What could a grassroots UFT election campaign look like?

The electoral sweep by opposition forces in the paraprofessional and retiree chapters are nothing less than an electoral earthquake in UFT politics. By winning close to 2/3rds of the votes in these former bastions of Mulgrew’s UNITY caucus, the union activists in Fix Para Pay and Retiree Advocate slates have proven that it’s possible to electorally defeat UNITY’s 60 year control of the UFT. 

If the 2022 United for Change slate had received the same margin amongst retirees as in this years chapter election, we would have won by 51%

The retiree activists also have provided some new innovative and inspirational tactics and strategies we need to apply to our general union elections next year. Combined with the lessons learned from MORE’s participation in the 2022 campaign, they provide guideposts to building a grassroots UFT campaign that could not only change the union leadership, but also strengthen rank and file organizing at the base in a way that will ensure that the union's transformation is deep and lasting. 

Retiree Advocate outside UFT Headquarters

By converting their grassroots campaign to defend Medicare into a an grassroots electoral effort, Retiree Advocate has shown how an each-one-teach-one approach can activate and engage UFT members to create profound change in our union  

In my 20 years of experience of previous election runs by the UFT opposition, the campaigns have typically looked the same, regardless of the political complexion of the forces involved or whether caucuses are running in coalition or separately. The focus has been on collection of signatures for a slate of candidates, followed by an effort to get one or two leaflets into as many schools as possible. 

RA’s victory points to a different method, where they recruited a broad slate of over 300 candidates and converted many of them into campaigners, and did some genuine each-one-teach-one outreach that brought in ten thousand new votes for their caucus. As one activist, Jonathan Halabi, wrote recentlyWe asked candidates to develop expanded lists of who they could solicit for support. Friends. Acquaintances. Family. Anyone who is a UFT retiree. Former colleagues.

The best outcome historically with a broad opposition coalition (UFC) in 2022, came out with 34% of the overall votes cast.  This is better than it sounds because the disproportionately large retiree vote went overwhelming for the incumbents (a situation that clearly is not permanent). However, the opposition was still a few thousand votes short amongst active members. 

This cycle, Unity is probably in its weakest position yet, defending a broadly unpopular incumbent who has made major missteps on healthcare, been completely abandoned by retirees, alienated a large section of paras by lack of action on pay.  If Mulgrew pulls a last minute retirement, Unity will be championing an untested replacement. A section of Unity loyalists are also considering a break from their caucus.

Why is it worth running?

All signs point to a historic shakeup for the union in 2025. For all activists who want a stronger union, this is worth committing energy and resources to being a part of.

In any scenario, a defeat of UNITY would be a major step towards a more democratic and militant UFT, even if the opposition ends up as a junior partner in a victorious coalition with former Unity members. Imagine what we could do with a sizable bloc on a democratically run executive board, at DAs that were not stage-managed and rehearsed but rather genuine open forums for rank and file concerns, or with a few of our best cadres in the DR positions where they can organize and train chapter leaders. 

Normally boring CL trainings across the city could become Labor Notes “Secrets of a Successful Organizer” workshops. Activist campaigns to defend chapter leaders under attack would be supported rather than ignored by the leadership. Real, transparent debates and education about the health care situation could happen UFT meetings across the city. 

Furthermore, if we ran a full slate of delegates (a gargantuan but doable task), we would have 750 votes at the 2026 AFT convention in Washington, who could be a powerful voice in the debates about the political strategy and direction of the teachers’ movement nationally.

All of these basic reforms and openings could occur simply by breaking the iron grip that the UNITY caucus has on the union - any campaign against the current leadership, no matter its political makeup, would have to be premised on winning some basic victories around union democracy (election of district reps, openness at the DA, transparency on health care, etc). 

Of course, the history of the union movement is littered with examples where a verbally militant insurgent campaign replaces an entrenched bureaucracy only to replicate the patterns of undemocratic rule. TWU’s Roger Toussaint is the example closest to home, who defeated the union’s old guard in 2003 and led a strike against the city, only to have the resulting contract voted down by his members because it didn’t address their health care concerns - and then swiftly clamped down on dissent in his union.  

However, this result is not inevitable (the current UAW provides a key, living, counterexample). If the installation of a new leadership is seized upon to grow and strengthen rank and file organizing, membership pressure can continue to hold leaders accountable and result in a continuously dynamic union. In the end, of course, the union is only strong if it has a confident, organized rank and file. 

The effort on the election, far from being a waste of capacity, energy, would be an investment in resources that would generate a long term reward of a stronger, better trained opposition that was more deeply rooted in schools. These electoral tactics will not only lead to success at the ballot box, but also improve the strength of rank and file organizing. We think that the Retiree Advocate victory points to some new, creative ways that could dramatically expand the organizing capacity of the opposition, and also lead to a victory.

