What’s So Funny About Peace, Love, and Democracy at the UFT Delegate Assembly?￼
“The Delegate Assembly shall have the power to legislate all matters except those pertaining to the admission, suspension or expulsion of members of this organization.” UFT Constitution – Article VII, Section 6
It is a favorite bon mot of UFT President Michael Mulgrew that the Delegate Assembly is the highest decision-making body in the United Federation of Teachers. Unfortunately, there is very little truth to that phrase. There is also a popular bon mot among followers of politics in general, that whoever controls the agenda, controls the debate. That is true in the Congress of the United States, and it is true in the United Federation of Teachers. Form your own opinion as to which one is more dysfunctional.
On paper, the Delegate Assembly of the UFT is a body of elected union representatives that meets monthly during the school year to consider and debate resolutions on union policy. But in practice, there is little real debate at UFT Delegate Assemblies. Rather, the Assembly is structured to function as a rubber-stamp for policies that are pre-determined by a small group of union officers from the ruling faction of the UFT. That faction, since the inception of the union sixty years ago, is the Unity caucus. Union officers from that faction, along with a few un-elected appointees and a coterie of paid political consultants, are the people who control the agenda, control the debate, and determine the policies and positions of the 180,000 member UFT.
How is this control exerted? Look at the agenda of the Delegate Assembly and you will see that each meeting is divided into five sections: The President’s Report; Report from the Secretary; the question period; the motion period, and the resolution period. Each DA is scheduled to meet for one hour and forty-five minutes. The first two sections are open ended. They may go on for as long as the President and the Secretary care to speak. (And the President cares to speak quite a bit.) The question period is limited to fifteen minutes, and the motion period is limited to ten minutes. The resolution period is not time-limited but its length is necessarily determined by the length of the open-ended periods that precede it.
The President’s Report
Here’s how it works. The President will make his report. Typically, he will go down a list of current issues that he deems relevant to the union on the Federal, State, and local levels. He may also use this time to make personal acknowledgements, invite guest speakers to the podium, and generally blow some wind. This is where the manipulation of time begins to come into play. If there are hot-button issues that the President wants to avoid – as there often are, particularly in a union election year – he will limit the amount of time that an out-of-favor faction can be heard by dragging his report on, and on. And on. He has been known to filibuster for over an hour. This will limit the resolution period at the end of the meeting, so that only items that were placed at the top of the agenda by the President’s faction will get the chance to come up for debate.
Report from the Secretary
The Secretary’s report is usually very brief. It consists of notices of union events, acknowledgements of dedicated service by union members, and moments of silence for the deceased – that sort of thing.
The Question Period
Then comes the question period. It is limited to fifteen minutes, and this is where things can get a little tricky for the Prez. Union delegates have lots of questions. Some are about narrow, school-specific issues, and some are about general policy. Some questions are easy, and some are hard, but each question is, for the most part, of deep concern to the individual delegate that is asking it. The President wants to show that he is respectful of the delegates and desperately wants to get through this 15-minute period without facing any uncomfortable questions that will cause him to become unnerved. He wants to avoid any questions that will force him to justify union positions that are unpopular with the membership. He wants to prevent the opposition from asking something difficult that might embarrass him or give them political purchase in an election year. And so, he will employ an imperfectly choreographed dance in which the speaker’s microphone will only be handed to the askers of safe, softball questions. The Delegate Assembly is like a small town. There are a lot of people there, but everyone knows each other on some level. The President has a good idea of who is who and knows which questioners to skip over to avoid controversy and embarrassment. Members of his own faction – with softball questions in hand – will be sprinkled throughout the hall, so he’ll have friendly faces to call on if a buffer is needed. It’s not a perfect system. He doesn’t know everybody, and he does make the occasional mistake, but he’s usually able to slide through without much damage. He does from time to time feel obligated to call on an opposition-identified delegate to display a minimum show of democratic propriety, but he is an experienced enough politician to be able to answer most questions with a meaningless word salad, and he knows how to pivot before a follow-up is asked. If something does slip through that gives him real discomfort, he may get pissy and chastise the questioner, which doesn’t look pretty, but that’s who he is. Sometimes he will come very close to a meltdown, which is entertaining to some, but which leaves most delegates feeling embarrassed and a little dirty. But time is on the President’s side. Fifteen minutes ain’t that long of a time, and the end of the question period is always right around the corner, offering the President a safe harbor from the gales of debate.
The Motion Period
The motion period is strictly limited to ten minutes. This is the only time when individual delegates may introduce motions to add items to the agenda – items that weren’t pre-approved by the Executive Board in advance of the Assembly. Because the time for motions is so limited it is easily manipulated by the chair. As in the question period, the Chair will use its parliamentary discretion to call on familiar, pre-seeded members of its own faction to introduce safe, time-killing motions. Typically, and by design, these motions will be for the addition to the agenda of uncontroversial, non-policy affecting resolutions. These motions will most often be proclamatory in nature. They will ask for union strong resolve in support of things like saving abandoned puppies, or in acknowledgment of the sporty haircut and jaunty gait of one of the founders of the union. These motions are intentionally designed to face little opposition in debate and to use up a lot of time, as they must be introduced, spoken For and Against, and then placed to a vote. Two of these creampuffs will easily eat up the entire motion period, which will then close without any members of the out-of-favor factions having been able to introduce any motions whatsoever; motions which typically are on the more controversial side of things and may (shockingly!) involve substantive policy issues that the ruling faction would rather not discuss.
