The Teachers Union (UFT) Election:  Making a Decision in Perilous Times

Over 100,000 teachers, paraprofessionals and other titles represented by the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) will be receiving mail ballots in the triennial union elections. Union elections are frequently contentious and in the midst of COVID especially so. The UFT is the collective bargaining agent in New York City, in other words they negotiate the contract with the city setting salary, benefits and working conditions as defined in the NYS Public Employee Relation law. The US Department of Labor has a checklist of specific procedures in union elections.

Every school district in New York State negotiates a contract with the local union, there are 700 school districts in the state, and, the New York State United Teachers (NYSUT) is the state affiliate, representing members at the state level, lobbying the governor and the state legislature, endorsing candidates and working with the state education governance structure, the Board of Regents and the State Education Department. The officers of NYSUT are elected by delegates from the local unions.

The American Federation of Teachers (AFT) represents over 1.5 million teachers and nurses in a few thousand locals across the nation; The AFT, led by Randi Weingarten, represents the interests of members on the national stage.

The AFT was founded in 1916 and for many years only a few thousand teachers were members (See brief history here.); with the passage of the GI Bill millions of returning veterans attended college and some entered the ranks of teaching.

In New York City there were scores of teacher organizations, some religiously oriented, the Catholic Teachers Organization, the Orthodox Jewish Teachers Organization, some by discipline, Art Teachers Organization, and others by level, High School Teachers Association; additionally the Teachers Union (TU) and the Teachers Guild vied for members. The TU was accused of being Communist controlled and lost its charter. Read Clarence Taylor, Reds at the Blackboard here.

During the late 40s and early 50s the “Red Scare” impacted teachers; the Feinberg Law required teachers to sign a loyalty oath, failure to sign the oath led to dismissal,

In New York more than 250 teachers were forced out of teaching from 1948 to 1953. 30 of these resulted  from invoking the Fifth Amendment before one of several congressional committees; 31 after testifying; scores more had to quit under pressures direct and indirect.

The law was sustained by the Supreme Court. 

In February, 1959 Evening High School teachers sponsored a “mass resignation” that lasted for month, the city agreed to raise salary.

In 1960 the Teachers Guild and the High School Teachers Association merged and formed the United Federation of Teachers.  Membership in the new organization grew, after a one day strike the city “recognized” the union and another one day strike the first contract.

The membership of the union was extremely diverse, veterans of WW 2 and Korea who supported the burgeoning war in Vietnam, the former TU members vigorously opposed the war, union members traveled into the South in the summer and taught in “freedom schools,” the Delegate meetings, to be polite, were contentious, the union held a membership referendum: should the union take position on Vietnam, and, if so, support or oppose the war (membership voted not to take position). Across the nation cities were ablaze, riots in Watts, Detroit, Newark, scores died, and Mayor Lindsay sought “peace” by planning to turn the school system over to communities. A strike in 1967, a strike in 1968 and the legislation dividing the city into 30 self-governing districts: decentralization. Rather than weakening the union the union restructured and increased its role at the local level.

In 1975 the city unexpectedly laid off 15,000 teachers and precipitated a five-day strike, and, the union agreed to financially bail out the city. At the time unpopular, actually “saving” the city and the union; a bankruptcy judge would have restructured the contract to bail out the city.

The union survived.

Union elections were hotly contested, raucous meetings, for all their differences, and there were many, the union leadership deftly navigated the toxic waters.

Twenty years of Giuliani and Bloomberg running the city and the school system, and, surprisingly the largest raises, 42% came under the Bloomberg 2005 and 2007 contracts.

I spent most of my career and a classroom teacher and a union rep. 

From time to time a member would yell at me, I should confront the superintendent, it was labor’s role to go toe to toe with management. I didn’t only represent the angry members, the loudest members, I represented all the members. I needed a civil relationship with management.  The same day a teacher wants me to confront the superintendent I might have ask him to sign an overdue emergency leave application for a teacher, or, approve an emergency check for a teacher whose check got lost in the system.

The superintendent met with all the principals every month and all the parent association leaders, I asked him to meet with all the school union leaders. He was wary, agreed, and ended up loving the meetings. He was no longer the distant school district leader, we had great “conversations,” we still “agreed to disagree,” I still occasionally filed grievances, most of the time we resolved disputes amicably.

It feels like the last two years were scripted by Dante,  school closings, openings, closings again, confusing contradictory decisions, a mayoral election, an upcoming gubernatorial election, the union had to be nimble to avoid the Ninth Circle.

I’m a retired teacher, we get a fractional vote in union elections, and I’ll vote for the Michael Mulgrew, the incumbent president.  He’s been nimble, skirting between Scylla and Charybdis, the not so mythical sea monsters of politics looking to gobble us up. 

Contract negotiations will begin in a few months, a new mayor, and the Republican candidate for governor, a Trump acolyte, is only trailing by a few points in the polls.

Experience matters, you can’t allow anger to interfere with rational decision-making.

New teachers ask me for advice, is there a secret potion?  My answer is always the same: meditation, exercise, diet, enough sleep and I’ll add, never make a decision when you’re angry.

If you’re a UFT member: vote

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