If you don’t know about New York State’s United Teachers (NYSUT) elections, it’s okay because neither do many — I daresay most — of the teachers in the union.
Perhaps the main reason teachers are so uninvolved with the triennial elections of the New York State United Teachers is because we cannot vote. If it seems odd that dues-paying members of a union bigger than the population of Wyoming don’t directly elect their leaders, wait till you learn about the hurdles put before the delegates who do vote.
Just weeks ago, I learned education activists Mike Lillis and Bianca Tanis were running for president and vice president of NYSUT against the long dominant Unity slate. I noticed they got some press attention in Politico and other local papers, so I asked Mike what his chances were. That’s when I learned about NYSUT’s curious voting practices.
First off, they require school district delegates to vote in person at the two-day Representative Assembly, being held April 7–8 in Manhattan. That means teachers have to travel from all over the state and be there not at 8:00 PM like the last election, but 8:30 AM. This clearly necessitates a hotel stay, which costs at least $300 per day on top of transportation costs. This folks, is a poll tax.
Some local teacher unions raise money for delegates to travel and stay in NYC, while others ask delegates to bear the expense themselves.
The date chosen for the election? The weekend before spring break, which is also the week many teachers are entering end-of-marking period grades.
In 2014, social justice caucus Stronger Together (and yes, they had the name before Hillary), tried organizing ride sharing and bus pick-ups to increase turnout, but only 30% of eligible voting delegates made the trek. That meant the local NYC contingent enjoyed an insurmountable size advantage, with 100% bloc voting for the Unity slate.
For over sixty years, this same NYC-based caucus has controlled NYSUT, with disillusioned upstate union locals lamenting top-down, backroom leadership.
Front runner for President this year is NYSUT’s current Executive Vice President, Andy Pallotta, expected to cruise to victory with the deck stacked against the challengers.
Mr. Pallotta is endemic of the problems facing the union, according to his opponent Mike Lillis. Pallotta was in Unity’s leadership as high stakes standardized tests, invalid teacher evaluations and Common Core were ushered in over the protests of teachers, parents and students.
Unity also negotiated a tax cap limiting school spending and state receivership for schools with low test scores. The decision to have NYSUT make campaign donations to Republican candidates this year has ruffled feathers as well.
Were there any public debates for this election? Multiple NYSUT candidate forums were hosted in recent weeks by various stakeholders but the Unity slate pulled no-shows.
As to the burning question of opt-out, Pallotta has recently begun tweeting pictures of NYSUT billboards that promote a parent’s right to refuse, but stopped short of calling for NYSUT members to refuse testing for their children, even though the delegates already approved just such a resolution.
I contacted Mr. Pallotta by email for comment but have not received a reply.
This dubious election process leads to a state union heavily influenced by NYC-based officers who support high stakes testing, charter schools and “establishment” candidates like Hillary Clinton, irrespective of the views of membership.
The top-down sentiment has been fueling the growth of the Stronger Together Caucus. NYSUT teachers passed an anti-testing resolution in 2015 but it was not acted upon. This led to another resolution in 2016 which declared NY’s “proficiency” benchmarks scientifically unsound. The lack of follow through by leadership is expected to prompt yet another year of anti-testing arguments by rank and file members.
One supporter of the current voting process called it “tough love”, noting locals have three years to plan ahead, pass the hat and dispatch a union rep—but even those who do so cannot always find a delegate willing to give up two weekend days to vote against the inevitable Unity dynasty.
When I explain this to the under-informed teachers in my building, I get reactions like “boy, is that undemocratic”. Newer, younger members were particularly discouraged to learn that they cannot vote and that the current NYSUT leadership has made key decisions which decreased benefits for new teachers.
As more people wake up to the realities of politics in the Trump era, major opportunities are being lost by non-involvement in professional unions. From endorsements, to get-out-the-vote actions or influencing legislation, NYSUT should be leading the charge against school privatization, corruption and social and economic injustice, not enabling it.
Edited by Lydia McMullen-Laird