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NYC’s teachers union is moving toward a presidential endorsement

United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew
United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew
Stephanie Snyder/Chalkbeat

After signaling it might sit out the Democratic primary, New York City’s teachers union is taking steps to endorse a candidate.

The United Federation of Teachers’ executive board approved a resolution Monday that would clear the way for the union to make an endorsement early next month, before the April 28 state primary.

On Wednesday, the union’s roughly 3,200-member delegate assembly will take a final vote on whether to endorse a Democratic presidential candidate. If approved, the same body, which includes at least one representative of every public school in the city, would determine whom to endorse: likely former Vice President Joe Biden or Senator Bernie Sanders, though Rep. Tulsi Gabbard also remains in the race.

An endorsement from the UFT could add muscle to a campaign: The union represents some 200,000 members, including 75,000 teachers, 19,000 other school staff, 64,000 retirees, as well as some healthcare workers.

“As we approach New York State’s primary, it’s a good time to talk about what’s right for our local,” said Janella Hinds, a member of the union’s executive board who supports making an endorsement. “It’s the biggest teachers local in the country so our voice does carry weight.”

But some Sanders supporters worry that the union’s leadership is likely to favor Biden, and there has already been some internal tension over the union’s endorsement process. In December, a group of teachers introduced a resolution to discuss allowing all union members, not just the delegate assembly, to vote on an endorsement. That resolution was shot down by the union’s leadership and ultimately defeated, the Huffington Post reported.

That has made some educators skeptical the endorsement process will be inclusive and point out that the union’s president, Michael Mulgrew, is personally supporting Biden.

“I’m very wary of this,” said Amanda Vender, a Queens high school teacher who has been organizing educators on behalf of Sanders, efforts that have included phone banking and handing out flyers outside the delegate assembly meetings. “It’s the leadership in our union that calls the shots and the delegate assembly, for the most part, follows.”

Union officials previously indicated their focus was defeating President Donald Trump and Hinds acknowledged that an endorsement could alienate either Biden or Sanders supporters, a dynamic that has made some unions reluctant to make an official endorsement. But union officials said an endorsement makes sense, given that the state’s primary may have an unusually significant influence on who wins the nomination.

“Endorsing a candidate and galvanizing members in the weeks leading up to the New York primary would raise engagement, which is easier to carry forward into the general election,” Alison Gendar, a UFT spokesperson, wrote in an email. The final decision, she noted, will be left to the delegate assembly.

Will Ehrenfeld, a Brooklyn high school teacher and union delegate, said he plans to vote “no” on making an endorsement in part because he doesn’t believe the process is democratic — favoring a vote that includes all union members.

“My concern,” he said, “is that they would favor the more moderate candidate.”

For his part, Mulgrew has defended the assembly process. “The democratic process is the delegate assembly. And when the assembly votes something down, that is the most democratic process we have,” he previously said.

If the UFT does make an endorsement of its own, that would be a departure from 2016, when its national affiliate, the American Federation of Teachers, made the call on behalf of locals to endorse Hillary Clinton early in the primary season. That decision drew criticism from some educators who argued that the national teachers unions didn’t take Sanders seriously enough.

This year, the AFT encouraged its members to support Elizabeth Warren, Sanders, or Biden leaving locals to sort out whether they wanted to endorse a specific candidate. (Some AFT leaders made personal endorsements of their own.)

Large teachers unions have reached different conclusions in the endorsement process, with some declining to make an endorsement at all, partly because the field of Democratic presidential candidates was crowded for months.

Chicago’s teachers union voted to remain neutral, though its leaders have personally backed Sanders. Teachers unions in Los Angeles and Clark County, Nevada, endorsed Sanders. Biden has received personal endorsements from leaders of the Florida state teachers union and the Cleveland teachers union.

Gendar said the UFT would spend money to support their favored candidate if the union makes an endorsement, but did not say how much.

An endorsement, officials added, would also come with boots on the ground.

“That means literature, that means phone calls, that means door knocking,” said Hinds, the UFT executive board member, who supported Warren and is now undecided. “It means we’re sharing with our families and friends who our candidate is so we can get the largest turnout possible.”

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