BTU Leadership Continues to Suppress the Vote of its Membership

The existing Baltimore Teachers Union leadership doesn’t want member participation in this year’s Executive Board elections. Fearing the most coordinated electoral challenge that she and her Executive Board have faced, President Marietta English and her small group of supporters are engaging in a deliberate strategy to keep turnout low in May 15th’s election. Employing tactics they’ve used for over two decades, they are doing everything they can to silence the voice of the membership by leveraging procedural hurdles in their favor.

By limiting voting hours, removing a southeast voting location, and denying the vast majority of absentee ballots, the BTU Election Committee is engaging in practices it has deployed whenever it has felt threatened by democratic participation. The Election Committee is appointed by President English and solely consists of longtime allies. Given that there are no clear guidelines on its operations, transparency, or make-up, the Election Committee is not “our Election Committee” or the “BTU’s Election Committee;” it is most accurately referred to as “English’s Election Committee.” Further cementing the notion that the Election Committee belongs to English alone, it’s nowhere to be found on the BTU’s own list of its committees.

In last year’s AFT Delegate election, polling was open until 7pm. This year the vote closes at 5:30 and is being held on a day when many teachers will be unable to leave their buildings during planning periods due to standardized testing. Historically, southeast voting locations have existed at Dunbar, Harford Heights, or Commodore John Rodgers. This year, the closest location is Dallas F. Nicholas, located in the center of the city just above the North Ave central offices. When asked about the lack of a southeast location, Connie Goodly, the executive assistant to Marietta English who also serves as an elections administrator, said the Arundel Elementary/Middle voting site is the southeast location. Clearly located on the west half of the city, it takes over 30 minutes to get to Arundel from Southeast Baltimore on a good day.

In past elections, BTU members could request absentee ballots if they knew they would be unable to make it to a voting site on election day. Members could cite one of the three reasons granted in our constitution — conflict due to illness, vacation, or a tour of duty — or they could give another reason, such as having a school field trip that may interfere with the election schedule. Our constitution also includes a provision that allows for the BTU Executive Board to provide absentee ballots for any reason it wishes. In all of these cases, requests were taken in good faith and did not require further documentation.

Indeed, this feature was championed by current BTU President English multiple times during the fall of 2018. When, led by BMORE, over 800 BTU members petitioned to amend our constitution to guarantee universal mail-in voting, President English said the executive board has never rejected, and would never reject in the future, a request for an absentee ballot. “There is no need for change,” she said repeatedly. Fearing being voted out of office, English and her team have now reversed course by rejecting dozens of absentee ballot requests for the upcoming election. English has washed her hands of the rejections, stating that she’s a candidate and not able to make election rules as such. However, given the authorizing role the BTU constitution affords the Executive Board that English leads and the fact that she appoints the Election Committee, the blame clearly falls with her.

One of the starkest differences between the BMORE/CEDE coalition and the English slate is our view of who the union belongs to. BMORE/CEDE believes it belongs to the membership. The English team thinks it belongs to the small percentage of Baltimore’s educators that are faithful to President English. BMORE/CEDE is alarmed that BTU election turnout has not surpassed 20% for at least the last 25 years, reaching that mark in 2000. Meanwhile, English has expressed no concern regarding the need for greater participation from the membership.

These aren’t blunders or mistakes by English’s team. Anti-democratic beliefs about our union have been deeply held by her leadership for over 20 years. Since 1998, in every election in which she had a challenger, there have been complaints about unfair election processes that limit participation. Candidates have complained and filed lawsuits over limited voting hours, inequitable voting locations, rigged nomination procedures, and misleading ballots. Through vote suppression tactics, English has repeatedly managed to hold on to power while further losing touch with the membership.

English’s anti-democratic practices extend beyond her personal rule and to the core of the “Progressive Caucus” she represents. For 40 years the Progressive Caucus has dominated the BTU Executive Board, never failing to hold onto a majority of seats and never failing to control the management of BTU elections, even in the four years it did not hold the office of the presidency. A more detailed history of the Progressive Caucus rule will follow in a separate post.

On a personal note, I know and like several members of the English’s Election Committee. They are fine people that I have pleasantly engaged with over many years as a building representative, an elections observer, and as an observer for the petition signature verification process that accompanied BMORE’s push to amend our constitution to guarantee universal access to mail-in voting. While these activities have not been without incident and severe disagreement, I do not believe the members of the Election Committee consider their own motivations to be nefarious or biased. The underlying problem is their philosophy toward union democracy and member participation. They embrace the status quo while the BMORE/CEDE coalition is fighting for institutional change. Where they see no need for more than 20% of the membership to participate in union elections, we see a crisis of participation that limits our power when taking on North Ave, City Hall, and the Maryland General Assembly.

BMORE/CEDE doesn’t want participation in our union to depend on whether or not your friends are in office. We don’t simply want to replace the people in power with a new executive board. BMORE/CEDE wants to ensure that lasting change persists beyond our time in office. As an executive board, we will vote to amend our constitution to enshrine participatory guarantees, such as the right to a mail-in ballot, detailed rules on the operations and make-up of the BTU Election Committee, and longer timelines for the nomination process.

Now is the time for change. Vote BMORE/CEDE on Wednesday, May 15th.

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Zach Taylor is running for Middle School Vice President as part of the BMORE/CEDE coalition.

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