Why is the UFT so undemocratic?

January 21, 2016

With elections coming this spring in the United Federation of Teachers, New York City teacher Peter Lamphere looks at the challenges involved in winning a new direction.

THIS SPRING, 200,000 New York City teachers, secretaries, retirees and other education professionals will vote in leadership elections for the United Federation of Teachers (UFT).

The union leadership is being challenged by a group of educators who are tired of its collaboration with the forces of "education deform" that have imposed test-based evaluations, slashed school budgets and weakened job security. These teachers, the Movement of Rank and File Educators (MORE), have launched their grassroots campaign to elect Jia Lee, a leader of the testing opt-out movement, as union president.

The election results in the largest teachers' local in the country--and one of the largest locals on the planet--will have a profound impact on the direction the U.S. labor movement. In addition to union officers, more than 750 delegates will be elected to attend the national convention of the American Federation of Teachers, which, with its 1.6 million members, is the one of the largest member unions of the AFL-CIO.

UFT President Michael Mulgrew (right) with Mayor Bill de Blasio
UFT President Michael Mulgrew (right) with Mayor Bill de Blasio (Rob Bennett | Office of the Mayor)

But the outcome of the vote is already tilted towards the status quo. UFT President Michael Mulgrew, who is running for re-election, also heads the Unity caucus, the political organization that has maintained continuous control of the union since its early days in 1962, using an increasingly undemocratic internal regime to do so.

THE SYSTEM of the tight control of the UFT by Unity rests on three key elements of the union leadership's politics.

The first is a historical origin in an anticommunist ideology designed for rigid control to keep out the left. The second is a deep commitment to a craft model of unionism which manifests itself in an ideology of professionalism and a split with the efforts of Black and Latino parents to control their own schools. Lastly is the UFT's service unionism that discourages active involvement of the base.

The UFT is not like mob-run Teamster locals of the past where dissidents were threatened or beaten up. The regime of control is legal, more subtle and more difficult to challenge.

At its core is a requirement that Unity members don't publicly dispute decisions of their caucus. In return come the rewards for loyalty, like after-school union jobs or a chance to get out of the classroom to become a full-time union official. Furthermore, unelected district representatives are the main point of contact between shop stewards and the union, helping to maintain a monopoly of information and a lock on debate.

A winner-take-all slate system for elections ensures dominance by Unity. In 2013, MORE put together a significant challenge to the ruling organization, winning 40 percent of the vote at the high school level. However, the opposition still only won 23 percent of the overall vote, because of dismal turnout (18 percent among working educators) and the dominance of retiree votes (52 percent of the total). Because of the slate system, the opposition was left with no representation in the union leadership.

The lack of turnout shows the other facet of the lack of democracy in the UFT--the disconnect and alienation of the membership from active participation in their union. The UFT's model of service unionism encourages members to see the union as a passive provider of services, like vision and dental benefits, rather than an organization of workers that depends on their active involvement.

The leadership has been increasingly unwilling, and unable, to mobilize large sections of membership. A major rally in midtown Manhattan against Gov. Andrew Cuomo's austerity budget last April was only able to pull out a few thousand of the UFT's 70,000 active teachers.

The power of a union to win gains is rooted in its ability to mobilize its base. But unions also negotiate the terms of exploitation under capitalism. Thus, the UFT leadership, like that of other unions, prioritizes maintaining the existence of the institution and is reluctant to risk that apparatus by mobilizing members in a conflict with management. Over time, this can create an encrusted and ossified bureaucracy that often sacrifices the best interests of its own members in order to have peaceful relations with management.

The UFT's particular level of anti-democratic practices emerged out of three key historical moments that shaped its current politics.

The first was the formation of the anti-communist Teachers Guild in 1935, which eventually evolved to become the core of the UFT. The second was the racially divisive 1968 Ocean Hill-Brownsville strike, which decisively split the union's membership from African American parents in the city. The last was the failed 1975 strike, which cemented the union leadership's politics of collaboration with city politicians to the detriment of the schools.

