New York Daily News: Opinion: The UFT’s high stakes test

New York

July 21, 2013

By Joe Williams

Mayoral candidate Bill Thompson was supposed to be measuring for new curtains at Gracie Mansion this summer — or, at the very least, guaranteeing himself a spot in the Democratic runoff.

All the smart money was sure: The endorsement of Thompson by the United Federation of Teachers would practically make the race for mayor of Gotham his to lose.

After all, the UFT had not put its chips on a candidate in more than a decade. Its reentry, with lots of money, a combative boss and years of pent up anger at Mayor Bloomberg’s education reform, was calculated.

“We’re going to be a force,” promised President Michael Mulgrew with characteristic machismo this fall. “We’re about making a mayor, making the winner. And that’s what we’re gonna to do.”

Instead, one month after the UFT bosses announced “Game on!” for his campaign via Twitter, the affable former comptroller and Board of Education president finds himself right back where he was before he became a made man by Mulgrew: Treading water, a distant place in the crowded Democratic primary.

This is after the UFT launched 170,000 highly-publicized robocalls to members, dominated the political headlines with the news and delivered tens of thousands of packets touting Thompson’s candidacy.

Thompson is drawing just 11% support among Democrats according to both Sienna and Quinnipiac polls. In both, Christine Quinn and Anthony Weiner, two of the UFT least favorite Democrats, are each pulling more than double that.

If the trends hold, this may herald not just the historic diminution in clout of a once-powerful public sector union in the nation’s largest city. We may be witnessing a fundamental rewriting of the rules of the political game in Democratic urban politics.

To be sure, Thompson is a capable politician who could find a way to close the gap in this race by election day. He’s loved by many and he knows the important political clubs in the city about as well as anyone. Weiner’s campaign could implode. Quinn’s support, which eroded over months, could continue to melt away. Other candidates could get indicted. (This is New York, after all.)

But it is now clear that even if Thompson pulls a massive come-from-behind victory, it will be mostly because of his own political handiwork, not any magic UFT pixie dust.

How did this 135,000-strong union go from political powerhouse to house under foreclosure?

For years, lazy political pundits have promoted a storyline that suggests the endorsement of the UFT is so highly sought-after that candidates of all stripes should twist themselves into pandering pretzels to win the nod.

That notion is a generation out of date. When legendary UFT leaders like Al Shanker hugged their candidate of choice, it was believable that tens of thousands of rank-and-file teachers, not to mention working New Yorkers, would follow suit at the polls.

The world has changed. Let us count the ways.

Once upon a time, city teachers were united in a social justice battle for better pay, benefits and working conditions. They fought hard and they fought together, because the benefits of doing so were obvious.

Today’s teachers have different needs and wants, and new organizations like Educators for Excellence are increasingly giving voice to teachers who have a totally different framework for social justice.

Simultaneously, the onset of social media means teachers themselves are less reliant on their union president to make their voices heard. A 23-year-old teacher with a Twitter account can take on the top brass in the school system directly these days.

Meantime, the broader labor movement has itself become splintered over time. Public sector unions have a much different set of concerns than private sector unions. And while it is less clear than ever who speaks for the “working man,” we see ample evidence throughout the city that the working men and women want better schools for their children.

Taxpayers, who have gotten frustrated paying the ever increasing pricetag for their schools, are starting to demand quality and see the union as an impediment to, not a partner in, achieving excellence in the classroom.

The internal dynamics of the UFT expose the stark disconnect.

Inside the union, the old guard is still holding on strong – and that has become a nightmare for Mulgrew. The men and women who made the UFT, now retired, still serve as the most active voting bloc within the union. (Retirees are allowed to vote in UFT elections.)

The problem is: Most of them left NYC long ago, for warmer environs down south and a lower cost of living.

In union elections this spring, for example, only 18% of the city’s teaching force cared enough about what the UFT was doing that they even bothered to vote. (And of the 18% of active teachers who actually voted, one out of five of those teachers voted for someone other than Mulgrew to be president.)

It has gotten so bad that the UFT is considering launching an internal task force to find out why the overwhelming majority of active classroom teachers are disconnected from the union.

In short: Mulgrew can try to claim he speaks on behalf of 80,000 classroom teachers, but not even the teachers are buying that these days.

This just isn’t your mother’s United Federation of Teachers. The UFT hasn’t endorsed a winner in the mayor’s race since David Dinkins’ first run in 1989. Back then, the Berlin Wall was still standing, John Gotti was a free man, squeegee men still ruled the traffic lights off the West Side Highway.

In 2001, the last time the mayor’s office was vacant, the UFT at one point or another endorsed just about everyone in the race except the eventual winner, Mike Bloomberg.

And so, the insiders became the outsiders, and a union that once used to be able to throw its weight around by threatening teacher strikes now has to rely on high-priced attorneys to file lawsuits seeking to stop policies it can no longer stop on its own. (If Mulgrew called a strike today, most teachers wouldn’t even find out about it until they showed up for work.)

Some may think that the slow eclipse of the UFT is simple cause for celebration — for the most powerful special interest in education is finally being put in its rightful place, even among Democrats in a very liberal city, home to the nation’s largest public school system.

Not exactly. We’re seeing two tragedies play out here. One is the fall of a once-powerful organization that played a tremendous role in protecting the rights of the city’s long undervalued teachers, not to mention actively helping the city avoid bankruptcy in the 1970’s.

The UFT isn’t alone in that fall from grace. Pull back the lens and you can see other teachers unions (and a good chunk of today’s organized labor movement more generally) which, having failed to adapt over the decades, are now desperately and belatedly trying to figure out how to stop the bleeding and connect with a new generation of workers.

It remains to be seen whether or not these once-relevant forces can save themselves from the brink.

A more tragic dynamic, however, is the seeming reluctance of the city’s Democratic Party apparatus to change with the times. There might have been a time when genuflecting to the UFT bosses and engaging in socially awkward public pandering made tons of political sense.

We are no longer in that time. Put bluntly: The charade within the Democratic Party that the UFT endorsement means the world is helping to create a serious wedge between the party and the city’s rank-and-file Democratic voters, many of whom have astonishingly responded by pulling the lever for Republican mayors for the last five elections.

Here is perhaps the clearest sign of how much the teacher’s union has shrunk in the estimation of the average New York City liberal. The same voters who today are telling pollsters that education ought to be at the top of the agenda for the next mayor — people who often offer a negative assessment of Bloomberg’s education reforms — are simultaneously pointing to someone other than the UFT’s nominee as their choice to do something about improving the city’s schools.

So not only could the UFT wind up being a non-factor in the mayor’s race; it could seal its fate as irrelevant to larger discussions about the education of the city’s 1.1 million schoolchildren.

The biggest question is how future candidates for office approach this paradigm shift in local politics. Political consultants in this city aren’t always the sharpest tools in the shed, but at some point some of them are going to realize that pandering to UFT union bosses isn’t the same as having a thoughtful education platform that is good for families and educators alike.

We’re talking about public education here, so if there is any pandering to be done, why not pander to the public that craves excellent school options for their kids?

Williams, a former reporter at the Daily News, is author of “Cheating Our Kids: How Politics and Greed Ruin Education” and executive director of Democrats for Education Reform.

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