A major story on the UFT election was in this week's Civil Service newspaper, The Chief. Lots of quotes from Camille leading the United for Change slate. Mulgrew couldn't be bothered with the Chief.
Teacher hopeful of turning the tide at the UFT
Queens teacher Camille Eterno, far right, part of the United For Change slate, is challenging the longtime president of the United Federation of Teachers, Michael Mulgrew, in balloting that begins the second week of April.
For veteran teacher Camille Eterno, safety concerns for her fellow educators during the coronavirus pandemic were what prompted her to run to become the United Federation of Teachers’s next leader.
“We’ve lost over 100 UFT members to the Covid virus,” said Eterno, who is challenging the UFT’s longtime president, Michael Mulgrew, in balloting next month.
A six-decade streak
Eterno is running as part of the United For Change slate, a coalition of six dissident caucuses that formed last fall to pose a greater challenge to the Unity caucus, which has led the UFT since the early 1960s. The upstart slate faces an uphill battle: Mulgrew has served as UFT president since 2009, and easily won re-election to a fourth term in 2019 with 86 percent of the vote.
But during a recent phone interview, Eterno argued that this was the perfect chance to transform the UFT, which she believes is a “top-down” organization, into a member-run union. United For Change aims to reduce class sizes, improve pay and empower rank-and-file members.
“The feedback we’ve gotten has been very positive. People are hungry for a change,” said Eterno, who started teaching in city public schools in 1996 and has served as a chapter leader and delegate for 18 years.
Mulgrew was said to be unavailable for comment, but Karen Alford, who has served as the UFT’s vice president for elementary schools since 2008 and is also running for re-election, said the union’s goal is to “make sure that our folks are treated as a union of professionals—that there is a fair wage so that when we walk into the classroom we can do the best job possible.”
'We Do The Work'
Unity’s campaign slogan centered on “doing the work.” Alford pointed to a number of achievements by the UFT, including an arbitration ruling earlier this year that provided members who were forced to work during the canceled spring break in 2020 with vacation days as compensation.
She also highlighted safety standards negotiated between the city and the union to protect students and staff from Covid, including testing, contact tracing and protective equipment in every school building.
“We are a model for this country for what health and safety looks like for educators. Schools that had broken ventilation for 20 years now have working ventilation,” Alford said.
But those achievements are not enough, Eterno argued.
“I don’t think Mulgrew fought hard enough for health care for retirees, for raises that keep up with inflation, or to reduce class sizes. He’s too busy making concessions,” she said.
Against retiree health-care changes
She believed the end of the seniority transfer list in the union’s 2005 contract was one such concession, which then led to the creation of the controversial Absent Teacher Reserve. United For Change also sought to reverse the city’s plan to move municipal retirees’ health coverage to a Medicare Advantage plan.
In early March, a Manhattan Supreme Court judge ruled that the city must provide retirees with the option of keeping their current health insurance free of charge. Some retirees have expressed concerns that Medicare Advantage offered lesser benefits than traditional Medicare, or that it would be more costly.
UFT leadership supported the new program, but believed that it suffered from serious implementation problems. “We are still working to make sure that this is a plan that works for our members,” Alford said. “We want to make sure it is a plan that is cost-effective and takes care of their health needs. We don’t want a plan that feels like it’s being done to you.”
The slates also differ on the issue of mayoral control of schools.
Eterno argued that mayoral control was responsible for many school closures, which then led to ballooning class sizes. Under former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, nearly 200 low-performing schools were closed between 2002 and 2013.
'Mayoral Control A Disservice'
“Mayoral control has done a disservice to public school children. I don’t think Mulgrew will fight hard enough against mayoral control, he wants tweaks,” she said.
But Alford argued that instead of reverting oversight of schools back to local school boards, there could be other ways to improve mayoral control, such as giving more power to parents through the Panel for Educational Policy.
“As opposed to throwing the baby out with the bathwater, is there a way to put in some checks and balances?” she asked.
One issue they agree on, though, was encouraging more members to participate in the election.
“Only 23 percent responded to mail-in ballots in 2019—so the vast majority of the UFT members are not participating,” Eterno explained. Although the UFC candidate called for electronic ballots in order to encourage members to vote, Alford said “a multi-partisan election committee” decided to retain mail ballots.
“We want everyone to fill out their ballots so they can be counted,” she said.
Ballots will be mailed April 8
Alford has been challenged by UFC’s Tameka Solomon, while Annie Tan is seeking to defeat incumbent LeRoy Barr for secretary. UFC's Luli Rodriguez and treasurer Debra Penny are among the other candidates facing off.
Ballots will be sent out April 8, and will be counted on May 10 by the American Arbitration Association.
Eterno said that if she wins, she wants to empower members so they know what their rights are, especially those facing harassment and retaliation.
“To people who aren’t sure which way to vote, I would say, ‘Look around you,’” she said. “I would ask them ‘Are you better off now than you were two or three years ago?’”