You can probably see how this agenda structure, this time manipulation strategy, can be frustrating to those delegates whose voices are not in favor with the ruling faction. To make a political point, or a policy point, or any point at all, opposition delegates may feel compelled to pause the proceedings with a parliamentary inquiry. The Chair is usually not well prepared for these. Adherence to Robert’s Rules of Order is not the strong suit of the ruling faction and is a real annoyance to them, particularly when they are caught being wrong in the implementation of those rules. But it doesn’t really matter because a stock response is always at hand. The Chair will simply rule any inconvenient parliamentary inquiry out of order. And if the inquirer feels slighted and puts up any kind of a fuss, that is to the advantage of the Chair, who will then claim the right to deduct that fussy time from the allotted times for inquiry and debate. (It’s what we in the trade call a lose-lose.)
Running Out the Clock
Here I’m going to digress for a moment to illustrate a point regarding the absurdity of the time manipulation strategy employed at Delegate Assemblies. It happened earlier this school year, last December, that the President’s report grew so long with his filibustering effort to run out the clock and prevent the opposition from speaking, that the adjournment deadline of 6:00pm arrived just as the resolution period started, thus triggering the automatic end of the Assembly, and forcing the delegates to sulk from the union hall without conducting any union business at all! This was especially absurd given the Unity faction’s current election-year campaign slogan that they “do the work.” (Which is true if the work is preventing union voices from being heard, and union work from being done.) The saving grace to the thudding end of the December DA was that the important union work that wasn’t accomplished that night was the passing of resolutions in support of haircuts and puppies (none of whom, fortunately, were hurt in the making of this farce).
There is one other way that delegates have an opportunity to engage in what passes for debate at Delegate Assemblies, and that is by the introduction of amendments. Any delegate may make a motion to amend a resolution that comes to the floor by either striking, adding, or changing some of the language in the resolution. There is very little that the chair can do to prevent an amendment from being moved. Once moved, an amendment must be debated and voted on to determine if it becomes part of the resolution in question. If an amendment comes from a delegate of an opposition caucus, the chair will be annoyed. Debate will be quick. The Chair will call on one speaker For and one speaker Against the amendment. (Or maybe two, three, or four speakers For, or maybe two, three, or four speakers Against, depending on how emphatically the Chair wants the vote to go a particular way.) One of those speakers will invariably be an officer of the union, and whichever side they speak to, For or Against, will serve as a signal to the ruling faction’s members to vote in step with the faction’s desires. This Orwellian process, by the way, is adhered to in all votes that come before the body.
This year has been a little difficult for the Unity caucus. Because of temporary Covid rules adapted early on, most delegates are participating remotely in this year’s hybrid Delegate Assembly. By doing so, their votes take place anonymously, outside of the watchful eye of District Reps and union officers. Therefore, members of the Unity caucus are freer to vote their conscience than they would ordinarily be inside Shanker Hall. If they were to be seen, under the unflattering glare of the union hall’s fluorescent lights, to be voting against the tacit or expressed wishes of their faction, they would be liable to expulsion from their caucus, and thus implicitly ineligible for all the perks, large and small, that come with card-carrying membership in that tightly wrapped club. (These perks include part and full-time union jobs, paid junkets to labor conventions, weekend trainings at semi-posh hotels, and lots and lots of free food.) This new-found, hybrid anonymity has caused an historically great – though still very small in absolute terms – number of motions to succeed against the wishes of the Unity faction. When Unity members have a chance to vote their conscience unobserved by their handlers, they will vote their conscience (and keep their food). That is why the time manipulation exploits at this year’s Delegate Assemblies – which have always been a feature of the monthly meetings – have risen to such absurdly acrobatic and anti-democratic extremes.
The Resolution Period
The final block of time on the DA agenda is the resolution period. The resolution period is for the deliberation of resolutions which have been successfully moved for debate. The resolution docket is pre-populated with items that have been pre-approved by the UFT Executive Board and added to the agenda in an order determined by… no one really knows. Maybe by a sub-set of the Executive Board, maybe by an administrative employee on the 14th floor, or maybe by a random officer of the union in consultation with a Magic 8 Ball™. No one really knows. But since the order of business is determined by the ruling faction, the few resolutions that the out-of-power factions can sneak through are simply placed at the very bottom of the docket where they languish unheard and undebated for month, after month, after month. Nice system, right?
That’s how Delegate Assemblies go, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Why shouldn’t more debate, more points of view, more small “d” democracy be welcomed within the UFT? It can be achieved without election or insurrection. Simply change the structure of the DA agenda and more union democracy will follow.
Time for a Change
First, time-limit the President’s Report, or move it to the last item on the agenda, or both. A half-hour should be more than enough for oral presentation. No one would miss anything. Email the long version of the report to the delegates or hand out printed versions in the union hall. While you’re at it, just email the entire report to every rank-and-file member of the union. Why shouldn’t we all see it? It will be printed in the official minutes anyway. Then you could schedule five minutes for the Secretary’s report, twenty minutes for questions, twenty-five minutes for motions, and twenty-five minutes for resolutions. Even better, simply extend the meeting to 6:15pm and make the Assembly two hours in duration (as it once was) and use the extra fifteen minutes for special presentations or more debate. I don’t think two hours a month would kill anybody, but it would certainly allow for more debate and democracy. Also, there should be a transparent, rational, and open process for adding items to the agenda. It shouldn’t be a mysterious process and tool of single-faction control. Who knows? Maybe a resolution to restructure the DA agenda in just such a way is in the works. Maybe it will come from one of the alternative caucuses, or from an independent delegate, or from the United for Change coalition that is running against the Unity caucus in the upcoming UFT election. Ideally, for the sake of the union, such a resolution would be put forward by Unity. That would be the right thing to do, because if someone else tries to do it, it will never see the light of day. Then it will take an election or an insurrection to bring more democracy to the UFT. I’m not in favor of insurrections, nor is the UFC, but I know how to vote, and when I get my ballot in the mail this April, I will check the slate box for United for Change and know that I did the right thing for both Union and democracy.