What happened with the UFT Elections? Mulgrew Re-elected Amid Declining Turnout

by Peter Lamphere and D. Myrie

The UFT elections are a fundamentally undemocratic process. 

Not only are we one of the few union locals in this country that allows retiree members (who historically have overwhelmingly backed incumbents) to vote in elections, but a winner-take-all slate system that only allows dissenting voices to win a few seats at the margins of the Executive Board.  

For example, even if a majority of high school teachers vote for an opposition candidate, they are represented by only six seats on the one hundred person Executive Board, while the divisional High School Vice President, the majority of executive board seats, and all 800+ convention delegates are elected in a winner-take-all system. Combined with the strict discipline of UNITY caucus members, who pledge not to publicly oppose their leadership in exchange for perks like after-school jobs and trips to conventions, it makes for a system that is remarkably resistant to change. 

So it is no surprise that interest in and turnout for the elections is extremely low from rank and file active teachers, hovering around 25% in the last election. This spring, Michael Mulgrew was predictably re-elected by a wide margin, while turnout fell dramatically to less than 18% of active members.  Over 4,000 working teachers who voted in 2016 didn’t vote in the recent elections. Retirees, on the other hand, maintained a consistent, turnout of 37%. Although the UFT constitution caps voting retirees to 23,000 votes, that means that retirees still cast about half the votes in the election. 

Why did turnout decline so significantly?  The number of votes for the Unity caucus remained consistent – about 10,000 active teachers – while votes for the opposition fell. This makes sense since we ran a much more limited, tactical campaign that did not focus on winning the High School executive board seats, but rather on educating and activating our base. More of our activists were younger and newer to their schools – good in the long term – but this means that they did not yet have the trust of their coworkers.  

Additionally, because our campaign was based on our opposition to the new contract, allying with other opposition forces was difficult. In this environment, members opposed to the leadership probably chose between MORE and the Solidarity Caucus, who was also running against Mulgrew, on the bases of their personal network and the advertisements in the New York Teacher. It makes sense that members divided their loyalties roughly equally between MORE’s appeal to the spirit of the Red State Rebellion and Solidarity’s more bread-and-butter material (Solidarity and MORE got roughly equal number of active teacher votes, with Solidarity recieving about 1000 additional retiree votes). 

Further, the election campaign time-frame was much more compressed during this election cycle, with only a few weeks between when nominating petitions were due and when ballots were mailed.  Union leaders justified this by saying they didn’t want to make our year-end membership efforts (a danger because the new Janus decision allows members to leave the union at the end of June) look like campaign events.  However, when the end of the year rolled around, the actual campaign consisted only of a few stickers and posters 

Going forward, our campaign efforts, electoral or otherwise, are going to have to center around demands that connect to the day-to-day realities in the schools: around class size, abusive administrators, segregated schools. If more teachers can be mobilized around these issues, they can be mobilized to vote in their union elections. 

However, there are some fundamental democratic reforms that need to take place in our union. The vote-counting procedure was rife with confusion, opacity, and dismissal of member concerns – and took three days thanks to a frankly incompetent effort by the American Arbitration Association. It’s important to establish transparent and fair vote counting so that if and when elections are more closely contested, no undemocratic behavior can take place.

Because of the efforts of D. Myrie, our presidential candidate who observed the vote count, the UFT has already agreed to a number of transparency reforms, including publicly publishing the election committee minutes and total number of mailed ballots, which has never happened before. 

Under discussion are different voting methods, such as a mix of electronic or mailed ballots.  However, we need to fight for a more democratic method of voting, like in-school balloting as occurs in contract campaigns, so that we can increase the turnout in elections and the connection of members to their union. Additionally, a UFT constitutional amendment can be petitioned for to balance the role of retirees.   

Additional process reforms are needed, however.  Transparency and accountability must dictate the process of the next UFT election.  We suggest the following checks and balances:

  • balance the election committee with equal  representation from each caucus
  • clearly define a caucus to prevent frivolous use of the designation
  • open up the vote counting process to facilitate rank and file observation and clarify the protocol and criteria for challenging ballots. 
  • collect and publish divisional and regional data on turnout as well as challenges to the election
  • review and clarify  the process for distributing material during the elections

Strong unions are democratic unions.  As rank and file members, we demand our leadership open up participation. 

2019* 2016
Division Turnout Unity MORE NAC Solidarity Turnout** Unity MORE/NAC Solidarity
Elementary 21% 6,207 85% 462 6% 103 1% 560 8% 27% 7,040 74% 2,306 24% 222 2%
Middle 16% 1,298 75% 156 9% 80 5% 208 12% 24% 1,649 61% 882 33% 178 7%
High School 16% 2,225 64% 580 17% 257 7% 432 12% 20% 2,061 46% 2,275 51% 108 2%
Teacher Total 18% 9,730 77% 1,198 10% 440 4% 1,200 10% 24% 10,750 64% 5,463 33% 508 3%
Functional 17% 7,875 78% 918 9% 258 3% 994 10% 16% 7,651 75% 2,232 22% 323 3%
InService Total 18% 17,605 78% 2,116 9% 698 3% 2,194 10% 21% 18,401 68% 7,695 29% 831 3%
Retirees 36% 20,986 89% 424 2% 785 3% 1410 6% 37% 20,775 85% 3,048 13% 625 3%
Grand Total 24% 38,591 83% 2,540 5% 1,483 3% 3,604 8% 26% 39,176 76% 10,743 21% 1,456 3%

Source: AAA Certification of UFT Election Returns: http://www.uft.org/files/attachments/election-certification-2019.pdf

* These numbers are drawn from votes for presidential candidates for each caucus, except for NAC which was tabulated with their results for HS executive board candidates. 

** Estimated turnout numbers for 2016, assuming the same number of ballots were sent out – number of ballots mailed has not been made available by the union previous to this year. 

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