TO UNDERSTAND the politics of the UFT, we must go back 80 years to a very different period of union organizing.

By the 1930s, teachers had been organizing in New York for decades as part of the Teachers Union (TU), which was formed in 1916, but they weren't able to achieve collective bargaining rights. Then, as industrial unionism swept the country, young teachers, often in marginal positions as underpaid substitutes, organized for better pay and working conditions.

The Communist Party played a key role in the TU, leading struggles around pay and benefits, but also fights against racist curriculum and administrators, and for school desegregation. Black History Month, in fact, emerged as a result of agitation by the union for a "Negro History Week" aimed at diversifying the curriculum.

In 1935, however, some union leaders, fearing a takeover by an insurgent left wing caucus led by the CP, left to form the anti-communist Teachers Guild. Over the next decades, the Teachers Guild would compete with the TU, providing some of the key ammunition in the red-baiting witch hunts of the 1940s and 1950s, during which the TU would be banned and hundred of teachers fired.

The Teachers Guild eventually launched an organizing drive to form the UFT, which led to the first effective strike of New York teachers on November 7, 1960, around wage demands. Although only 7,000 of the 35,000 New York teachers went out on strike, the political effects of the action were enormous and led to the de facto recognition of public-sector bargaining in New York City.

The UFT managed to sideline the TU, which had been weakened by decades of repression. The UFT would go on to lead strikes again in 1962 and 1967, inspiring teachers around the country to follow suit, as Joe Burns described in his book Strike Back: Using the Militant Tactics of Labor's Past to Reignite Public-Sector Unionism Today.

However, UFT leaders were quick to form an internal caucus that would provide a safeguard against the emergence of anything like the TU's left-wing politics. Ironically, early Presidents Charlie Cogen and Albert Shanker, who had been an active social democrat, used the heavy-handed tactics that they learned from the Communists. They used Unity to cement their control of their own union.

MUCH OF Unity's control was the result of a growing machinery of staff and bureaucratic tools needed to govern collective bargaining in a complicated school system, as David Selden wrote in The Teacher Rebellion.

But there was an ideological axis of control as well: Shanker would cement his power in the strikes opposing the growing demand for community control of schools in African American and Latino communities, amid the rise of the Black Power movement and Puerto Rican nationalism. Activists increasingly demanded autonomous control of crowded schools that underserved children

Instead of finding a way to work with the forces favoring community control, Shanker's Unity caucus poured gasoline on the fire. The resulting strikes in 1968 pitted union teachers against community-controlled school boards, and produced a long-term and damaging split between the union, on the one hand, and parents and communities of color.

Opponents of the strike were isolated within the union. Author David Selden, a critic of Shanker, tells the story of Richard Parrish, who formed a caucus of Black teachers in the UFT during the 1968 events, at Shanker's suggestion. But Parrish was expelled from the Unity Caucus when he failed to control the group and it issued statements supporting community control.

The UFT thus finished the 1960s with increasing power and influence in a now decentralized school system--but divorced from support from the families of the students that teachers served. This led to disaster only a few years later during the financial crisis of 1975.

Faced with insolvency, the banker-run New York City Municipal Assistance Corporation, which had undemocratic control of city finances, backed proposals for massive layoffs of 7,000 teachers and cuts in school support workers and resources.

Returning to work with class sizes of 40 or more students, angry teachers converged on the UFT Executive Board and Delegate Assembly, insisting on a strike. Shanker, initially opposed to a strike, was forced to acquiesce in the face of a growing rebellion, but he proceeded to run it into the ground.

Within a month, the UFT had agreed to let the Teachers Retirement System make huge investments in city bonds to the tune of $2.5 billion. As labor historian Joshua Freedman writes, "Using the pension funds to solve the fiscal crisis would irrevocably link the unions to the cause of city solvency, no matter what the social cost."

Meanwhile, austerity budgets continued, leading to massive layoffs and structural disinvestment in the school system, which would permanently weaken the quality of education and the working conditions of teachers.

Most importantly, the legacy of 1975 was the further alienation of the union membership from active participation in the UFT. The union increasingly became a service organization, providing benefits for members, but not engaging them in defending their own working conditions, much less the project of public education more generally.

