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As ballots come in, a look at the teachers union elections

Tonight, as members of New York City’s teachers union celebrate the union’s 50th anniversary with a line up of political and labor celebrities, some of their members will be sitting at home or in schools filling out ballots.

That’s because the United Federation of Teachers is in the midst of an election for its president and governing executive board, as well as hundreds of other positions. To outsiders and even some teachers, UFT elections are a little puzzling. This year, there have been no stump speeches, no public debates, and the only tangible evidence that candidates are campaigning is the fliers distributed in teachers’ school mailboxes and ads printed in the union’s newspaper.

The thousands of ballots counted on April 7 will decide the future leaders of America’s largest union local, and one of the most influential in the state. The UFT’s power to set education policy and craft pension deals in the city and statewide is so formidable, its former leader was once called “governor” in a newspaper editorial. And no matter how much the city detests the union’s policies, even Mayor Bloomberg admitted today that “they are part of the solution.”

Yet, most UFT members will tell you the election is not much of a competition.

Since the union’s creation on March 16, 1960, one caucus, the Unity caucus, has dominated union politics. What tends to interest union observers (and the candidates themselves) is not whether the Unity candidate — current UFT president Michael Mulgrew — will win, but by how much. Bloomberg staffers used to laugh when they talked to former UFT president Randi Weingarten about her own elections, which she saw as close calls even if she could expect at least 80 percent of the vote.

Like Weingarten, Mulgrew was hand-picked for the job and voted in by the union’s Unity-dominated governing board. Now, for the first time, the entire UFT membership has the chance to decide whether Mulgrew stays in power for the next three years.

Following this post, I’ll put up a rough guide to UFT elections. Below is a video the union produced about its origin story and put on YouTube in November of last year. There’s some great footage of the November 1960 strike — the union’s first strike — when about 5,000 teachers didn’t come to work and more than 100 schools closed.

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