A Guide to the UFT for both New and Veteran Members

New to teaching? Trying to get your bearings in being a union member?

Scroll down for this primer (or download), developed for our Summer UFT 101 to help you get to know what’s happening in your school. 

Are you more experienced? Trying to figure out how to use the UFT contract improve the working and learning conditions in your school? Skip down to this useful guide (or download here) or further down to a summary of useful sections of the contract (or download here).

If you are chapter leader or delegate or other UFT activist and you would like to join our Chapter Leader email list where you can post contract questions, please email more@morecaucusnyc.org with your name, school, and UFT position.

Thank you to veteran chapter leaders Kevin Prosen and Ellen Schweitzer for developing and sharing these materials.  

I. A GUIDE TO YOUR UFT CHAPTER FOR NEWER MEMBERS

Chapter Leader: The official leadership of the union at the school level. The chapter leader has a considerable amount of power in the school. They are required to sign off on the school’s Comprehensive Education Plan. They are entitled to consultation over the school budget, the hiring of new administrators, and many other issues of school organization. They also represent members in disciplinary hearings. Chapter leaders are elected every three years by the staff.

Delegate: The delegate is the official “number 2” in the school when it comes to the union. The delegate’s main role is to represent the staff to the union by attending the UFT delegate assembly once a month. Unfortunately, a minority of delegates actually attend the DA.

Consultation Committee: This is the heart of your union chapter. The consultation committee is a committee convened by the chapter leader that the principal is contractually required to attend once a month. The consultation committee is typically where you will find the most active members of your union chapter. This is a good place to begin to get involved with the UFT.

Tenure: Tenure ensures due process rights for UFT members. Teachers do not receive tenure until it is granted after four years by the superintendent.

Grievance: The formal process by which a member objects to a violation of their contract rights. The chapter leader assists members with grievances and represents them in grievance hearings with the principal.

Do I have a strong union chapter?

 Did your chapter leader hold a meeting for your staff within the first week or so of school? How many people on the staff attended? Did the staff engage in conversations with each other at the meeting or did the chapter leader just present information?

Do members speak well of the chapter leader? Do your co-workers feel that they can go to the union to have their issues addressed?

Do people on your staff trust the chapter leader?

I’m brand new, what should I do to get active in the union?

In your early career, your main task is to get good at your job and get tenure. Without tenure, it is difficult to be a union activist since you are an “at will” employee that can be fired easily. You will probably have to go along with what your administration wants and stay “off the radar” as a union activist until you are tenured.

Get to know your chapter leader and consultation committee members. Try to figure out their relationship with the rest of the staff and their relationship with the principal.

It’s a good idea to spend most of your time in your building listening to your co-workers and learning about their issues. Members are often willing to talk about what they like and don’t like about their workplace. You should listen and try to understand. You should also get a copy of the contract and try to learn the basic rights of union members.

Depending on the situation in your school and the dynamic of the administration, you may be able to get involved in the consultation committee before you get tenure. This will probably make more sense after you have established yourself in your building and gotten to know your co-workers. It is difficult to be an effective chapter leader before you have tenure, as it marks you as a union activist and a potential troublemaker.

II. THE UFT CONTRACT – A TOOL FOR ORGANIZING?

The contract results from the UFT’s collective bargaining with the NYCDOE. Like all contracts, it is a legal document, so the specific wording is very important for application.

Why do we want a contract?

Employers are legally allowed to make all decisions regarding employment and working conditions. In the absence of a contract, the only legal restrictions on what decisions are allowed are contained in employment law (federal, state, and local). Employees of course are interested in additional limitations on what they might be asked to do at work. In the absence of a contract, managers can assign workers to do anything for any pay, with the workers’ only recourse being to quit.

Why is the contract so long?

The contract essentially details what administration is NOT allowed to do. The default decision-making power lies with the administration. Sometimes the wording in the contract is vague and open to interpretation because the union was not strong enough to get more specific wording. This is a sign of management strength and union weakness. Sometimes you will hear people describe the length of the contract as annoying red tape that interferes with educators’ abilities to teach effectively. People who are saying this believe that administrators will act in the best interests of students, and that the union will not. It is anti-union propaganda. If you believe this, then you probably wouldn’t be at this workshop. That said, I wouldn’t want to defend this contract as so incredibly great. It should be stronger given its length!

What does it mean for a chapter to be “organized”?

An organized chapter has members who are aware of their own and each other’s rights, who act in solidarity to advocate for and defend each other’s rights (“An injury to one is an injury to all”), and collectively try to bring about the best possible working conditions for themselves, which are the learning conditions of our students. This activity includes a lot of conversation among members: sharing knowledge about current working conditions and potential contractual violations, raising ideas for how working conditions can be improved. These conversations can and should take place daily in an informal way, and at regular chapter meetings. Actions include collectively agreeing to raise issues at consultation meetings, filing grievances, and taking other symbolic actions at work.

How can the contract be used to organize a strong chapter?

The existence of a contract is not enough to make the union strong (otherwise we would see a very different balance of power in our schools). The contract is a tool for organizing, and is only as strong as the union makes it by taking action to defend the rights it contains. Members need to meet, talk, and be willing to act collectively. The contract gives people confidence that things can be won, that they have certain rights. Knowledge of the contract encourages people to participate and speak out. Often, people get involved when they have something at stake themselves at the workplace. Putting individual issues in the context of a collective bargaining agreement increases perception of the power and potential of collective action. It focuses attention on the rights we already technically have and that can be more easily and successfully advocated for in the short term. People like to win J

How can the contract be used to keep a chapter disorganized?