The union saw political lobbying as its main source of power and influence. Teachers' unions grew to become the largest single campaign contributors in New York state--they wouldn't be outspent until 2014--by the charter school lobby in its orgy of support for Cuomo.

THE NEXT 40 years of UFT history would be one of increasing membership apathy and weakening union power.

Initially, this served the leadership well, as it remained one of the few centralized forces in a disorganized school system. The system of rigid caucus discipline, backed up by access to after-school patronage jobs, gave Shanker's successors Sandra Feldman and Randi Weingarten a lock on the leadership.

The electoral system in the union became even more undemocratic as Unity blocked opportunities for non-caucus members to gain union office or win staff jobs. The union opposition, focused almost exclusively on biennial elections rather than mobilizing bases within chapters, was unable to successfully grow and build on the victories it did achieve.

Soon, city politics began to shift away from its previous tolerance and coexistence with the teachers' union machine. Republican Mayor Rudolph Giuliani forced a two-year pay freeze on city workers in 1996--the only contract to be voted down by rank-and-file teachers.

With the implementation of mayoral control over the schools in 2003, Mayor Michael Bloomberg launched an all-out assault on the union contract and public education in the guise of "education reform." Led by Bloomberg's autocratic henchman, Schools Chancellor Joel Klein, the district began closing large number of schools, destroying some of the most vibrant and militant UFT chapters in the process.

Klein encouraged the growth of nonunion charters, gave free reign to abusive principals and rapidly increased dependence on test-based data. The city all but shut down grievance and arbitration procedures and stonewalled the union at the negotiating table. New contracts, especially in 2005, contained massive givebacks.

The Giuliani-Bloomberg attacks on the UFT could succeed because 50 years of domination and control by the Unity caucus left New York City teachers with a bureaucratic shell of a union, unable to mobilize its own members in collective defense of their own interests.

The 1968 and 1975 experiences had cemented a rigid system of top-down control, rooted in anticommunism, fear of rank-and-file insurgency--and a commitment to collaboration with city officials, which left the UFT leadership unwilling or unable to mount an effective defense of teachers and public education.

IS IT possible for the UFT to be transformed into a more democratic union responsive to its rank and file? A number of teachers' unions around the country have been taken over by insurgent rank-and-file groups, from Chicago to Hawaii to Los Angeles, dedicated to a vision of social movement unionism and emphasizing mobilization alongside parents and families by a more democratic union leadership.

Historical experience suggests that the UFT elections this spring will be important if it can successfully mobilize teachers around a specific and clear political platform of social movement unionism.

The history of the UFT reminds us that teacher activism is inherently political, as it is wrapped up in questions of education budgets and school segregation. Furthermore, like in the 1960 strike, even a minority of teachers who are active can shift the direction of the entire union.

MORE's electoral campaign can only be successful if it helps to train and mobilize teachers to become leaders and organizers in their own schools. Rebuilding school-level organizing and a genuine network of union activists in local districts can provide a base of support.

This, in turn, can lead to local victories against testing, the encroachments of charters and school administrations that attack teachers and parent organizers. Already, the testing opt-out movement has pushed Cuomo and Barack Obama to pull back from some of their test-and-punish priorities.

It is possible that MORE could make a strong showing in the spring elections, perhaps even winning the majority of votes at the high school and perhaps middle school levels. However, these gains would come without any real power because of the winner-take-all system, which would leave MORE with only a handful of executive board seats.

Another three years of education and organizing in local schools might find MORE and other opposition forces in a position to lead job actions and mobilizations and champion demands to make the UFT towards a more democratic and participatory union.

Ultimately, executive power in the union won't be won without breaking the control of the retiree vote over union elections--a long-term effort. But the real key to shifting the direction of the UFT is the actions and mobilizations of working teachers, even if they remain a minority in electoral calculations.

This is a long-term vision that depends on commitment to a building social movement unionism on the ground over the long term. But it is the only vision that has a hope of succeeding.

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