From the view of Michael Mulgrew, the president of the American Federation of Teachers’ New York City local, the United Federation of Teachers, the results from this year’s union elections are likely as pleasing as ever. After all, in spite of the strong challenge from the Karen Lewis-inspired Movement of Rank-and-File Educators (which has claimed some 40 percent of the votes among the Big Apple’s high school teachers so far), Mulgrew is likely to coast into another term, helping him stay on the path to his likely goal of eventually succeeding predecessor Randi Weingarten as head of the nation’s second-largest teachers’ union. [Update: Mulgrew won with 84 percent of the vote, lower than the 91 percent he gained three years ago.]
But from the perspective of traditionalists who are more than a tad concerned about the having an energized core of rank-and-file members to help preserve the AFT local’s influence on the local level — and, just as importantly, looking to keep the national AFT’s influence from declining further — the results aren’t exactly pleasing. Just 43,138 ballots were counted for this year’s elections. That’s 26 percent fewer votes than during the last union local election three years ago. In fact, the vote total is lower than the 47,416 votes counted by the union in 2007, the previous low point for rank-and-file participation. Even worse, rank-and-file members working in the classrooms accounted for only 48 percent of all votes cast this time around. The low vote counts are another example of the apathy among the rank-and-file.
Younger, more reform-minded teachers not all that satisfied with either Mulgrew’s stewardship of the union or with the positions against overhauling teacher evaluations and keeping in place reverse-seniority (or last in-first out) layoff rules that hit them hardest. Veteran Baby Boomers and others of a more-traditionalist mindset think that Mulgrew has been far too accommodating to New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Chancellor Dennis Walcott, and think that Mulgrew will likely cave in on an agreement to implement the Empire State’s new evaluation regime, which will require objective student test score performance data to account for as much as 40 percent of performance rankings. Both are annoyed with how the AFT’ local structures the voting system in ways that that keep Mulgrew and his allies in control of the union. No one within the AFT local outside of Mulgrew’s crew and retired teachers in the ranks are happy with the status quo.
But there are few alternatives for either camps, largely because of the way the AFT’s New York City local (as well as the national parent itself) ensures that influence largely remains in the hands of Mulgrew, Weingarten, and their allies. The Unity coalition, which Mulgrew controls at the local AFT level, and the larger Progressive faction for which Weingarten is the standard-bearer, have controlled the AFT for decades. Thanks to that control, Unity can proverbially stomp on dissident coalitions until either the groups finally become adjuncts of the coalition — as in the case of longtime rival New Action — or as in the case of Independent Coalition of Educators (which unsuccessfully challenged Mulgrew back in 2010), become irrelevant in local and national AFT politics. Although M.O.R.E. seems to have pulled together a strong campaign against Unity this time around, the low turnout among rank-and-file members proves that it cannot energize enough teachers in classrooms to embrace its harder-edged agenda.
Meanwhile Mulgrew’s effort to secure more votes from retirees who no longer work in classrooms (and often, don’t even live in New York City anymore) is paying off. Retirees accounted for 22,462 votes, or 52 percent of all ballots returned during this year’s election. Although lower than the 25,000 retirees who voted last time around, the retiree participation this time around is likely more than enough to keep Mulgrew and his Unity coalition in charge of the local AFT for at least another three years. Chances are, it will be even longer than that. Earlier this year, in what can be called a successful act of suppressing the votes of working rank-and-file members, Mulgrew succeeded in increasing the number of retiree votes that could be counted in union elections from 18,000 to 25,000. Given that more Baby Boomers within the local AFT ranks — especially those within the Unity coalition — are heading to retirement, expect Mulgrew to push for another increase in the number of retiree votes that can be counted. While dissidents and reform-minded groups within the AFT ranks such as Educators4Excellence will oppose such moves, it’s unlikely that they can stop it from happening unless either of them energize rank-and-file members to oppose Mulgrew and Unity in the next three years. Once again, power, not membership, has its privileges.
Once again, this year’s Big Apple AFT election proves again that the nation’s second-largest teachers union is hardly an organization that “listens” to teachers. When one considers that at the national level, the AFT’s finances go to lobbying, contributions to supposedly like-minded outfits, and other efforts to retain its influence (instead of toward organizing rank-and-file members, as more-radical traditionalists prefer, or elevating the profession, as demanded by younger, more reform-minded counterparts), as well as take note of financial mismanagement by AFT affiliates such as Broward County, it is hard to say the union represents classroom teachers in any meaningful way. [The AFT’s New York City local, for its credit, manages to put a little more money toward addressing workplace concerns than its national parent. But that’s not saying much because it doesn’t do so by much.] Considering that AFT membership isn’t voluntary — and even those who don’t want to join the union must pay dues in the form of so-called agency fees — it may be time for teachers of all philosophies to move away from the AFT (as well as the NEA) and embrace a different form of professional representation.