Reflecting on the last UFT Chapter-Leader Election Campaign

by Kit Wainer

[These notes reflect my personal reflections on MORE’s efforts to run a series of chapter leader election campaigns in spring 2021. I should note that I left NYC to pursue a PhD in the summer of 2022 so I know little about what has happened in the caucus since then].

For those considering running in the current Chapter Leader or Delegate elections this spring, please join MORE at our next election training on Thursday 2/15 at 7pm (

Dramatic membership growth

MORE’s growth from roughly 100 dues-paying members just prior to the pandemic to more than 700 by August 2020 inspired many of us in the caucus leadership to try to capitalize on the momentum by deepening and expanding our influence within individual union chapters. At that point, what percentage of the membership was “real” and not just on paper was very difficult to measure. The 3-4 meetings we held over the summer of 2020 drew more than 200 people each. The late August meeting—held at the moment the UFT leadership was wielding a phony strike threat over school safety—drew more than 1,000. But since all caucus work was remote and remote politics was still something new, it was difficult to know how many were showing up only once, or how many showed up for general meetings but never participated in anything else.


Why run for chapter leader?

I believed that training members to run for chapter leader would be one way of getting new caucus members to make stronger political connections to co-workers. In the larger picture, it would help position MORE as a caucus that could lead and coordinate the dozens of struggles that were already taking place within the schools during the 2020-2021 school year over COVID-related safety issues. Within schools, members tend to regard chapter leaders as “the union.” While we recognize that that reflects a low level of working-class consciousness (the idea that workers interests are in opposition to those of bosses, and that workers must act collectively to advance their interests), it is also the case that it is far easier to organize protest actions within a school, especially job actions, if the chapter leader is behind it.

Learning from previous chapter leader elections

Running for chapter leader, especially when running against an incumbent, requires more than simply good ideas. School workplaces are often compartmentalized, with members interacting with the same small handful of colleagues each day. In larger schools, many members don’t even know the majority of their co-workers. In the 1990s I learned from several experienced opposition chapter leaders (and one opposition UFT District Representative) much about how to campaign and I put together a method I used repeatedly in my own elections. It involved maintaining spreadsheets of all voting members and ranking each member by the level of support they had expressed for my candidacy. I never believed in assuming anything about members’ preferences and relied only on what they said. I developed campaign teams to have conversations within different sections of the school, both to get more people involved and also because members might be willing to make negative comments about me to a colleague that they wouldn’t make directly to me.

The launch party for our current chapter leader election campaign this December brought together current CLs with those thinking about running this spring.

Could we elect 500 chapter leaders?

In the fall of 2020, and Spring of 2021, I worked with another MORE member to develop presentations to a few general meetings on how to run for chapter leader and then we held a series of smaller monthly meetings to work with candidates. Several MORE members with experience as chapter leaders participated in these as well, including Peter Lamphere, Kevin Prosen, Ellen Schweizer, and a long-time chapter leader who was formerly a member of New Action/UFT, another opposition caucus.

To promote the idea of running for chapter leader several of us sent emails and made phone calls to MORE members around the city. The results of that outreach were disappointing, however. In the heat of the excitement in August 2000 one steering committee member suggested we set a goal of winning 500 chapter leader elections in spring 2021 (elections are triennial). (It should be noted that there are 1800 schools. Each is supposed to have a chapter leader. However, in two separate conversations, one with Randi Weingarten in 2005 and one with the head of the Brooklyn UFT office in 2015, I was told that roughly one-third of chapters had no chapter leader at all).

However, by early 2000 it was evident that we would field no more than 50 candidates. There were several reasons we had difficulty convincing people to run.

First, a large number of MORE’s newer members were untenured and afraid to take a stand within their schools. Attending caucus meetings and propagandizing against the union leadership poses few job risks. Principals generally don’t care about internal UFT politics. But chapter leaders represent members against school administrators and have to engage in confrontations with principals. And principals can fire untenured members with almost no cause.

Second, many joined MORE early in the pandemic, when they believed that going to work was endangering their lives, and were outraged that the union wasn’t doing anything about it. The anger didn’t necessarily translate into a commitment to transforming the union from the ground up, however.

