A listening post monitoring public education and teachers’ unions.

Karen Lewis for AFT President? Numbers Don’t Add Up

Written By: Mike Antonucci   – Sep• 20•12

With a raised national profile in the last two weeks, Karen Lewis is suddenly being mentioned in various places as a possible challenger for the presidency of the American Federation of Teachers. The Chicago Sun-Times asked her directly:

On a national scale, she’s garnered enough interest to run for American Federation of Teachers president. Lewis insisted she’s not interested. The only job she wants to run for is CTU president, and she will be doing so next spring.

“I don’t have any more ambitions. This is it. I didn’t even want this job,’’ Lewis said. “I don’t want any other job, that’s for sure.’’

That’s just as well. Although there are quite a few AFT members who would prefer Lewis or someone like her as president, the internal structure of the union makes it a virtual impossibility. The power base for each AFT president has been the Unity Caucus of New York City’s United Federation of Teachers. UFT claims to represent 200,000 members. By virtue of its size, UFT is also the major power in the New York State United Teachers, which boasts over 400,000 members. The Chicago Teachers Union has roughly 26,000 members.

For anyone to break the UFT monopoly on AFT presidents would require the unified backing of almost every local outside of New York, plus a significant faction within the state. To overcome those odds, plus the power of incumbency, just isn’t going to happen – even if aided by some sort of scandal at the top.


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  1. Mike Antonucci says:

    That’s true, but they reported 400,000 total members to NEA, so that’s what I went with.

  2. norm scott says:

    You pretty much nailed it Mike though I think some of the different NYSUT numbers may be due to NEA and retirees — at least that was what I heard in Detroit. 600,000 may be closer.
    Karen is currently a member of Randi’s Progressive Caucus, which allows her to be an AFT veep and on the exec board. Not that that is all that important to her but there is no alternative caucus in the AFT that could present a challenge yet. Maybe in 2014.
    The AFT is not a democracy but a theocracy where the top spot is passed down to the UFT president since 1974 – other than the McElroy holding action till Randi was ready. Unity Caucus sends 800 delegates to the AFT convention while Chicago sends 150 at most. LA is not a factory because it is more NEA. The only way to change the numbers is if a group in NYC challenges the Unity hold — and we’re trying but it will be along haul.