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Teachers union election: a look at caucuses and candidates

In part two of a rough guide to the upcoming teachers union elections, here’s a look at the union’s internal party system and who’s running for major positions.
Part of the reason why UFT ballots have the heft of a college acceptance package is that they’re filled with a dizzying number of names. This year, 1,485 candidates are running for about 900 positions.

Most of those positions are for delegates to the conventions held by the national and state union branches, as well as the country’s largest teachers union, the National Eduction Association. But others have a direct influence on how the union is run and where it stands on issues like merit pay, charter schools, and how difficult it is to fire a teacher.

Along with voting for a union president, UFT members also cast their votes for ten officer positions and 78 executive board positions. The executive board, which meets once a month and votes on resolutions, breaks down into 42 “at large” positions held by any UFT member, and 36 positions that are parceled out among elementary (11), middle (5), and high school teachers (6), as well as “functional” employees (14) such as guidance counselors.

Of all the positions on the ballot, the high school seats on the executive board are the most contested and always have been.

The teachers union is made up of caucuses, which are like political parties within the union. Rather than checking off 900 boxes, most people vote by caucus, meaning they’ll check the slate for Unity, New Action, or Independent Community of Educators/Teachers for a Just Contract (known as ICE/TJC).

Unity is the union’s dominant caucus. Every UFT president has been a Unity member since the days of Al Shanker who, according to Richard Kahlenberg’s biography, is largely responsible for Unity’s grip on the UFT’s reins. Kahlenberg writes:

In the spring of 1970, at Shanker’s urging, the Unity Caucus adopted a rule under which Unity members were free to fight out positions within the caucus, but once the caucus took a position, members had to support it publicly outside the caucus or risk expulsion. By 1970, the Unity Caucus had grown so powerful that expulsion from Unity was tantamount to expulsion from power within the union.

Many teachers, especially those new to the city’s schools, aren’t aware that there are alternatives to Unity. Unless their school’s chapter leader or delegate is an opposition party member, or they’re especially curious about how the union works, chances that they’ll know who’s running are slim. Norm Scott, a member of the opposition group ICE, writes on his blog that when he asks teachers whether their chapter leaders are Unity members, they often have no idea.

That makes life more difficult for the union’s two opposition groups: New Action and ICE/TJC.

New Action has been around for longer than ICE/TJC and is better known among some retirees (who make up a large percentage of voters), but it is no longer wholly independent of Unity. In 2004, New Action’s leaders decided the caucus would endorse then-president Randi Weingarten’s run for re-election rather than put up a candidate to run against her, as they had done in the past. Unhappy with this decision, some New Action members left and formed ICE, a group that would challenge Unity from the outside rather than partnering with them.

New Action doesn’t always agree with Unity’s decisions. Last year, when the UFT decided to stay out of the city’s mayoral race, New Action endorsed Mayor Bloomberg’s democratic challenger Bill Thompson.

Since 2007, New Action has cross endorsed Unity’s candidates for president and Unity has cross endorsed New Action’s candidates for the only competitive race: the high school executive board seats, making it significantly more difficult for ICE to win any of these positions.

That hasn’t stopped ICE from trying. Its supporters place flyers in teachers’ school mailboxes and Teachers Unite, a nonprofit organization that’s backing ICE/TJC in this election, has done phone banking on their behalf. ICE’s candidate for president, James Eterno, a teacher at Jamaica High School, has received some press attention for speaking out against Jamaica’s closure. But as with any challenger, it’s hard for Eterno to get the exposure that current UFT president Michael Mulgrew gets in the city’s newspapers, at delegate assemblies, and when he travels to places like Florida to meet retired union members.

Aside from putting flyers in mailboxes, Unity has done little to promote Mulgrew, likely calculating that it doesn’t need to. When I asked a UFT spokesman why there hadn’t been a debate among presidential candidates, he said that the opposition groups hadn’t asked for one.