August 8 2012
Low Participation Rate in Teachers Union Leadership Elections
Vicki E. Alger
Sydney Morris and Evan Stone, co-founders and co-CEOs of Educators for Excellence (E4E) have an interesting and important perspective on the recent Education Sector survey, “Trending Toward Reform: Teachers Speak on Unions and the Future of the Profession.” (See also here.) As they recently wrote in Education Week:
Unfortunately, union politics haven't entirely caught up with current classroom teachers' desires. While individual union leaders have demonstrated a willingness to embrace change in a few places - New Haven, CT, and Hillsborough County, FL, to name a few - teachers unions in general have yet to embrace the role they could and should be filling as the leaders of the charge to elevate the teaching profession and improve outcomes for students.
Then again, if classroom teachers are dissatisfied with the union's advocacy, we only have ourselves to blame. Most of us don't actively participate in the union. In many local union chapters around the country, less than 20% of current classroom teachers even vote in union leadership elections. And in NYC, the results of the latest United Federation of Teachers (UFT) leadership election - the largest AFT local - tell an important story.
In the 2010 election of UFT President Michael Mulgrew, 63% of the vote came from union members who are retired or are in non-teaching positions. Only 37% of the vote came from active classroom teachers. Nearly half of all retired members cast ballots, yet less than a quarter of active teachers participated. That has to change if we want the union's focus to change.
The question is, do teachers not participate because they feel disenfranchised or are they disenfranchised because they don't participate? We'd argue the former -- the unions currently do little to encourage participation among active teachers and in fact, the UFT recently increased the influence of retirees in union elections.
Even so, the old adage, "If you don't vote, you don't matter," still applies.
Across the nation, teachers cannot sit on the sidelines and expect things to get better. It is up to current classroom teachers to take back the reins of their union, to get involved, to share their voices, and to build the kind of union they want representing them.
Sensible right-to-work laws could also help teachers join—and participate in—unions because they want to, rather than having dues just taken from their paychecks.