The Loyal Opposition in New York's Teachers Union Collapses After Making Deal with Unity Caucus

Recent elections in New York’s United Federation of Teachers -- the nation’s largest teachers union local -- marked a sea change in the union’s internal politics.

In the short term, no serious challenge is posed to the Unity caucus, an efficient monolith which has dominated the UFT for decades and rewards members with jobs outside the classroom. But in the long term, these elections may signal a revitalization of opposition to Unity within the UFT.


The election results marked the fall of New Action, which had been the only major opposition group for twenty years, winning between 31 percent and 24 percent of the entire local vote (in 1991 and 2001, respectively). (Retirees can vote in UFT elections, and they vote overwhelmingly for Unity, which contributes to Unity’s consistent landslide victories.)

Despite Unity’s dominance, New Action almost always won the six executive board seats elected by high school teachers only. (There are almost 80 executive board members.)

In last month’s elections, New Action lost its six executive board seats and came in third among active members, behind the reform group Teachers for a Just Contract. Most of its long-time supporters voted for either TJC or ICE-PAC (a coalition of two groups, Independent Community of Educators and Progressive Action Caucus), or did not vote.

Unity garnered an unprecedented nearly 90 percent of the vote, and about 8 percent fewer members voted. It is likely these are both consequences of members’ perception that New Action was no longer a legitimate opposition.


Why did New Action collapse? In late 2003, New Action announced it would not run a presidential candidate, stating “this is not the time for a divisive election campaign.” In return, Unity agreed not to run for the six high school executive board seats.

These cozy relations between the two groups were a recent development, and the cause of many members’ disillusionment with New Action. Under former UFT President Albert Shanker and his successor, Sandra Feldman, oppositionists were treated like pariahs. However, when Randi Weingarten became president in 1997, she began to reach out to New Action leaders.



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The two groups started to converge when, in their first leaflet after the spring 2001 elections, New Action congratulated President Weingarten on her reelection. Weingarten responded by placing more New Action leaders on committees and adopting more New Action ideas. New Action literature and speakers increasingly supported Unity policies.


When the Unity-New Action deal was announced last year, TJC decided to run a presidential candidate to stop Weingarten from being reelected unopposed. They chose Nick Licari, a chapter leader for 15 years, as their candidate.

Meanwhile, several New Action leaders quit the group in protest over the “deal” with Unity. Together with other activists they formed Independent Community of Educators and allied with Progressive Action Caucus. ICE-PAC ran Marilyn Beckford, a chapter leader, who they described as “a strong union advocate with a parental perspective.”

Each of the two newer slates highlights ideas New Action downplayed or ignored. ICE-PAC emphasizes the connection between union reform and educational reform. TJC focuses on the need for a militant rank-and-file strategy to advance members’ interests.

Both groups have a deeper concept of union democracy than New Action did and both groups bring a much-needed infusion of new activists into the reform movement.

The two opposition slates ran joint candidates for academic high school vice president and the six high school executive board seats.

James Eterno was a New Action executive board member who broke with the group over the Unity deal and helped form ICE. He has now been reelected as a joint candidate of the new slates. He says that ICE plans to be an active force within the UFT at the delegate assembly, the executive board, and the school level. “In addition,” Eterno says, “ICE, as I see it, would like to be a think tank on educational as well as union issues.”

Licari, TJC’s presidential candidate, emphasizes the continuity between TJC’s election campaign and its ongoing work. “We ran to get our message out. Now we plan to use the additional contacts we made during our campaign to spread the word to even more members that we need a democratic, militant union to win a just contract.”

Marian Swerdlow is a UFT delegate from Franklin D. Roosevelt High School in Brooklyn and a member of Teachers for a Just Contract.