More of an impact in the UFT

May 8, 2013

Emily Giles, a candidate for executive board on the Movement of Rank and File Educators slate, looks at the outcome of United Federation of Teachers elections.

THE MOVEMENT of Rank and File Educators (MORE) was able to make substantial gains in this year's United Federation of Teachers (UFT) leadership elections. With less than a year of organizing behind us, we took 40 percent of the vote among high school teachers. These positive results for MORE represent a bright spot in an election with record low voting participation.

Only 18 percent of the active UFT membership voted in the election, which is held by mail ballot. Sadly, these results coincide with a larger trend in unions of increasingly low election turnouts. As austerity measures ramp up and unions fail to respond time after time, it seems that rank and filers have become even more demoralized about the chances of a change in their union that would make any kind of difference in our ability to fight back.

There are a few main takeaways from the UFT elections.

Turnout was lower than it has been in the past six elections for every single category. Overall, it dropped from 32 percent in 2010 to 25 percent this year. The percentage of retirees who voted was less than in years past, but for the first time ever, retirees comprised a majority of the electorate. This was due both to the incredibly low turnout of other union sectors and an increase in the cap on retiree votes, which was raised from 18,000 to 23,000 earlier this year, as a clear maneuver to safeguard the current leadership's hold on power.

Members of the MORE caucus oppose the standardized testing frenzy
Members of the MORE caucus oppose the standardized testing frenzy

Despite this, MORE made real gains. Historically, high schools have been the most likely to vote for the opposition, and this remained true in this year's election. Unity, the incumbent caucus for more than 50 years, won just 45 percent of the high school vote, just ahead of MORE's 40 percent. Another caucus, New Action, won 13 percent of the high school vote--and, thanks to a cross-endorsement deal with Unity, it will get seats on the union's executive board for that showing. MORE will receive no seats.

Despite the Unity-New Action alliance, it's significant that a majority of high school teachers chose to vote for a caucus other than Unity. These results represent growing discontent among high school teachers with the union leadership.

And it wasn't only high schools where MORE made a good showing. The caucus made impressive gains in every division, increasing its percent of the total vote by as much as 12 percent compared to the showing for the former opposition caucus in 2010. This means that while Unity and New Action both lost voters as the turnout declined, the overall number of voters for an alternative to the leadership increased, both in absolute numbers and as a proportion of the total.

AFTER the election, MORE can say confidently that it has made an impact on the UFT--and that it has begun to build a name for itself within the larger labor left in New York City. These are no small gains. While there's some debate within MORE about its social justice platform and what that means concretely for union organizing, there's no question that its message of a social justice-oriented, rank and file-led union is resonating with many teachers, parents and community organizers.

MORE's task in the upcoming year will be to show concretely the connections between issues affecting teachers and issues affecting students and communities--and continue its practice of organizing as allies in the broader struggle over public education.

At MORE's party on the night the results came in, there was a clear sense of accomplishment and pride, as well as the work to come. The election was a tool used to spread the word about a different vision of unionism, get MORE's name known, build a base, and challenge the UFT leadership. MORE celebrated those accomplishments and immediately looked forward.

The very next day, MORE rallied with Change the Stakes, Time Out From Testing and hundreds of teachers, parents and students on the steps of the Department of Education building to demand an end to high-stakes testing.

This campaign exemplifies MORE's social justice project, as it clearly frames issues affecting teachers in the form of narrowed curriculum and high-stakes teacher evaluations within the context of a broader movement against high-stakes testing and the attack on quality public education.

The 2010 victory of the Caucus of Rank and File Educators in the Chicago Teachers Union has taught the lesson that the leadership of a union can make a difference. But the Chicago experience has also taught us that changing the union leadership alone is not enough.

MORE's project, then, is to build an active rank and file at the grassroots, which can take over the UFT from the inside out. Because of the weight that retirees carry in the UFT election as a stronghold of Unity, MORE's strategy cannot be only an electoral one. Instead, MORE must focus strategically on building strong union chapters at school sites, supporting chapter leaders and making real gains in chapter leader elections over the next few years.

Following the example set so clearly by CORE in the years before they won the CTU election, MORE must continue to be the union that its members want to see. A strong, activated and organized rank and file can function to push the leadership forward. By demanding democracy at every turn within the union, MORE will raise its profile, call attention to the lack of democracy within the union, and galvanize a base of rank and filers who want their voices heard.

Amid the celebratory toasts at MORE's post-election party, the message was clear: Our work is now to activate the people who voted for MORE. The people who carried petitions and delivered fliers must now carry and deliver MORE's vision of unionism and organizing across the city, school by school and community by community.

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