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Proposed change in union rules would give retirees more votes

A policy change up for approval by teachers union leaders today would increase the weight of retired teachers in union elections.

The proposal, which the union leadership’s say is meant to make voting more democratic, has roiled critics who say it represents a bid to consolidate power by a leadership that fears dissent.

At issue are the union’s complex rules about how to count votes from its different constituencies during leadership elections. Under the bylaws, active teachers and members of other UFT chapters, including paraprofessionals and nurses, get one vote each. If 25,000 current teachers cast votes, 25,000 votes are counted.

But the votes of retired teachers are capped, a provision that union leaders have said was aimed to limit retirees’ influence. Since 1989, if 25,000 retired teachers vote, only 18,000 of those votes would count. In 2010, when the union elected Michael Mulgrew president, retired teachers’ ballots counted only for seven-tenths of a vote.

Under the proposed policy, that cap would be raised but not eliminated: 23,500 votes from retired teachers would be counted.

UFT officials say they are taking advantage of the addition of more than 20,000 members this month to amend the union’s constitution to reflect membership changes, including growth in the influential retirees chapter. Also up for approval is a move to give the new members, home day care workers, representation on the executive board.

But the proposed change has its critics — and is making strange bedfellows out of people who are often viscerally opposed to each other. Members of Educators 4 Excellence, a group aimed at boosting teachers’ influence on education policy, and Norm Scott, a union activist who has criticized E4E, both said they thought the move would diminish the voices of active teachers.

“I think this is extremely dangerous for the union to do this,” Scott said, who helped found an opposition caucus within the UFT. “[Union leaders] already have too much power and the danger for the union is that it continues to shut out the voice of people in the classroom.”

“I think by doing this the UFT leadership is telling classroom teachers that they don’t matter,” said Sydney Morris, an E4E co-president.

The shift could give retired teachers more weight in elections. If 23,500 retired teachers’ votes had been counted in the 2010 elections, retired teachers would have made up 46 percent of the vote. Under the 18,000 cap, their ballots accounted for 39 percent of all votes.

Not that they could have altered the outcome: Mulgrew won the presidency by an 82-point margin, with 91 percent of the vote.

The amendment also would not restore retired teachers’ vote to its power in 1989, when the 18,000 cap was set, union officials said. Since then, the number of active teachers increased, but the number of retired teachers grew faster, from about 18,000 to 57,000 now, they said.

Retired teachers make up the union’s most enthusiastic voting bloc. In 2010, less than a quarter of active teachers voted in union elections, but nearly half of all retired members cast ballots. Retirees contribute significantly to the union’s political fund and also turn out in large numbers for advocacy campaigns, officials said today. The union even conducts voting by snail mail to ensure that retired members, who might lack internet connections or computers, can weigh in.

Scott said the influence of retirees is one of many ways the UFT’s power structure discourages members from becoming involved. Without strong involvement from active teachers, he said the union would be unlikely to wage an effective battle against policies it opposes, such as the city’s rollout of new evaluation evaluations. In recent weeks, city and state officials have ganged up on the union after negotiations over new evaluations broke down.

“The union is in this position because they shut out the powerful voices of any teacher who wants to say ‘I disagree with that policy,'” Scott said.

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