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What Difference Would Proportional Representation Make?

April 19, 2022 pm30 7:39 pm

How would United Federation of Teachers elections change if United for Change wins this election?

We would raise turnout, perhaps by moving to electronic voting (it works fine for SBOs). District Representatives would be elected by their Chapter Leaders (the system we used to have). Vice Presidents would be elected by their actual members (instead of “at large”), as it used to be.

I wrote about these things yesterday. They are all things the UFT used to do (DRs, VPs) or things we do in another context (electronic voting).

But I proposed proportional representation. That would be new. Why would this be a good idea? (I’m looking, for the purposes of this discussion at Exec Board + VPs only.)

If my only reason was: “There would be more opposition seats” that would be valid for me to raise, but in that case the benefit would only be to me and my allies, and probably shouldn’t be taken too seriously. But there is much more.

Fairness

Proportional representation would be fairer. Needs no explanation. High school seats are usually determined by a few hundred votes, yet the 1000-2000 who voted the other way get zero representation (this goes for opposition, when we lose, or for Unity, who gets shut out unfairly when the opposition wins).

More representative

Well… How can we have a union where one party lost a third of the high school votes, a quarter of the middle school votes, a sixth of the elementary votes, but still win all 102 seats? Only by leaving that third of high school votes, quarter of middle school voters, and sixth of elementary school voters with no representation. Or, think about 2016 – Unity won 46% of high school votes, but got zero seats.

Better discussion

As things are currently, a Unity leader makes a proposal, and then the Unity representative vote yes. There is minimal, if any, discussion. What discussion there is is usually praise. And yet there are people in the schools, not represented by the Unity reps on the exec board, whose ideas are never heard. Having more varied representation would bring some of those voices to the table. This would lead to, conceivably, richer discussion. This would lead to, certainly, some discussion where there is currently none.

Better outcomes, better resolutions

I’d like to give examples, but over the last three years, the timeframe we should focus most on, there has been no opposition on the Executive Board. That’s a bad situation, during this crisis, when proposals and approaches and decisions most needed to be shaped by member input, by a variety of voices – instead Unity reported, and the board mostly nodded and raised their hands.

Unity would have maintained huge majorities in 2019 and 2016 under proportional representation, had we already adopted it. They could have passed anything they liked. But there would have been discussion, conversation, debate, objections. What ideas don’t improve when they are subject to careful review? When the proposers have a chance to explain them, or defend them?

Could Unity resolutions be blocked by a minority under proportional representation? No. Could those resolutions, subject to questioning and debate, be strengthened or improved? Yes. It is a distinct possibility. And this applies to more than just resolutions – everything about our approach to the DoE or the politicians should be subjected to critical review.

Healthy debate will make our resolutions, our decisions, our initiatives better.

Better elections

The level of tension around UFT elections gets high. Much of what is said is invective. There are no debates. In social media there are platform documents from one side, vague promises to stay the course from the other, promotion of personalities. There are also false accusations and cheap shots. I blame one side far more than the other – but I blame the system most of all. The winner-take-all nature of these elections guarantees that scoring points matters much more than treating each other with respect. The stakes are THAT high.

Of course the big prize, the office of president, would continue to be Winner-take-all. There’s no other way. But the Executive Board can be elected on the basis of proportional representation, and that would make a great difference.

With proportional representation, instead of winner take all, we would know in advance that we were going to win some seats, and it would be a question of how many. An opposition caucus would be competing to expand its voice – not struggling to maintain its existence.

For example, in the high schools this time, United for Change would be pretty sure of winning at least 3 of the seats, Unity would be pretty sure of winning 3, or at least 2 seats – and the competition would be over the 6th and 7th seats, not the whole lot of 7.

In the Elementary Schools there are 12 seats at stake. Could Unity get 10? or just 9? or 8?

Every group running would be strongly motivated to run hard in every division. No caucus would take a division for granted. But with the stakes lowered, no caucus would be fighting for survival, just for a larger number of seats. And no caucus would be fighting to control everything, just to increase its margin.

And with those real stakes, but lowered stakes, we would be able to have a clash of ideas, instead of insults. Members would be able to choose between different policy directions, rather than superficial arguments.

Elections could engage members with ideas. Elections could drive member engagement with the union. Elections with proportional representation could make the United Federation of Teachers a better union.

What if…

Take a look:

2016

A third group would have gained voice. Unity would have gained some high school representation; MORE/New Action would have gained some reps at other levels. Overall, Unity would have still won every vote, if they voted lock-step.

2019

Unity would have maintained an overwhelming majority on the Executive Board, and would have passed anything it wanted. Yet under proportional representation they would have also heard from other voices in schools.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Bennett Fischer permalink
    April 20, 2022 am30 12:01 am 12:01 am

    Thank you for this post Jonathan. There are statistics and there are damned statistics; there are lies and there are damned lies; there are graphics and there are damned graphics. These graphics are good graphics – they inform, instruct, and tell a (not necessarily evident) truth in very clear terms.

    • April 20, 2022 am30 9:58 am 9:58 am

      I am proud of those charts. They come from a program wikipedia editors use to write articles about elections. Next time (if I do it again) I’ll do a better job on the colors.

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