land of nod

What's going on before, during, and after the UFT endorsement

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The UFT printed campaign posters for all major mayoral candidates in advance of today’s meetings to endorse a candidate, so that materials are ready as soon as the choice is made. The union posted the photo to Twitter on Monday.

For education voters, the mayoral campaign season has been building in large part to today, when the United Federation of Teachers will announce which candidate it is supporting.

But the decision, which will come out around 5:45 p.m. today, hardly ends the education election. Instead, it simply opens a new phase, one in which education policy’s prominence is far from assured.

Until now

From the time that campaign season kicked off so many moons ago, all of the Democratic candidates have been careful not to alienate the UFT. While the union’s picks don’t always win — as Mayor Bloomberg pointed out on Monday, it hasn’t backed a winning mayoral candidate in over two decades — the UFT endorsement does confer money, cachet, and bodies to fuel a ground game that will be essential in the coming months.

Even candidates seen as unlikely to win the union’s support, such as City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, whose help letting Bloomberg suspend term limits four years ago put her at a sharp disadvantage, were careful to infuse their education platforms with union-friendly positions. And all of the candidates who attended a forum the union held at its annual spring conference were effusive in their praise.

In recent weeks, though, only Thompson and de Blasio — and, to a lesser extent, Comptroller John Liu, whose campaign has been hamstrung by scandal — have actively seemed to be angling for the nod. When the city announced new graduation rates on Monday, they were the only candidates to release statements, all criticizing the Bloomberg administration for not helping students more. Thompson announced that he would guarantee at $200 a year to every teacher for discretionary materials, something the union has long sought. And de Blasio was the only candidate to stand beside Mulgrew at a press conference announcing a platform for reducing the city’s emphasis on standardized testing.

In de Blasio, the union would get a candidate with liberal bonafides and the chance to consolidate some the labor movement’s support. But with Thompson, it would be choosing a conciliator with education credentials who is seen as having a strong chance of becoming mayor.

What happens today

The union wants to advance a policy agenda that matches its vision for education and benefits its members. But even more than that, it wants to support a winner in November’s election, breaking a three-decade cycle of failure and ensuring that City Hall’s occupant feels beholden to the union. That’s why — even though, in a show of openness, the union has printed campaign posters for all major candidates — it would be a real surprise if anyone other Thompson ends the day with the union’s support.

But even though the decision appears to have been made, there is still a process the union must go through to make the choice official. That process includes some room for union members to express dissent, and their voices could be quite strong.

The union is using the same process that it goes through whenever it makes major policy decisions. First, Mulgrew will tell his closest advisors which candidate is his favorite. They’ll recommend the choice to the union’s 89-member Executive Board, which includes some representatives of minority parties within the union. Then the Executive Board’s recommendation will go to the 3,400-member Delegate Assembly for a floor vote, in which delegates from each school and chapter will hold up cards to signal whether they support the recommendation. Advocates and, potentially, opponents of the decision will make their cases until a majority of delegates support the resolution.

The union anticipates this process going quickly. The three meetings are scheduled back to back to prevent news from leaking before the end of the day. The Delegate Assembly meeting is scheduled for 4:45 p.m., and a decision is expected about an hour later, union officials said.

One reason the union can expect quick support for its leadership’s recommendation is that a strong majority of delegates are affiliated with Unity, Mulgrew’s party within the union. But a sizable number are not, suggesting that debate could be fierce if Mulgrew allows it to be. Some members are unhappy with Thompson’s relationship with Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch, who helped engineer the state’s new teacher evaluation rules, and the fact that he has cozied up to charter school supporters even as he has worked to woo the union. In borough forums, de Blasio and Liu, seen as more left-wing candidates, received widespread support.

When the principals union voted to endorse Thompson on Tuesday, it did so with just 40 percent of the executive board behind him. President Ernest Logan suggested that while Thompson had garnered twice as many votes as the next closest candidates, at least four candidates had received wide support. The UFT has a stronger infrastructure for managing dissent and it won’t be tallying support for runners up, so it’s unlikely that the numbers will end up being quite so divided. But what happens inside 52 Broadway today is worth watching.

Not an end but a beginning

A divided union UFT would undermine one of the union’s chief goals in endorsing a candidate, which is to reassert its might in the city’s political ecosystem. According to a story in today’s New York Times, Mulgrew has devoted himself since first becoming president four years ago to bolstering the union’s political machine, once seen as capable of delivering candidates with ease.

That machine has a sizable war chest to help the endorsed candidate pay for campaign ads, including some that could potentially tilt the race into more negative territory. The machine should also have no trouble coming through with volunteers to make phone calls for the winning candidate and support his (or her) ground game. The union’s strong cadre of retired teachers in particular — known as the “daytime union” because they can step up when active members are at work — are notable for being willing to do what they are asked to.

