Monday, November 16, 2015

Why UFT Elections Are a Sideshow to a Bigger Struggle in the Schools

I've been accused of being a defeatist even by people in my own MORE caucus for saying out front Unity cannot be defeated. I don't believe in magical thinking. I am a realist. While the overall elections can't be won, there is a lot of room for smaller victories through the election process.

For me the key thing to win is an expansion of the network deeper into the schools because an opposition must win the majority of the schools as chapters before it can even consider being a serious contender in UFT elections. How will you know that? When Unity starts losing control over the UFT Delegate Assembly even after packing it with 100 Exec Bd members and 300 retirees plus all the other functional chapter delegates and the school-based Unity faithful. (Unity has around 1000-1500 or more members).

The opposition often points out that the retiree vote is the key to Unity control because they vote in the elections. I disagree. At this point the retiree vote is irrelevant.

Unity Caucus (NYC) is not worried about losing the upcoming elections but more concerned about the total % the opposition - whether one, two or three caucuses run - can get. For me, a critical number is breaking a third - and moving towards 40% where it will begin to get serious.

When we look at the numbers we subtract the retiree vote and look at the 3 divisions for signs - the high school, middle school and elementary schools where there are a total of around 64,000 people. Other than the high schools, which have mostly pretty much voted anti-Unity since the mid-80s, the numbers are fairly bleak. This year the high schools seem to be the only division in play with 7 Ex Bd seats, though given the low totals for all caucuses coming out of the middle schools, if MORE could mount a strong middle school campaign it might move those numbers to create a challenge. Elementary schools is where Unity exerts iron control - especially through the district reps who keep a tight reign on over 700 or more schools. Until the opposition manages to break into the elementary schools in force the UFT elections are pretty much a done deal for Unity. And they know that and they make sure to use their machine to keep that tight reign.

2014 Contract Vote Without Retirees

Retirees do not vote on contracts so the outcome a year and a half ago gives us some data to work from. The contract NO vote was about 25% of the 64,000 the working teachers and about 20% of the functionals - roughly 40-45,000. I don't think we had a breakdown by divisions but that would be interesting.

I'm using very rough figures here -- around 93% of all members voted. Roughly 20,000 people voted against the contract. That does not mean they support a movement against Unity,  but call them the most likely group to draw votes from in an election. But then 80% voted for the contract so if you are using these numbers as a sign for the upcoming UFT elections it pretty much breaks down to what we saw in the 2013 election - Unity 80% and MORE 20% - without factoring in the New Action votes -- which went to Mulgrew and bumped his % up. If the numbers stay the same this time Mulgrew might come in under 80% - and maybe closer to 70% if you add up all the opposition votes.

Now I know people out there think there are miracles. Suddenly thousands of people will turn around over the period of a year and a half. To me it is like a school one year has a 20% grad rate and a year later brags that 80% of the  kids graduated. We roll our eyes - knowing they either cheated or tossed out many kids -- like charters.

So we know that if Unity were ever going to lose we cannot just use complaints on blogs or facebook from hundreds of as a signpost.

Opposition at the school and district level comes before UFT elections
All too often people opposed to Unity use chatter -- like emails about how upset people in their schools are and all are against Unity. When these people tell their chapter leaders and delegates to go to the DA and raise hell we will know that some of this chatter is real. So far, not a lot of signs.

We need to see real movement in the schools -- like entire chapters in revolt against the Unity leadership at the central and district level. You would see raucous monthly district rep meetings with chapter leaders where the Unity line pushed by the DR is thrown right back in their faces. You would see people at the weekend CL training challenging the Unity line instead of being recruited to join Unity.

One of the mantras I have been pushing is that the chapter leader elections every 3 years are more important than the UFT elections, which take place one year later. The October DA following CL elections - in this case Oct. 2015 - is where new CLs -- and according to something Mulgrew said - 40% of CLs are new -- come to their first DA as chapter leader - and many don't bother to come back.

