America’s Largest Local Teachers Union Faces In-Fighting Over 2020 Endorsement

Some members of the New York City United Federation of Teachers say the union’s endorsement process is undemocratic. Its leaders disagree.

A group of New York City educators is pushing back against their union’s 2020 endorsement process, calling it undemocratic while looking for alternative ways to make their candidate preference known. Union leaders, on the other hand, contend that these teachers are the ones trying to undermine a democratic process. 

The United Federation of Teachers (UFT) in New York is the largest local teachers union in the country with nearly 200,000 members, making it one of the most influential labor endorsements a candidate can get. 

The UFT has not yet taken steps to make an endorsement in the 2020 presidential race, with its leaders saying they fear their backing could tip the scales for other local teacher unions. In previous scenarios for local elections, an endorsement has gone through several committees and leadership groups before getting approved by a body of elected delegates. 

In December, a group of educators sought to change this, introducing a resolution at the union’s delegate assembly to discuss giving all members a vote on whom to endorse. 

UFT leadership disparaged the idea and the move to adopt it, which was endorsed by 15 schools and 160 members, was swiftly voted down by hundreds of delegates. 

“UFT leadership relies on an antiquated strategy …  It’s anachronistic, the status quo is not even an option right now,” said Ryan Bruckenthal, a special education teacher and UFT delegate, who raised the endorsement resolution. “If we can grow strong enough we can, in fact, show the union leadership the membership cares enough about this. We could take steps toward an endorsement.”

UFT President Michael Mulgrew disputed the notion that the union’s process is anything but fair.

“The democratic process is the delegate assembly. And when the assembly votes something down, that is the most democratic process we have,” Mulgrew said.

The group of educators pushing for the endorsement change ― many of whom are vocal supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I.Vt.) in the battle for the Democratic presidential nomination ― are looking to organize their colleagues in other ways. Several say they believe that Sanders would have won the union’s endorsement if it was based on a popular vote. They also point to Mulgrew’s expressed backing for former Vice President Joe Biden in the Democratic race, saying they fear his personal support looks like a tacit endorsement from the union. 

The group of UFT teachers who support Sanders has a WhatsApp group of “Educators for Bernie” with over 100 members. They also have started a petition calling for the UFT to endorse Sanders and are lobbying their colleagues to support him. 

“Our strategy is if we can build our network of people through one-on-one conversations and hosting canvassing, we’re going to do the work we would hope our union would do,” Bruckenthal said.

Mulgrew noted that a number of people within the UFT are slated to be delegates to the summer’s Democratic National Convention ― not just him ― as part of a union strategy to make sure that the labor group is represented no matter who becomes the party’s candidate.

“I’ve been completely clear with everyone from the beginning on all of this. They’re upset because the most democratic body we have didn’t agree with them,” Mulgrew said. 

The American Federation of Teachers ― the national union to which UFT belongs ― has allowed local chapters to endorse in the presidential race for the first time in 2020 in an effort to boost transparency and membership engagement. In the 2016 election, the AFT faced backlash after it swiftly endorsed Hillary Clinton as she battled Sanders for the Democratic nomination ― a decision some said jumped the gun.  

AFT locals like United Teachers Los Angeles have endorsed Sanders, while the American Federation of Teachers in Massachusetts the contender from its state ― Sen. Elizabeth Warren.

Mulgrew previously told HuffPost that the UFT is waiting to endorse until a clearer frontrunner emerges among the Democrats. He also said concerns have been expressed that due to the UFT’s size, people might confuse it with a national AFT endorsement. 

“Other leaders from other states said that if New York City endorsed, that would not help them engage the members in their states,” Mulgrew said.

Earlier this month, the AFT passed a resolution urging members to support either Sanders, Biden or Warren.

As of late January, Sanders had received more labor endorsements than any other candidate, per Politico. Sanders also has raised more money from educators than any other candidate so far.