But many retirees do not live in the city, and many current teachers do not, either. Combined with the fact that not all members will fall into line with the UFT’s pick, exactly how many votes the union will deliver in September’s primary and then in November’s general election is unclear.

What happens tomorrow, and for the next two and a half months until the primary election, could make the difference. It could be that the candidates begin to differentiate themselves more strongly on education, without the prospect of UFT support keeping them close to the union line. It could also be that they stop talking about education at all as they try to win over new constituencies. Candidates also have a reason to distance themselves from the union if they aren’t receiving its support. In office, a new mayor will have to weigh all of the city’s interests each time they sit down to bargain a single union’s contract. The high costs of health care and back pay, which the UFT wants, could be hard to deliver.

One role the union’s pick will play is to make sure that issues that are important to teachers do not fall off the radar, and to entice other candidates into making commitments that the union would like them to make. Mulgrew believes he can deliver this election, but he surely won’t mind insurance.

state of the union

New York City teachers union braces for Supreme Court ruling that could drain money and members

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
UFT President Michael Mulgrew (standing) met with teachers during a school visit in 2014.

A few dozen labor leaders gathered recently at the the headquarters of New York City’s 187,000-member teachers union to hear a cautionary tale.

In a glass-walled conference room overlooking downtown Manhattan, United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew settled into a chair facing a colleague from Wisconsin. He asked the state teachers union president, Kim Kohlhaas, how her members have fared after an aggressive rollback of labor’s bargaining power there.

She described rampant teacher turnover, fewer job protections, and ballooning insurance and pension costs. In short, a union’s worst nightmare.

For the UFT, Wisconsin is a harbinger of what could result from a Supreme Court case known as Janus, which revolves around the ability of public unions to collect mandatory fees. Oral arguments begin on Feb. 26, and the decision, which is expected in a matter of months, could dramatically alter the landscape for unions across the country.

The impact will be felt especially by the UFT, the largest union local in the country. If the court rules that teachers are not required to pay for its services, the union is likely to shed members and money — a war chest that has allowed the UFT to be a major player in New York politics and to secure robust benefits for its members.

“This is dangerous stuff we’re getting into now,” Mulgrew told Chalkbeat. “They’re trying to take away people’s ability to come together, to stand up and have a voice.”

While the case deals with different issues than Wisconsin’s anti-union policies did, New York City labor leaders say the limits on their membership and funding would weaken their ability to fight against further restrictions on their organizing and bargaining power.

In anticipation of the ruling, union leaders have reportedly already considered downsizing their operations. And they have undertaken a preemptive information and recruitment campaign to hold onto members — who, soon, may be free to choose whether to keep supporting the union financially.

“Much as I oppose Janus, it’s kind of a wake up call for entrenched union leadership,” New York City teacher Arthur Goldstein blogged recently. “People need reasons to pay, and it’s on leadership to provide them.”

At issue is whether public unions can continue to charge “agency fees,” which are payments collected from people who are not members. Sometimes called a “fair share” fee, it is meant to help unions cover the cost of bargaining contracts that cover all workers, regardless of whether they are union members. Only a fraction of New York City teachers currently opt out of the union and pay the agency fees rather than dues — but experts expect many more teachers could leave the union if the Supreme Court bans the fees.

Mark Janus, a government employee in Illinois, is challenging the fee on the grounds that it violates his right to free speech. The Supreme Court deadlocked on a similar case in 2016 after the sudden death of Justice Antonin Scalia. With Neil Gorsuch now on the bench, observers expect a conservative-leaning court will side with Janus. If that happens, workers covered by unions — including the UFT — will be able to opt out of paying the fees that help keep the unions in operation.

“What that means is there will be a lot of teachers — potentially a lot of teachers in New York — who do not invest in the union,” said Evan Stone, co-founder of the teacher advocacy group Educators for Excellence. “There will be potential growth in free riders who are benefiting from the work of the union without contributing to it.”

That’s why the UFT is kicking into action. The union has trained scores of members to knock on doors and talk to fellow teachers about the case. In about two months, the union estimates its members have knocked on 11,000 doors, sharing stories about how the union has helped them and hoping to convince teachers to keep financially supporting the work, even if the courts decide they’re no longer required to.

Union leaders are also launching “membership teams” in every school. Tasked with “building a sense of unity,” the union is asking the teams to engage in personal conversations with members, and plan shows of support for the union. Stone said his organization is organizing focus groups across the city to inform members about the case.

