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What Would a Big United for Change Win in the UFT Elections Look Like?

May 9, 2022 am31 10:39 am

We have a hot United Federation of Teachers election.

The ruling Unity caucus, in power since the UFT was founded, currently controls 100% of the Executive Board. Every officer belongs to Unity. Also, every Borough Representative, every District Representative, every Special Representative belongs to Unity. And Unity uses some of these representatives to keep a lock on its control.

In 60 years Unity has always won the Elementary School division, always won the functional division. It is true that the lost the Middle School division once or twice, but that was decades ago. And they have lost the High School division many times, most recently 2016, though they won it back in 2019 and currently hold it.

Unity has always won the overall election – half the seats are at-large, all the officers are at large – and has always won it by a comfortable margin. In 2016 they got 76%, which I believe was their lowest total ever. In 2019 they climbed back to 83%.

On the other hand, incumbent president Michael Mulgrew is the least popular UFT president, well, ever. Unity looked weak and spineless during the pandemic. And our retirees, long a bulwark of Unity’s support, learned a year ago that Unity was forcing them off Medicare, into a private program. The retiree vote for the opposition (Retiree Advocate) in an election as the news was breaking rose from 15% to 30%. These were signs.

The various opposition groups coalesced into one coalition: United for Change. (I am the High School Vice Presidential Candidate for UfC). They nominated a large number of delegates, and probably reached more members in more schools than any opposition campaign in memory.

The expectation, I am guessing, is that in this environment Unity’s vote total falls, a lot. Losing 10% or 15%, would be a big deal. That would probably mean United for Change wins the High School division, and maybe even the Middle School division. That would mean controlling 11/102 seats on the Executive Board.

But is a bigger win for United for Change possible?

What Would Constitute a Really Big United for Change Win?

If somehow United for Change moved 20% of the vote, won the High Schools and Middle Schools, but put the other divisions into play, that would be a big win.

A really big win would tip things a few points further, and United for Change would win the overall vote, even by the narrowest of margins.

What would it look like?

Maybe 30% was just the beginning among the retirees, and they swing far further. Maybe a lot of non-voters are motivated to protect Medicare by voting, and those votes go overwhelmingly to UfC.

Maybe we cement our hold on the high schools, surge in the middle schools, and build some margin. And maybe we make enough ground up in the Elementary Schools to even things out. We could win two of the four divisions, and the at large seats. That would give us 70/102 Executive Board seats. We would win the 11 officer positions we are contesting. I would have a seat.

How Would United for Change Have Pulled This Off?

Mostly? Turnout. For this to happen, Unity’s threat to Medicare would have had to energize retired members who usually do not vote to do so. And they would have had to break heavily for UfC. Teachers in the schools would have to be even more tired of Mulgrew than we imagined, and non-voters became voters. And inchoate anger about the pandemic and the world would also have motivated teachers and others to vote for the first time. This scenario imagines teacher turnout soaring from 24% in 2016 and 18% in 2019 to somewhere between 35% and 40%. Notice, that is still low, too low. But it would require a pretty big increase in teacher vote.

So this scenario requires an almost unimaginable increase in turnout. But if turnout does surge, is there any doubt that the new voters would break heavily for United for Change and against Unity? That part makes sense.

Also, there would need to be former Unity voters switching sides. Something around 10%. Now, there certainly are defections, especially among retirees. And I have heard of some in service Unity people, including former chapter leaders switching. 10% seems like a lot. Another factor might be split ballots. At the count tomorrow we will see – are there Unity ballots that omit officers? one in particular? several? Each slate vote that becomes a split vote hurts Unity a little – though not as much as a defection.

There are other factors that we know about. United for Change made the case that voting for Unity was voting for Medicare Advantage. In this scenario, many members would have heard this, and either are already Medicare age, have relatives who are Medicare age, or are deeply committed to the New Deal and Great Society, and will vote to protect those programs

The pandemic hit the elementary schools differently than the high schools. United for Change has fewer campaigners in elementary schools, so we may have missed trends. Perhaps one of those trends was anger over having to go back into schools first (before high schools) and instructional lunch (much more a lower grades thing).

There are UFT members with strong opinions on pandemic policy – masks (in favor of them, against them), vaccines (mostly in favor, but some fervently opposed) – and just about all members with strong opinions are angry at Unity, or at least the person of Mulgrew. United for Change did not campaign for the “anti-vaxx” vote. No. But I bet they voted against Mulgrew – either by boycotting the election, or, in this scenario, by voting for UfC.

And then Mulgrew-fatigue may be even far greater than I imagine.

But United for Change did the work. We reached more schools with literature than any opposition ever has. Our messaging was sharp. Our print media was much better than Unity’s, and our social media was so good, they copied us.

I think we could have done more to increase turnout. But in this scenario, it turns out that our get out the vote efforts were particularly successful.

And of course our slate looked pretty good. And running women for the top officer slots was probably a smart move.

For all of this to have happened, it would turn out that the United for Change outreach, while extensive, was exceptionally effective. And it would mean all the new voters we think we encountered ended up voting. And many people we did not meet directly ended up voting for the first time. And it would mean that a significant number of Unity voters secretly voted for United for Change, or split their ballots. And it would mean that the retirees who said they were switching to opposition did so.

What happens next?

In this scenario, United for Change will win the Officers, and most of the Executive Board seats. Unity will retain one vice presidency, and 31 seats. I expect that Unity will challenge this result. There might be litigation. I hope not. I hope that wiser people than Mulgrew put the interests of the union over their desire to retain power.

In office, UfC will move quickly on a number of items.

  • As rapidly as possible we will hold elections for District Reps.
  • We will open the books on the Stabilization Fund, and review options. We will take Medicare Advantage off the table.
  • We would probably open the proceedings of the contract negotiating committee to the membership as a whole.
  • And we would prepare, super fast, for the AFT Convention (in Boston, starting July 14).

Between the results being announced, and us taking office July 1 we would need to meet and make many more decisions – but those are the first that I am confident we agree on. There might be some long term changes in staffing – but short term I expect (and do not know) that aside from a handful of key changes, we would want to make certain that the organization has a continuity of functioning.

I don’t know that UfC as a whole has given this much thought – but I would want to reach out to and consult with members of Unity Caucus who continue to serve the UFT. And I would especially want to reach out to the 30 or so Unity Executive Board members. Establishing a collaborative relationship would be essential – even if we do not always agree.

Members would notice right away. More information. More openness. Better responses.

How Likely is this Upset?

Definitely possible, but not very likely. United for Change has consistently received positive campaign feedback – but just not at the level of the teacher vote doubling or a full 10% of Unity switching sides. We will make gains, maybe big gains – but literally doubling the vote? Some signs are promising. Unity people are telling us that they switched. Even a couple of candidates told us they voted against themselves. We are surprised to encounter cluster of retirees who we thought were apolitical who have been actively spreading the word. And we have run into elementary school teachers who just want a change – in ways that we did not expect. But at this scale for this to happen? I don’t think so.

Maybe a 5% chance that this happens? But I think that is high. Maybe a 2-4% chance – about 1 in 25 to 1 in 50. That seems right. Not out of the question, but highly unlikely.

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