Teaching Profession

AFT Leader Won’t Seek Re-Election

By Linda Jacobson — June 09, 2004 5 min read
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With the second in command stepping up to run for president of the American Federation of Teachers this summer, observers say they don’t expect to see significant changes in direction for the 1.3 million-member union.

Edward J. McElroy, the union’s secretary-treasurer and a former high school social studies and English teacher, will run in place of Sandra Feldman, who announced at a meeting of AFT leaders late last month that she would not seek re-election to the office she has held for seven years.

“The kinds of things we’ve done here, we’ve done as a team,” Mr. McElroy said last week about his partnership with Ms. Feldman and Executive Vice President Nat LaCour. “Hopefully, this will be seamless in terms of concepts and ideas.”

A recurrence of breast cancer and her ongoing treatment for the disease have prevented Ms. Feldman, 64, from sticking to the schedule of a busy union leader.

“You all know how much the AFT, our members, and all those we serve— especially the children—mean to me,” she later wrote in an e-mail to the union’s staff. She added that her weekly treatments make “doing the job with the justice it deserves—or at least up to my standards—impossible. The required travel alone, needing to visit locals and state federations, would be a serious impediment.”

Figuring Things Out

The question, however, is whether Mr. McElroy’s leadership, if he wins, will be temporary.

“He is not someone who is particularly inclined to take on new educational issues,” said Julia Koppich, a San Francisco-based author and teachers’ union expert.

If the AFT wants to maintain its current direction, Ms. Koppich said, the election this summer could be seen as a “way to keep things going for the next few years while they figure things out.”

While it’s unclear whether any additional candidates will emerge, “you never know,” said Alex Wohl, a union spokesman. “There certainly could be other candidates out there,” he said.

Ms. Feldman and Mr. McElroy, 63, may have different styles, Mr. Wohl added, but “we’re not talking about radical policy changes.”

Even though Mr. McElroy stressed that for now Ms. Feldman remains the president, he is the one who has been the voice of the union in recent months, issuing statements about everything from welfare-reform legislation to possible domestic spending cuts by the Bush administration.

Adam Urbanski, the president of the Rochester Teachers Association in New York, an AFT affiliate, said that he expects Mr. McElroy to go unchallenged at the union convention in July, and that he wouldn’t be surprised if he ran for more than one term.

But Mr. Urbanski said he believes there is also strong interest in developing younger leaders within the organization, including Randi Weingarten, the president of the United Federation of Teachers in New York City. Ms. Weingarten, 46, worked alongside Ms. Feldman at the UFT before the latter became president of the national organization.

“I know that she could provide good leadership,” Mr. Urbanski said.

Another name emerging as a possible future president is Tom Mooney, the president of the Ohio Federation of Teachers. A former president of the Cincinnati affiliate, Mr. Mooney, 49, is known as someone who focuses on educational improvement.

A colleague of Ms. Feldman’s for 30 years, Mr. McElroy was elected to his current post in 1991, and worked with AFT President Albert Shanker before the longtime union leader’s death in 1997. Before that, Mr. McElroy was the president of the Rhode Island Federation of Teachers for 20 years.

Mr. McElroy was rumored to be a likely successor to Mr. Shanker. But he has a reputation as more of a day-to-day manager than a visionary educator.

“He places a great premium on trade-union issues—not that Sandy doesn’t, but Sandy is very much involved in educational reform issues,” Mr. Urbanski said.

Ms. Feldman, who served as the president of the 130,000- member UFT for 11 years, was elected president in 1997. She served out Mr. Shanker’s term until 1998, and was then re-elected to three more two-year terms.

Early-Childhood Advocate

Born in New York City, Ms. Feldman was a teacher at Public School 34 in Manhattan before taking on leadership responsibilities within the union. Recognized as an expert on urban schools, Ms. Feldman has also used her position as the president of the AFT to promote early-childhood education.

In 2002, she proposed a concept called Kindergarten-Plus, in which children from low-income families would start kindergarten during the summer before they would normally begin, in order to gain additional skills.

Shortly after Ms. Feldman’s election, she led the union toward a merger with the National Education Association. Delegates to the NEA’s 1998 Representative Assembly, however, rejected the plan.

Under her leadership, AFT affiliates have also grown less accepting of charter schools, saying that they drain money from regular public schools.

Ms. Feldman’s retirement does not mean she will cease to be involved in the organization, Mr. Wohl said, adding that she could possibly be given the title of president emeritus. She is focused on the U.S. presidential race, he said, and will continue to speak out on such issues as funding for the No Child Left Behind Act.

“This must be a very hard thing for her to do,” Ms. Koppich said about Ms. Feldman’s decision not to run again. “You’ve got to give her credit.”

Lack of Initiative?

But others are of the opinion that the organization hasn’t been the same since Mr. Shanker’s death, and that whoever leads the union in the future doesn’t matter a great deal.

“He gave the distinct impression that the AFT was concerned about the quality of learning,” said Martin Haberman, a professor of curriculum and instruction at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. “Since he has been gone, the message has not been that the AFT stands for high-quality learning.”

While he said he has nothing against Ms. Feldman personally, he said that teachers’ unions are primarily bureaucracies, and that “the stuff they’ve initiated hasn’t meant much.”

More meaningful solutions to problems in education, he added, tend to come from local affiliates with strong leaders.

Still, Ms. Feldman is well-respected in the profession.

Reg Weaver, the president of the 2.7 million-member NEA, refused to speculate on how the AFT might proceed in the “post-Feldman” years. But, said the president of the larger union, “I think we will be missing a wonderful leader, and hopefully, she will be well in the future.”

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A version of this article appeared in the June 09, 2004 edition of Education Week as AFT Leader Won’t Seek Re-Election


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