New York City teachers automatically become union members. They pay about $117 a month in dues, while social workers, paraprofessionals, and members in other school roles pay different amounts. Members can also choose to contribute to a separate political fund, which the union uses to lobby lawmakers and support union-friendly candidates.

About 2,000 educators opt-out of the union and pay agency fees instead — which are the same amount as regular dues, according to a UFT spokesman.

Ken Girardin, who has studied the potential fallout of Janus for New York’s unions as an analyst for the right-leaning Empire Center for Public Policy, said the number of agency-fee payers is low compared to other unions. But the Janus case could change that.

Girardin looked at what happened after Michigan enacted a “right to work” law, which forbid mandatory agency fees. The result: The Michigan Education Association, among the state’s largest unions, saw a 20 percent drop in dues and fees. Among full-time teachers, membership declined by 18 percent.

Girardin estimates an equivalent decrease in New York would mean the state’s teachers unions would take a $49 million hit annually. The UFT relies on dues and agency fees for about 85 percent of its $185 million budget, according to federal documents.

“It means they’d have to make up a course change,” Girardin told Chalkbeat, referring to the potential impact of the Janus decision. “They would have to treat their members like customers instead of people who are going to pay them regardless.”

Behind the scenes, the union is reportedly making contingency plans to deal with the potential budgetary fall-out. The New York Post recently cited unnamed sources who said union leadership is considering reducing the staff at some of its borough offices and cutting back on discretionary spending.

Girardin said public-sector unions in New York have already begun to fight for state legislation that would make it harder for members to drop out — a potential work-around in case the court sides with Janus.

Some UFT members say the threat of Janus is already being felt. The union recently voted down a resolution to support Black Lives Matter after leadership said it was a divisive issue at a time when the union can’t afford to lose members, according to an NY1 report.

Rosie Frascella, a Brooklyn high school teacher who helped organized Black Lives Matter at School events across the city, said she was disappointed in the leadership’s decision. But despite those internal disagreements, she said the threat posed by Janus should compel all teachers to speak out in support of their unions.

“You need to be in a union because it protects your right to teach,” she said. “And it stands up for our students and it creates the schools our children deserve.”

after parkland

As Trump doubles down on call to give teachers guns, the growing #ArmMeWith movement offers an alternative

Counselors, time, diverse classroom libraries, money — these are some of many things American teachers say they need in their schools instead of guns.

The pleas are coming via a social media hashtag, #ArmMeWith, that has spread quickly this week as teachers grapple with the aftermath of last week’s school shooting in Parkland, Florida.

Some lawmakers and advocates — including President Donald Trump — have responded to the shooting by arguing that teachers should be armed. That idea has drawn scorn from educators who argue that more guns in schools would make students less safe and do little to address the underlying issues that contribute to violence in schools.

Now thousands of those educators are offering an alternative, using a template that two teachers shared on Instagram on Tuesday. Olivia Bertels and Brittany Wheaton already had substantial social media followings when they asked others to join them in starting a movement.

“My friend @thesuperheroteacher and I think that we should find more practical solutions than giving teachers guns,” Bertels wrote on her post with the template, where she asked to be armed with school supplies. “I hope you’ll take the same stance.”

More than 5,000 people so far have done exactly that on Instagram, and the hashtag is also trending on Twitter, bringing educators together in a cross-country conversation.

“I wish we didn’t have to do this,” wrote one Texas teacher, HowsonHistory, in a comment on a Rhode Island teacher’s post. “But am so glad that so many teachers are. Maybe soon we will be listened to.”

Here are some of the posts that have caught our eye.

“We, the teachers, have a few ideas.”

“#armmewith not guns, but counselors who do not double as test administrators and more than one overbooked, crowded therapist option for families with Medicaid and social workers without overloaded caseloads.”

“#armmewith the liberation of our students, a microphone to speak out against the policies you make from people who aren’t teachers, resources to empower our children, and love to keep our babies safe. We refuse to be armed with guns. #teachingwhilemuslim”

“Because there are so many other things to be arming ourselves with that will do more good than harm. I choose to #armMeWith kindness not violence and teach my students to do the same #jointhemovement”

“I took my first teaching job the year Sandy Hook happened. And the thing is, in that year and in all the years I have been a teacher since, I have stood in my classroom too many times and wondered where I would put my children if someone came into my classroom with a gun. I have stood on playgrounds and in hallways with dozens of students and wondered what would be the best action to take. I have sat through too many of my lunch breaks with my colleagues hashing over the best strategy for protecting our students. There has to be change. Teachers and students deserve to work and learn in peace. #armmewith #thingsteachersshouldnothavetosay”