Analysis: Will 2022 Be the Year When Teachers Union Dissidents Upend the Power Structure and Change Direction from Within?

Massachusetts Teachers Union, United Federation of Teachers, and Chicago Teachers Union logos

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Mike Antonucci’s Union Report appears most Wednesdays; see the full archive.

Few things are as certain in life as incumbents winning reelection to union office. In American Federation of Teachers affiliates, some presidents have held the position for decades. Most National Education Association affiliates practice term limits, but this has led to a system where incumbent vice presidents move up one rung to president and opposition is scarce.

There are exceptions, and this year we may see more — and more vigorous — challenges to the status quo than in any year in recent memory.

Teachers unions in New York City, Chicago and Massachusetts are all in the midst of internal turmoil that have the potential to unseat incumbents and radically alter the direction of those unions — although not all in the same direction.

No faction is more entrenched than the Unity Caucus of New York City’s United Federation of Teachers. Its slate has run the union for almost 60 years. The caucus is the key to becoming UFT president, which is the key to becoming AFT president. This was the path taken by the late Al Shanker and Sandra Feldman, and the current AFT president, Randi Weingarten.

Over the years, many opposition caucuses have sprung up to challenge Unity, but they achieved only marginal success. Part of the reason is Unity’s unique access to retiree voters, who make up a considerable percentage of the union’s electorate.

But something changed. UFT acquiesced to the city’s proposal to move retirees into Medicare Advantage plans, which didn’t sit well with many retired members. Added to anger over COVID-19 policies, failed mayoral endorsements and general discontent with the incumbents, the Medicare issue galvanized four ideologically diverse opposition caucuses to form a single slate to challenge UFT President Michael Mulgrew and Unity.

Dubbed United for Change, the slate adopted the only tried-and-true message for union challengers. “UFC candidates recognize that our power as a union comes not from collaborating with the boss. Rather, it comes directly from union members and our ability to join together, speak with a collective voice and fight for ourselves and our students when necessary,” reads a caucus statement.

Historically, challengers are more successful when they paint incumbents as too comfortable and collegial with management, to the detriment of members. The challengers claim they will fight harder and confront the powers-that-be.

This message will play well with many UFT members, but it remains to be seen whether their dissatisfaction has reached a level that will lead to regime change. A similar circumstance existed in Philadelphia, and while the Caucus of Working Educators doubled its totals against the incumbent Philadelphia Federation of Teachers slate in 2020, it still managed only about one-third of the vote in a high-turnout election. Would United for Change survive a similar encouraging defeat and grow from there, or splinter?

The UFT election will be conducted in April.

Last week, we were also treated to a slew of media stories about a challenge to the incumbent officers of the Chicago Teachers Union, with Politico calling it an “internal revolt.” But Chicago is the flip side to New York City in many ways.

The Chicago Teachers Union has a history of ousting incumbents, most recently by the late Karen Lewis. In 2010, the incumbent slate finished first but failed to achieve a majority of rank-and-file votes. Lewis united the opposition for the runoff and won easily.

Now, her successors face their own challenge from the Members First Caucus. Considering the incumbents’ record of strikes, work stoppages and public battles with the mayor, it is impossible for the challengers to accuse them of being too friendly with management. So the caucus is taking the opposite tack, blaming union leadership for the recent COVID strike that was widely viewed as having failed to achieve its aims.

“We need a union that will deliver more for us than a couple of KN95 masks for four days of lost pay,” its website reads.

As in New York, the discontent in Chicago is real, but is it such that members will throw out the incumbents? They have had a lower threshold for doing so in the past, but it isn’t clear that anger is reaching a fever pitch.

The CTU election will be conducted in May.

Over on the NEA side, trouble is brewing in the Massachusetts Teachers Association. It doesn’t have a direct connection to officer elections scheduled for May, but it may influence the outcome.

The union’s officers are at war with their own staff. This isn’t all that unusual, as relations were quite heated during internal contract negotiations back in August 2020. Now they have reached supernova level.

News of the ill will hasn’t reached the general public, except for cryptic notices on the staff unions’ Facebook page. But enough sharing of the staff’s grievances enabled me to obtain a copy of the letter union employees sent to the MTA board of directors.

“MTA staff members are urging you to examine the role that Executive Director-Treasurer (EDT) Lisa Gallatin is playing in creating a hostile work environment in which labor grievances are piling up, worker morale is plunging, and the lack of respect thus far shown for these concerns is dismaying,” the letter reads, calling the situation “an unprecedented crisis.”

The staff unions seem especially troubled by the actions of one manager in particular, and of a general indifference to high turnover and ineffective practices. The staff unions say they have gone to Gallatin with their concerns, but she “has responded with half measures and excuses, has denied the problems exist, and has shifted the blame to staff.”

Gallatin answered these allegations with an e-mail statement to Union Report. “The quality of our work environment, our responsibility to our employees and the fight for racial justice are serious matters,” she replied. “We are treating the issues raised by the staff unions in a way that respects both the dignity of everyone involved and our commitment to concerted activity and collective bargaining.”

Most of the staff unions’ specific complaints have little relevance to members’ daily lives, but the antagonism between union leaders and employees is at such a high level that it can’t help but affect the services teachers receive.

The incumbent president, Merrie Najimy, is term-limited out, but as is NEA tradition, her vice president, Max Page, is running to succeed her, along with members of their Educators for a Democratic Union slate. Those candidates are practitioners of social justice unionism, with a much broader progressive political agenda than just improved pay and working conditions for members.

“Now we need to raise more hell to win justice,” reads Page’s campaign website.

Zeal for the cause doesn’t necessarily translate into competence in running a $50 million-a-year organization. The staff uprising prompted a number of emergency meetings by union leadership, and the union called in legal help from NEA headquarters in Washington, according to a source with knowledge of the situation.

Erik Champy, himself a former vice president, is challenging Page for leadership of the union. He now sits on the board of the National Parent Teachers Association. But rank-and-file members don’t choose statewide officers. Only delegates to the union’s convention get to vote, so the slate that can recruit the most delegates will likely win.

Unions tend to highly value consensus and solidarity. While this leads to a strong front against external opponents, it can also breed a lack of accountability and a low tolerance for internal differences. Polarization within unions — as in politics — can be destructive, but enforced unanimity is much more dangerous. I think we all benefit from opposition, no matter which side we’re on.

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