How do we bring in new voters?

While UNITY’s vote base has been steadily declining, the opposition’s has remained roughly steady. Few members switch their allegiances - rather the variances in vote totals are about how many folks can be turned out by either side. The main caucus in the UFT is those teachers who don’t vote. The best way to win is to identify three to five thousand new active members to turn them out. 

To do this we will need a new strategy to turn out new voters and expand our base. De-emphasizing the main ways that we have tried to reach out to bring out voters (leaflet distribution and scattershot social media messaging) will be key. Folks will not be motivated to vote because of a piece of paper in their mailbox or a one-off ad on Facebook. They will be motivated by a one-on-conversation, in person or online, where they are reached out to by a trusted colleague to convince them that their vote matters - and that there is an alternative vision of the UFT where the union has the power to make a difference in their work life.

One major goal of a campaign would be to expand the number of opposition activists trained to have one-on-one organizing conversations. The other would be to deepen and expand our text banking database of UFT members to ten to fifteen thousand potential voters (currently we have about three thousand). 

Local organizing, one-to-one outreach, and mass text & phone banking

The major things that MORE learned in the last campaign was the effectiveness of local mobilizing structures. Our field teams became places where activists from geographically adjacent schools could collaborate and strategize about how to reach schools in their neighborhood. Unfortunately much of that energy was spent on widespread distribution of leaflets (hassling with recalcitrant security guards moving leaflets from one place to another, etc).

Instead, we should make field teams places where we focus on one-to-one organizing. The teams could have regular monthly in person meetings, where at least half the meeting was devoted to training folks in how to ask questions of their coworkers about what they need from the UFT, listen and connect their desires to the need for democratic and militant strategy for the union (the other half could be devoted to workshopping common issues in chapters and organizing strategies to address them). The goal would be for each attendee to have that conversation with a few other UFT members, especially at schools outside their own, and bring at least one new person to the next meeting.  Other asks could include asking people to sign themselves and other coworkers up for text-message updates, sign up to be candidates or spread campaign messages on social media. This is similar to the RA campaign where, as Halabi describes outreach and phonebanking, giving examples of how candidates “recruited key people who had worked at other schools, and got them to work the retiree lists from their schools as well….”

This each-one-teach-one approach, if systematically applied and repeated, could grow our field teams from clusters of districts (e.g. North Manhattan, the Bronx) to individual districts over the course of the campaign. By the end of the school year we could have a network of opposition-aligned folks in many more schools than we have now - which will be invaluable no matter what the results of the election.

The other strategic prong would be a social media strategy based primarily around building a broad base of UFT members we can connect to by text message. By focusing on a few key widely-felt issues (health care, welfare fund surplus, mandated curricula, para salary) through petitions and social media posts with a goal of growing the number of UFT members willing to opt in to text messages. In the ‘22 election MORE used the Spoke texting system to great effect in local areas but we could expand this immensely. Spoke allows direct conversations between texters and recipients - text messages could be used initially to draw folks into field team meetings but by March or April be shifted towards election campaigning and voter turnout.

In previous election campaigns the bulk of expenditures was on leaflets. Instead of trying to hit every school with one or two leaflets (a Herculean task), we should direct our funds towards a few, professionally produced videos that focus on the simple broad key issues mentioned above to drive text message signups. Campaign literature could be produced but instead be locally duplicated and distributed by folks in schools directly to their coworkers. 

A word on coalitions

The opposition has generally done the worst when divided (e.g. in 2019). However when in coalition, internal wrangling, particularly about seats, and a lack of clear internal processes for handling disagreements has left many with a bad taste in their mouths. Much trust has to be rebuilt. A precondition for a successful election coalition is an agreement at the outset on meeting norms and decision making procedures (beyond consensus) and a division of the seats, rather than postponing these issues to the middle of the campaign and setting ourselves up to lose precious energy debating amongst ourselves when we need it most for the campaign. Additionally, if the coalition involves folks breaking from the Unity caucus, there have to be some clear commitments on basic union policy questions involving union democracy (election of DRs, open bargaining, end of patronage appointments, proportional representation in elections), and union policy (on strike preparedness, single payer health care, mayoral control, desegregation and social justice generally).

Overall, these new tactics and strategies would take us beyond the norms of UFT election campaigns. But only by breaking those norms and using the each-one-teach-one strategies of the civil rights movement combined with effective use of new technology, will we be able to take advantage of the historic opportunity that we have this coming year.


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