Is the UFT Democratic?

In 2019, I was elected as a NYSUT delegate under the Unity slate. To be clear, I wasn’t joining Unity so much because I agreed with their politics as because I was ignorant of the other caucuses. I was a first year chapter leader, and a UFT staffer who I worked with a lot (and still respect very much) asked me to join to further my role as a unionist. Joining Unity was sold to me as a perfunctory extension of joining the UFT. It was as if other caucuses didn’t even exist. 

That mentality, that other caucuses simply don’t exist, is a problem with real ramifications. Unity’s mantra – that (only) Unity does the work – is another way of saying Unity is the union. In too many ways, the Unity leadership has made this a self-fulfilling prophecy, selecting only Unity members to do official work (then ignoring or vilifying the ‘unofficial’ work done by members of other caucuses). Joining Unity is too often the only way to receive an invitation to ‘do the work’ at a higher (city-wide) level. Joining Unity means getting a seat at the table on UFT committees, winning seats in elections, and potentially being hired part or full time to help others in the union. I don’t think most Unity members are corrupt; I think they just want a seat at the table. But caucus affiliation should not be the only precondition to getting that seat; indeed, our union would be stronger with more diverse representation from across the political spectrum of the UFT. 

Once you have your Unity-assured seat at the table, there’s a certain groupthink that prevails. It’s expected that you’ll vote a certain way at DAs and publicly agree with UFT officers, even when you privately disagree. That’s how you keep your seat at the table (along with the possibility of moving up the UFT hierarchy). When I read the healthcare reso back in November, 2021, I knew I was damning myself from ever getting a UFT job or any major seat at the table as long as Unity stays in power. My District Rep. has kept me on a few lesser committees, which I appreciate, but I can sense the suspicion from some other UFT staffers when I sign on, and while I respect the Unity members on the same calls, I lament the utter lack of other opposition voices around me. As long as Unity is in power, opposition voices will always be kept hushed or proportionally absent in major discussions. 

One of the major reasons why opposition voices don’t come through is because our elections are winner-take-all. That’s true both for at-large seats and the shrinking number of divisional seats. We should have proportional representation, but we don’t. One of the places this is most conspicuous is at the level of convention delegates–the very seat I won in the last election. These are the UFT members who go to vote in the NYSUT (state) and AFT (national) conventions each year. Because our elections are ‘winner-take-all,’ the entirety of these seats go to Unity members. That’s pathetically undemocratic, particularly because opposition makes up such a large part of some divisions (e.g. high schools). It’s also pathetically undemocratic, because Unity members are expected to vote as a bloc. Caucus documents and communications from voting captains are sent out telling members how to vote. Because there is no proportional representation, the entire UFT effectively votes unanimously in NYSUT and AFT conventions. When I realized this at the previous NYSUT and AFT conventions, when some truly bad decisions were made about COVID safety at one of the more dangerous moments in the pandemic, I had a mental reckoning. Seeing the lack of democracy under Unity and its state/national analogues (e.g. the so-called Progressive Caucus) was one of the major radicalizing forces that jolted me to later join United for Change and New Action.

United for Change has a decent chance this year to win the whole UFT election, and a lot of us are excited about what that could mean at the state and national levels. As a coalition made up of people with different points of view, we would favor debate rather than voting as a bloc. Just as with the DA, we’d also favor bringing real resolutions to the floor that don’t have mostly symbolic implications. But ultimately, United for Change’s platform specifies that we favor an increase in representational and proportional democracy. That means, even if we win the majority of future seats, we would work to make proportional democracy a reality for future elections. You heard that right: United for Change would make sure that Unity delegates had seats at the table even if we were in power. 

Make no mistake: right now we don’t have that, and that’s precisely because Unity doesn’t want other caucuses to have real decision-making power. I’m a United for Change candidate and only have the right to attend this next RA because of the fluke that I was elected under the Unity slate last year. In protest of the complete lack of democracy that comes from a ‘winner-take-all-election’ under which Unity makes all of its members vote as a single bloc, I will not be attending the final RA of my term as a NYSUT delegate. If elected to the High School Executive Board this year, I promise that one of the major things I will push for is bringing in proportional representation, so that we will finally have a viable union democracy in future AFT conventions and RAs. 

Finally, if Michael Mulgrew and his Unity Caucus want to signal that they are pro-democracy, their first step must be to agree to a debate between him and Camille Eterno. Dodging the debate that United for Change requested, as Mulgrew appears to be doing, is an insult to all UFT members. At a minimum, we should have a right to see the different politics of the top candidates in this UFT election before we vote.

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