Did the UFT leadership go too far with Sharpton?

Al Sharpton’s rally on Staten Island this weekend to protest Eric Garner’s death due to a police choke-hold came and went peacefully. But the rally laid bare significant divisions between members of the United Federation of Teachers and the union’s leadership as well as tensions between the police officers union and other public employee unions. Thousands of New York City school teachers contribute small sums ($5 top $25 dollars) to the UFT’s Committee on Political Education fund, which raises about $10 million a year for lobbying and protests. Now that the union’s president, Michael Mulgrew, has underwritten what many of his members took to be an anti-police protest, hundreds are asking for their money back. The Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association is also furious that the rally in a sense pitted worker against worker.

Whatever rank and file union members might think, the reality is that UFT and other unions like 1199SEIU have a long history of participating in the broader coalition of liberal urban interest groups. The price public employee unions pay to participate in the larger liberal coalition is to occasionally offend a slice of their membership by using their dues money and special assessment dollars for causes that that slice of workers doesn’t support.

There are a number of reasons why this choice makes sense for the union leadership. Most groups that participate in urban politics are the unions’ allies not their adversaries. This is especially the case when it comes to civil rights groups and groups that seek to represent the interests of blacks and Latinos. Their interests often converge because in big cities today minorities form an large slice of public employees. For instance, in New York City roughly a third of African-Americans belong to unions (public and private), while only about a quarter of whites do. Furthermore, the UFT and SEIU often donate substantial sums to groups such as the NAACP and members of their leadership serve on such group’s boards and there is something of a revolving door of staffers. Ultimately, by teaming up with the NAACP, the ACLU, trial lawyers, and other groups, government unions accumulate chits they can later call in. And the leaders themselves also believe deeply in the cause of urban liberalism.

Therefore, even if some members are offended some of the time, and a tiny few almost all of the time, by a union’s political activity, there is little they can do about it and there are strong incentives for the union leadership to forge ahead. So don’t be surprised to find Al Sharpton and the city’s public employee unions working together in the future.



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