The Delegate Assembly is where the battles must be won before we can say Unity can be challenged in the general elections. So far there are no signs this has happened yet.

But Unity knows that an uprising in the schools is where the real threat lies and the first signs of that will be when the DA starts voting against them. That is why they tried to close down the lobby for distribution as one repressive measure to make it more difficult to reach those CLs who might be wooed by the opposition.

I was traveling in Japan during this past October DA so I didn't get a chance to gauge reactions. My distributing stuff before and after I can get a sense of where things might have moved in the union at the school level.

The DA is prime recruiting ground to get more access to the schools
Since the DA is dominated by school-level Unity Caucus members who are CLs or delegates, they are the ones who come out month after month and thus the DA is not a true representative body but it is the only monthly gathering where all schools can show up and an important place for opposition to try to reach beyond their networks. And I will say that MORE people standing in the lobby after the meetings are getting people to sign up for our mailing lists - but in dribs and drabs -- and I think MORE has neglected doing this on a regular basis with an army of people instead of one or two.

There will be little chance of change in the UFT until a caucus opposing the UFT leadership reaches a critical mass in the number of schools where it has a base. Our pals in CORE in Chicago has a base in most of the 650 schools before they got elected. WE Caucus in Philly is creating a serious challenge because they have a base in a good percentage of schools.

But here in NYC things are not so easy due to the number of schools and the massive Unity machine that uses hundreds of full-time employees working on our dime to exercise control over the union.


  1. You and I have had this discussion since the day James ran for president. I warned without a good financed public relations campaign targeting the politically moderates on the elementary level would win you the election. You get them, you get their retiree friends as well. You are still calling for a slow growth, but the politics is against us. We have seen collectivize bargaining rights, tenure and pensions slaughtered in other states. We know Cuomo's intentions.

    MORE has to spend first to get their name out (run an ad in the NYTimes, local papers). Get a better FB page and snappy blogsite. Start getting out on Twitter. Aim the issues that effect classroom teachers since we are the ones that will get the votes out. And spend money to do it. Start fundraisers online!! But first be true to the issues of all teachers in the trenches. Social issues are important too, but teachers need to know we can have strong leadership again.

  2. MORE already has FB, Twittter etc and the budget will be bigger than before. But as we've said before -- if you cannot get into the schools ads in the NY Times mean little. Unity doesn't have to do ads in the TImes - they have their people in the schools plus control over communications. I believe in quick growth like Chicago had -- but their growth came from winning the schools. Better criticism is why MORE is not going to every one of those 95 schools in danger of being closed and organizing. CORE would have been on those cases -

  3. Norm,

    I've only been peripherally active in MORE since I moved to Yonkers and hesitate as both a retiree and Yonkersite (Yonkersian?) to do more than say again that I think your analysis is spot-on.

    I was involved in NYC and NYS government and politics for twenty years before I became a teacher. Two things always happen in an election: each side, but particularly the challenger, tries to develop a narrative or story that explains 'plausibly' the road to victory and each side begins to pick and chose from among the omens that confirm the narrative. In real-world politics, those omens include supposed word-of-mouth, the number of lawn signs counted or the size of crowds. In union politics, they include favorable Tweets or FB postings or number of leaflets distributed.

    I don't say this to mock MORE or anyone else because the behavior is part of human nature and happens in every campaign. But there are always many more people who urge on the campaign than who are willing to do the arduous door-knocking in the real world or the chapter organizing in the teacher union world.

    I hope that Jia and the rest of the slate 'win' by whatever definition of 'win' we use. I also ask people to be realistic about how rarely insurgent campaigns 'win' in the first, or even third, election. Without a tangible electoral base or 'ground game' election campaigns can just as easily deplete resources and demoralize people as restore and energize them.

    I offer these as 'realistic' reflections from experience and not as bleats of 'defeatism.'
    Go Jia and go MORE-NAC! Just go intelligently.




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