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A democracy where majority rules is fine, but that’s not how the UTLA’s endorsement of Bernie Sanders went down

Rafael Jimeno | December 9, 2019

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Photo by Scott Heins/Getty Images

When it comes to democracy, there’s theory and then there’s reality. UTLA endorsed Bernie Sanders with great fanfare, soaring rhetoric, and widespread media attention last month, but they skimped on one key ingredient: a completely democratic process.

It is crucial for UTLA to engage its membership fully when forming their policy priorities and positions. Yet, for some of the biggest issues, this does not always happen.

As a political scientist and a pragmatist, I can understand UTLA’s endorsement of Bernie Sanders. At the Sept. 18 meeting of the UTLA House of Representatives, our leadership brought forward a motion to empower chapter chairs to poll the members at their schools on whether or not the union should endorse Sanders.

Several objections immediately emerged from my fellow representatives for a mix of reasons. There were a few conservative voices questioning why their union would endorse a candidate who did not align with their own world view. More numerous and significant were the objections raised to endorsing Sanders instead of, say, Elizabeth Warren or Kamala Harris, who was still in the race at that point. Still others argued that it would not be prudent to endorse before the primary contest even started.

These concerns were dismissed, as it was explained that the motion was not to endorse, but merely to gather information. I remember being humored by this, as I, and others, understood it to be an attempt to cloak a desired outcome in the process typically associated with democratic governance. The goal was clear: Senator Sanders had supported our strike, and now our UTLA leaders were looking to return the favor. I do not intend to diminish Sanders’s bona fides in any way. He is certainly a staunch supporter of labor rights and always has been.

UTLA held a special session for the vote on Nov. 14 where we were informed that more than 70 percent of teachers polled agreed that we should endorse Bernie Sanders. Surprised by such a strong majority in a primary season with so many candidates and undecided voters, a few of us checked in with each other to verify that we were not alone in not having been a part of this survey process at our school sites.

By the union’s own count, only 539 members were polled by chapter chairs. Rather than get to the bottom of this issue, members were granted only the typical brief debate. A motion to extend debate did not pass because the writing was on the wall — lined up at the mics were some 25 teachers in favor, and only three against.

The motion to endorse Sanders passed 90 to 23. Almost immediately afterward, we all received the press release via email: “UTLA Overwhelmingly Endorses Sen. Bernie Sanders for US President”.

I don’t have a problem with a representative democracy in which the majority rules. That’s how it should work. But the reality is that less than 2 percent of UTLA’s 34,000 members had their voices heard in this endorsement.

That democracy is a process, not an outcome, is an important lesson in these contentious times. As citizens in a democracy, it’s incumbent upon us to participate, raise our voices and vote. But we also need to have a chance to do so.

That wasn’t the case for everyone here.

Rafael Jimeno is a seventh-grade World History and French teacher at Southeast Middle School’s DREAMS Magnet. He completed his teaching credential at California State University, Long Beach, and his PhD in Political Science at Arizona State University. He is committed to all students having access to a quality public education and to his union helping to elevate the teaching profession.

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