In retirees, UFT leadership finds loyal — and unusual — support

At a synagogue in Surfside, Fla., last month, about 40 former teachers gathered for cupcakes, cheesecake, and a PowerPoint presentation by a pair of union representatives from New York. The teachers were members of the United Federation of Teachers retiree chapter, and the representatives had been sent by the UFT and New York State United Teachers to pass along information about budget counseling, Medicare, and pet insurance.

Ken Goodman, the UFT Florida retiree chapter leader, called the meeting to order by announcing updates about the following month’s annual retiree luncheon. Buses would pick the members up from Surfside and ferry them to the event in Boca Raton, where UFT President Michael Mulgrew would deliver the keynote address just weeks before his re-election bid.

Despite being out of the classroom — in many cases, for decades — retirees make up a large portion of Mulgrew’s constituency. And because the UFT is one of the only unions in the country to allow retirees to vote in leadership elections, they are powerful. Even when they live far from New York City, the UFT’s 60,000 retiree members staunchly defend the union they helped shape in the 1960s and 1970s, and they volunteer in droves when the union mobilizes its members to support candidates or lobby on education or healthcare.

“We provide a service for those kind[s] of issues for the union, and the union helps us too on the issues we care about,” said Tom Murphy, the head of the UFT’s retiree chapter. He added that, after seeing how engaged UFT retirees remain, the American Federation of Teachers was considering allowing retirees in other locals to vote in union elections as well.

Retired teachers can choose to remain part of the UFT, spending a small portion of their pension on dues. Almost all do. Of the UFT’s 200,000 total members, nearly 60,000 are retirees, and about 8,000 of them live in Florida for at least part of the year. The UFT’s New York office devotes the entire 17th floor of its downtown skyscraper to retiree services. The chapter also has sections in Arizona, California, Georgia, Nevada, North Carolina, Washington, D.C., Puerto Rico, and Israel.

In Florida, the retiree chapter’s Boca Raton office buzzes with activity. (The union spent $162,538 on rent for the office in 2012.) The staff—most of them retirees themselves—fields phone calls and emails about pensions and health coverage. They reach out to members, alerting them to programming such as beginning French classes.

“We’re constantly giving them information,” Goodman said. “For the most part, our members like to be involved.”

The union and Democratic politicians also rely on Florida retirees to help them get out the vote. In last year’s U.S. presidential election, UFT members in Florida were active phone bankers, officials say, both for President Barack Obama and Patrick Murphy, who narrowly defeated incumbent Allen West, a Republican, in Florida’s 18th Congressional district. (Murphy also got an assist from West himself, who made a series of inflammatory statements that lost him local support.)

The retirees are sometimes called the “daytime union,” according to Murphy. “We’re available when our in-service working members are not,” he said. “If they need some of us to testify someplace or populate a hearing … many of us are able to do that.”

In addition to helping Obama win Florida last year, retirees contributed to Mulgrew’s 91 percent victory in 2010. Mulgrew would have won easily without their support, however, which suggests that—for now at least—there’s no schism between how retirees and current teachers vote.

But retirees may be among the most inclined to keep the union on its current track.

Once members retire, “the priorities change,” Goodman said. “We want to make sure our benefits are maintained.”

Many of the retirees at the Miami-Dade area meeting in Surfside, happy with those benefits, say they plan on voting again for Mulgrew, who is running as part of the Unity slate. Unity first took power in the 1960s, when many of the current retirees were in the classroom.

“I generally vote Unity … if I like the status quo,” said retiree Gloria Taft, 66, who taught math at I.S. 75 in Staten Island. She said she didn’t know much about the other candidates.

Two groups — Movement of Rank-and-File Educators and New Action — are running slates of candidates to challenge Unity, although only MORE is aiming to unseat Mulgrew. While the two minority parties are likely to gain some seats, they face an uphill battle to win spots in the union’s central leadership.

One reason is that retirees vote at significantly higher rates than active teachers. Nearly half of them voted in 2010, while less than a quarter of active teachers did so. But the number of votes that retirees can contribute is capped, meaning that each vote tends to count for something less than one. Retiree votes were initially capped at 18,000, but the UFT delegate assembly increased that to 23,500 last year in response to growth in both total union membership and the retiree chapter.

The shift drew criticism for reducing the influence of current teachers — who will be more directly affected by policies that the union supports or opposes.

“Should all other voter turnout stay the same, it’s possible that in this election the retirees will account for 50 percent” of the vote, said Sydney Morris, co-founder of Educators 4 Excellence. The group encourages its members to become more involved in the union, including pushing them to vote in union elections. It opposed raising the retiree vote cap, arguing that current teachers should have a larger voice than retirees in the elections.

Retired high-school teacher Adrianne Brum “absolutely” will vote this year; she does so in every election. “I pay for that,” she said. She, and many of her peers, praised the UFT for securing good benefits for them and keeping them well-informed about the benefits. Brum and others said those protections are a priority when they vote.

“The union worked very hard to give us the kind of security we do have,” Brum said, adding that critics of teachers unions “think we’re getting away with murder.”

“We put up with much lower pay so we can have these perks,” she said.

Murphy said he also sees retired members concerned about what’s happening in the classroom — particularly the push to tie teacher evaluations to student test scores.

Simon Schlanger, 74, who has been a UFT member for 50 years, also said he was planning to vote for Mulgrew. But though Schlanger, who was a social studies teacher and guidance counselor in the Bronx, cares about how teachers are treated, he said his primary concern was not about his own security.  “It’s making sure the kids get a good education,” he said.