By Kit Wainer
Chapter Leader, Leon M. Goldstein H.S.
In the 25 years I’ve been a UFT activist I’ve lived through many. I’ve learned some lessons from these struggles that I thought might be useful to share as we head into another contract period. From 1993-2012 I was a member of Teachers for a Just Contract. From 2012 to the present I have been a member of MORE.
1. Every contract announcement focuses members’ attention on the contract and on the UFT. However, not every contract, yields significant opportunities for mobilizing or even educating. Historically, some UFT contracts have consisted of minor cost-of-living wage increases and few changes in working conditions. The 1990 contract, for example, got us a 5% raise over one year and little else changed. In 2007 a two-year deal merely extended the terms of the 2005 contract until 2009, got us minor wage increases and raised top salary for teachers to 100K. Sometimes, although a contract passes overwhelmingly it contains some unpopular provisions which open organizing potential even if only among a minority of members. The 1993 contract, for example, was easily ratified but its 18-month wage freeze made it unpopular among many members and encouraged a handful of them to become active and form Teachers for a Just Contract. TJC lasted until 2012. It started as a group 7-8 people, a couple of whom were chapter leaders. We remained that size throughout the 1990s and published a newsletter a few times per year called “Class Action.” Unlike New Action, TJC emphasized the need for membership mobilization and specifically argued that “a union that has abandoned the strike weapon is at the mercy of the employer.”
The 2002 contract extended the work day for the first time in decades. Although it was also approved fairly easily, I believe the anger over the longer work day spilled over into the the 2005 contract fight. Neither the 1993 nor 2002 contracts led to vast political openings within the UFT. However, different opposition groups were able to make a number of contacts during the time the contract was debated. TJC, at least, was able to call on many new contacts afterward to help with literature distribution and to run on our slate in the UFT elections of 2004. The Independent Community of Educators formed in fall 2003, partially in response to New Action’s turn toward an alliance with Unity. TJC and ICE ran a joint slate for the high school Executive Board seats in 2004 and won. Apart from the high school seats, however, the two groups ran separate slates that year.
2. 1995. This was the only time in the UFT’s history that the membership voted down a contract which the leadership had negotiated. Never having faced a serious contract fight before the Sandra Feldman/Unity leadership took this one cavalierly. The pact was negotiated with the Giuliani administration only two weeks after the previous contract had expired. It was a 5-year deal with an 11% raise spread out over the final three years — no raises the first two years. It included a “retention incentive” — a withholding of 5% of all new teachers’ salaries to be returned only to those who lasted five years in the system. It added a 25-year longevity increment which would have meant increasing the
number of years required to earn top salary from 20 years to 25. It created C6 assignments. This was before the days of the blogosphere, so it was difficult to gauge membership sentiment at first. When Feldman brought the pact to the Delegate Assembly the meeting was raucous and — unusually — closed to non-delegates. Feldman warned that if we didn’t accept this deal Giuliani would start layoffs, first with paraprofessionals then with new teachers. Clara Barton High School Chapter Leader and future Vice President Leo Casey declared it was an elementary principal of union solidarity to stand by the weakest members — ie., accept concessions in order to prevent layoffs. Manhattan HS District Representative and Humanities HS Delegate Bruce Markens was one of the main speakers against, highlighting everything that was wrong with the deal. True to form, the Delegate Assembly ratified the deal.
Until that time I had never before held any union position nor had I ever had a real opportunity to organize co-workers around a union-related issue. On the Wednesday morning of the DA I wrote a letter to the chapter highlighting all the givebacks in the proposed contract and urged my colleagues to tell our chapter leader and delegate — both of whom were members of Feldman’s Unity Caucus — to vote “no.” An English teacher, acting on his own, started a petition to the chapter leader and delegate asking them to vote “no” at the DA. 80% of the chapter signed his petition. Nonetheless, the chapter leader and delegate voted “yes.” The next morning’s chapter meeting featured outraged members demanding to know how the chapter leader and delegate could simply ignore the unambiguous will of the members. This incident permanently damaged their credibility and was the main reason I was elected chapter leader the following spring. The English teacher who launched the petition was elected delegate.
Furthermore, because I had written the letter against the proposed contract members began coming to me to ask how they could help stop the deal from going through. Many of them started taking TJC’s “Vote No” leaflets to other schools. Suddenly our distribution mushroomed and leaflets were easy to give away, especially in the high schools. I remember going to a PD with people from various high schools and nearly everyone wanted a stack. Members were angry.
When the membership votes were tallied at the end of 1995 the contract was rejected by a margin of 54%-46%. At the time I thought a new day in union politics was opening. I figured the leadership had just been humiliated and the membership had just voted “no confidence” in Unity. But that isn’t how most members saw it. Even at my school, most members judged that the leadership had been taught a lesson and would now go negotiate something better. And Unity rebounded intelligently. Rather than criticize the members Feldman blamed the Giuliani administration for giving itself raises while asking teachers to take a wage freeze. Over the coming months TJC grew slightly and I gained some credibility as a leader among my colleagues but 1995-1996 did not become a year of substantial new activism. The leadership basically waited us out. In June 1996 Feldman and Giuliani negotiated a slightly less obnoxious version of the deal members had just rejected. The “retention incentive” was gone and the 25-year longevity became a 22-year longevity. But the double zeros and C6 were still there. Most importantly, the 1996 version of the pact included a retirement incentive which made it
possible for most members age 52 or older to retire. Thus a significant number of senior members were enticed to ratify a contract under which they would never have to work. This time members approved the pact by a margin of 3-1. TJC’s assessment was that by its inactivity in the early months of 1996 the leadership convinced the membership that it would not lead any new fights against the city and that this was the best deal they were going to get. Unfortunately, there was no consciousness among the members that through their own activity they could force a change in the UFT’s direction. And by the way, the layoff threat proved to be a bluff.
We also believed that Unity learned some important lessons. First, it would never again take a contract fight for granted. In the future it would much more actively defame opponents and do a better spin job to make defeats look like victories. Second, I believe that Unity concluded that in order to sell concessions, members have to be offered money. Asking members to accept even minor givebacks with no wage increase is tough because members can simply avoid the concessions by voting “no.” If the contract on which they are voting contains no raises, they lose nothing by rejecting it. Future concessions, such as the longer work day, would be packaged with significant salary increases and retroactive pay. The Unity leadership would apply these lessons with far greater skill in 2005, when it successfully sold the most damaging contract in the union’s history. How they did that is what we will explore in part 2.