Weingarten – those who did not pay fealty to Randi when she took over in 1998 were purged. Lubin was tough, capable and even liked by many of us in the opposition. Hmmm! I have an idea for a Randi successor – bring Lubin back.

There were times Feldman may have felt she turned over the reigns in 1998 to Weingarten too soon as her mentoree turned feisty when given too much advice. Feldman also witnessed how loyalty to Weingarten became the prime ingredient. But then again, what could she have expected since she functioned the same way? I'm intrigued as to what might have happened had Sandy lived and blocked Randi's way.

The UFT Strongman/woman tradition fosters dependence
When you have a dictatorship with all decisions flowing from the top down, the underlings have no choice other than follow orders. Not exactly leadership-building. The UFT has been run by a dictatorship for over 40 years where one person makes all the decisions. All of the people mentioned as successors fit this profile, making a move to leadership a giant leap.

Shanker was so dominant he could afford to surround himself with some sharp people (he was still the smartest guy in the room) but for the over 10 years be ran both the AFT and UFT he had a hard time letting go. Feldman had the Shanker machine and, as his lieutenant, basically kept the Unity machine in place. She had tough guy Tom Pappas to ride herd as staff director.

To replace Feldman they decided to go outside the box when they chose Weingarten in the late 80's. For the past few years I was expecting someone to appear from outside to play the Weingarten role but that hasn't happened, another reason I think Weingarten will be more Shanker than Feldman in holding onto power in the UFT for a long time.

Weingarten has taken top-down control to new heights beyond Shanker and Feldman, being the ultimate micromanager. For example, she must read every single word of every article in the NY Teacher. Every personnel decision is made by her. Manhattan borough head Jerry Goldman is quoted in Green's NY Sun article in January as saying the decision to jump his former employee Leroy Barr over him as staff director was made by Weingarten herself, one of the funniest lines in the article. Weingarten decides who cleans the graffiti at 52 Broadway.

When you surround yourself with sycophants (as many strong leaders do) don't expect the sycophants to be able to run an organization like the UFT. To those of us who have been deeply involved in UFT politics and know all the players it is clear that not one of them is truly able to take over the reigns. They are empowered to make few if any decisions - maybe things like the kinds of pens to use. So the idea that any one of them can lead the UFT is farcical.

Weingarten's style of governance has not fostered independence in her staff, preferring to rely on media advisers and high priced consultants (like Hillary Clinton adviser Howard Wolfson) while treating the staff as subservients. It is no accident she is more loved by the newer, newly promoted star-struck staff than by the old timers, some of whom are Randi-weary and ready for a change that might bring a higher degree of rationality. Read that as: Consistent policy instead of setting policy by how the press release will go over.

Randi's major agenda as AFT president, aside from helping make Hillary the President, will be to move toward a merger with the NEA, where she would not have as easy a time becoming head of a joint union. In this area I think she has the skill set to make progress. Until we get into that neck of the woods, maintaining control over the Unity Caucus machine is primary.

Thus, when you look at the entire ball of wax, Randi Weingarten's successor at the UFT will likely be – drumroll, please – Randi Weingarten.

Part 1 addressed the power relationship between the AFT and UFT and we gave our reasons why Randi would stay in the labor movement rather than taking a position in a Hillary cabinet as Ed Sect'y. Oops, did I speak too soon? (She confirmed she wasn't interested in the cabinet position in the Green piece.)


  1. What an utterly depressing story about the Unity machine that I just spent the last three hours reading. You need to get out more Norm. Then again, so does anyone else who reads this lengthy piece including me.

  2. You know how the papers write obits and are ready to go when someone dies? A lot of this his piece was written a while ago - and it can be reused with a few name changes the next time there's a succession.


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