Finally, there has been a persistent problem with left-wing teachers since I first joined the union. Many MORE members gravitated to MORE because of a vague sense that it was fighting for social and educational justice, but didn’t consider themselves to be rank and file fighters trying to mobilize co-workers for a different kind of union. To put it simply, they didn’t see the workplace as a site of political struggle or their co-workers as potential allies in the fight for democratic schools or a stronger union . One MORE member, in response to a phone call asking if she would consider running for chapter leader, put it, “that just isn’t me.”

Organizing leads members to better understand how to improve their union

On the other hand, I had never before been in a caucus which had 50 members running in chapter leader elections, and dozens more running for delegate positions. It should be noted, however, that the majority of those candidates were incumbents who were already chapter leaders or delegates when they joined MORE. Most of those ultimately ran un-opposed.

We began monthly training meetings in December 2020 and encouraged candidates to begin having conversations with co-workers they thought might actively support their campaigns. Attendance at these training meetings ranged from 6-15. The meetings did force the small number who participated to think very carefully about who their colleagues were, who had connections with each member, who was best positioned to speak to people in different corners of the school. For some, this forced them out of their comfort zones.

Subsequent meetings were devoted to compiling lists of members and recording their responses when queried about whether or not they would support the MORE member running for chapter leader. We also discussed and shared drafts of campaign leaflets. That had the effect of forcing members to think very concretely about workplace issues and formulate an alternative vision of chapter unionism that would still appear practical to members.

Several of the meetings devoted time to particular problems MORE members were running into such as administrators attempting to tip the scales. In many schools we learned that there was little history of holding elections. Members often didn’t know that chapter leaders were elected, that they had a right to vote. Instead, chapter leaders sometimes just asked those who attended a particular meeting, “anyone else want to do this?” When no hands went up the chapter leaders would report to the UFT that they had been reelected. In this case, we had to make sure our candidates had the official election notices the UFT produced each cycle, and that they could insist that elections had to be run by an election committee, and not by the incumbent chapter leader.

Mixed results

The results were mixed. All but one of our incumbents was reelected. Among those non-incumbents running in contested races, roughly half won. For some of those who lost, the reason was that they were not in school in spring 2021. The city had given members who could demonstrate that they had medical conditions making them more susceptible to COVID-19 the right to work remotely. The standards were quite loose and so many teachers who believed the COVID risks were real—and not merely exaggerations of George Soros and the Democratic Party—were granted accommodations to work from home. The one incumbent we had who lost had such an accommodation and lost to a candidate who was in the building by one vote out of 150. There were several special elections in September 2021 as well. By mid-fall 2021 MORE had 38 chapter leaders and 117 delegates. That was likely more than any other opposition caucus had ever had but it was a far, far cry from some of the wildly optimistic hopes some MORE leaders had the previous summer.
Supporting newly elected chapter leaders
The following fall we held a monthly meeting series for “chapter leaders and chapter activists.” We wanted to make sure that we didn’t just elect people and then provide them with no support. We made clear that the meetings were open to those who were not chapter leaders but were trying to figure out how to organize co-workers. In a couple of those cases, the members ran for chapter leader or delegate in special elections as those positions became vacant during the school year. Again, attendance was fairly sparse. Roughly 6-12 each month. There were a few regulars, newly elected chapter leaders who needed a good deal of help with many of the nuts and bolts: learning the contract, putting together a chapter meeting, maintaining regular communication with members. These are not the stuff of radical rank and file, or social-justice unionism. I always believed, however, that if you were unable to take care of members’ immediate concerns you were unlikely to have an audience for more radical ideas.

Modest success

In conclusion I would say we had some modest successes in the 2021 election. The limits tended to reflect the limits of MORE. The caucus membership grew dramatically during the pandemic. However, the share of caucus members who see themselves as union activists and trying to organize co-workers for a more democratically-run and activist union was still quite small by spring 2022.

Kit Wainer is a retired NYC public school teacher, former UFT chapter leader, and former member of the MORE Caucus Steering Committee. He is now pursuing a PhD degree.



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