Michael Mulgrew, President of the United Federation of Teachers, was reelected to his position in a union-wide plebiscite ratified on April 18th of this year. This will be Mulgrew’s fourth term as president, having succeeded famed fellow Unity Caucus leader Randi Weingarten in 2010. His slate swept the entire board, electing their candidates to the highest positions of power within the union. In all, Mulgrew’s Unity Caucus (which has been at the helm of the UFT since the 1960s) received roughly 86% of the vote against 8% for the Solidarity Caucus and 5.6% for MORE: (Movement of Rank and File Educators) The Social Justice Caucus of the UFT.
The recent election proved to be even more of a landslide victory than the previous (2016) one. Reasons for this may seem rather opaque to outside observers, but those involved in the campaigns themselves have ready explanations. Mulgrew, for his part, cited the importance of union unity and thanked the loyalty of the membership for producing such a large mandate for furthering his policy agenda. The leading candidates for the dissident slates (Lydia Howrilka of Solidarity and Dermott Myrie of MORE) bemoaned the lack of voter turnout, which, they felt, skewed the electorate in a way that tended to favor the incumbents. The UFT membership is roughly 190,000, but less than 45,000 ballots were actually tabulated for the election. Solidarity specifically has criticized what it views as the union administration’s unnecessarily participation-limiting policy of mail-in ballots and favors a adopting an online voting system which they claim would make nominating and voting easier for members, MORE has its own critique, holding that the short span of time between when ballots are sent out and when they are due back leaves little time to actually campaign and reach potential voters.
Though the results were quite lopsided in favor of the incumbent Unity Slate, the Solidarity Caucus did manage to increase its vote by quite a bit contra its results in the 2016 election. By gaining 8% of the vote, the caucus not only beat out MORE, but managed to get four times as many votes as their previous run. Leading figures within Solidarity have pointed to their cultivation of relationships with marginalized membership centers within the UFT, like teachers’ aides and paraprofessionals as reason for their increase in voter share. As well, Solidarity has advocated making district representatives more responsible to their chapter leaders within the UFT, thus empowering individual union members to better exercise their democratic rights.
Meanwhile, MORE’s voter share declined significantly from its previous campaigns. Though both Solidarity and MORE have pushed for greater union democracy in the UFT, the latter has distinguished itself as being social justice oriented, taking strong stances on both external and internal political causes, even proposing a change to the current “Eurocentric” school curriculum taught in New York City schools. In 2016, the MORE presidential candidate managed to garner 20% of the vote, not enough to threaten the Unity Caucus’ dominance, but neither was it an insignificant showing for a dissident caucus. In the 2019, that margin was reduced to just over a quarter of that high watermark, at 5.6%.
The Unity Caucus also managed to win the offices of treasurer, assistant treasurer, six of the vice presidencies, and all 102 executive board seats up for election. Elected officers are to serve three year terms with the next election to occur after that time.
Yet for all the criticisms of the mail ballot process and distribution, and despair over low voter turnout, the words of Clyde Summers must be remembered regarding the utility of union elections;
“The central point is that the usefulness of union elections is not measured solely by the frequency with which the incumbents are unseated, although the more often this happens the more responsive union officers will be. The usefulness of elections lies rather in the frequency with which they are contested and the fullness and accuracy with which they measure the level of discontent. Their usefulness is increased by enabling or encouraging those who can make the best showing to be opposition candidates.”
The UFT has a history of contested elections and its membership still exemplify how those selfsame contested elections and free debate make unions stronger, not weaker.