The contract can make members pessimistic about union power (often rightly so!) if a right is not clearly spelled out. Some can react by giving up hope and concluding nothing can be done. Too many chapter leaders seem to understand their job primarily as telling members what cannot be won, what rights they don’t have, especially as our rights are weakened in successive contracts. These “reality checks” don’t exactly inspire excitement about the possibilities of collective action! Problematically, the UFT has moved increasingly toward cooperation with management, removing many disputes from the grievance process, and toward joint UFT-DOE committees. Some conditions that individual members previously had the authority to grieve are now only actionable by the chapter leader. On this topic, see Marian Swerdlow’s excellent blog post on the MORE website (search “A Contract for Collaboration with the DOE”). If members do not see their own activity as relevant to the protection of our rights, they are less likely to become involved. The contract can be used as evidence that our working conditions are settled, and all that is required is the bureaucracy of the UFT as a service organization to address any concerns. This approach is likely to end up with a passive, disorganized chapter.

The contract is a tool for organizing, but also a potential limitation. Having explicit conversations about these different possibilities can be an avenue for moving members toward thinking about getting better contracts in the future and what is required to make that happen: increasing acts of solidarity and militancy and making the union more democratic and participatory.

III. SOME USEFUL PARTS OF THE CONTRACT FOR THE CHAPTER LEVEL

The right of membership – signing up new members, informing them of their basic rights and benefits, of the structure of the union, chapter-level activities (chapter meetings especially). Even though some of this activity can easily fall into the passive “service model” of the union, it can also be used to raise members’ expectations about their rights and working conditions, and help them envision more participation in the future. Crucially, new members can come to see the union as a source of solidarity from their co-workers. For example, with the new contract, current members can make sure new members remember that they can change their health care after the first year. These new members are busy – senior staff should look out for them in solidarity!

Programs and Assignments (Article 7A)

“Where advisable and feasible, preferences… will be honored to the extent consistent with the provisions of this Agreement relating to rotation and programming.” (classes, session)

“Wherever administratively possible… no more than three consecutive teaching assignments and no more than four consecutive working assignments (including professional activities).”

“The number of different rooms in which assignments occur should be held to the absolute minimum administratively possible.”

Additional compensatory time positions (other than programmer, some deans, grade advisor, lunchroom coordinator, COSA) must be agreed to and ratified by chapter. Rules regarding notification and selection of applicants must be followed for all comp time. No involuntary assignments.

Individual teacher programs must not exceed 25 periods per week on average.

Professional Activity Options or “Circular 6” duties (Article 7A)

Teacher chooses preference; menu can be altered through SBO

Meeting Agendas

Influence at the major school-based meetings (chapter meetings, UFT committee consultations with the principal, school leadership team meetings, faculty meetings) is unfortunately limited by the chapter leader. Though SLT and faculty meetings are controlled by administration, it’s an option to speak out and air concerns. “Faculty conference agendas shall be set in consultation with the UFT chapter committee.” (Article 7Q). Though it is time-consuming, just providing speed-bumps for administrative action can increase the sense of member power.

School-Based Options (SBOs) (Article 8B)

Any modification of the contract and regulations “concerning class some, rotation of assignments/classes, teacher schedules and/or rotation of paid coverages” must be agreed to by chapter (55% vote by May)

School Budget Use (Article 8C)

Before the end of June and by the opening of school in September.. principal shall meet with the chapter leader and UFT chapter committee to discuss, explain and seek input on the use of the school allocations. As soon as they are available, copies of the school allocations will be provided to the chapter leader and UFT chapter committee… Any budgetary modifications regarding the use of the school allocations shall be discussed by the principal and chapter committee.”

Student Grades (Article 8D)

“The teacher’s judgment in grading students is to be respected; therefore if the principal changes a student’s grade in any subject for a grading period, the principal shall notify the teacher of the reason for the change in writing.”

Lesson Plans (Article 8E)

“The organization, format, notation and other physical aspects of the lesson plan are appropriately within the discretion of each teacher. A principal or supervisor may suggest, but not require, a particular format or organization, except as part of a program to improve deficiencies of teachers who receive U-ratings or formal warnings.”

Anti-retaliation (new Article… #?)

“The Board… shall maintain an environment that promotes an open and respectful exchange of ideas and is free of harassment, intimidation, retaliation and discrimination. All employees are permitted to promptly raise any concerns that may violate the collective bargaining agreement, rule/law/regulation, or Department policy or that relates to their professional responsibilities or the best interests of their students. The harassment, intimidation, retaliation and discrimination of any kind because an employee in good faith raises a concern or reports a violation or suspected violation of any DOE policy, rule/law or regulation, or contractual provision or participates or cooperates with an investigation of such concerns is prohibited.”

Matters Not Covered (Article 21?)

“With respect to matters not covered by this Agreement which are proper subjects for collective bargaining, the Board agrees that it will make no changes without appropriate prior consultation and negotiation with the Union… All existing determinations, authorizations, by-laws, regulations, rules, rulings, resolutions, certifications, orders, directives, and other actions, made, issued or entered into by the Board of Education governing or affecting salary and working conditions of the employees in the bargaining unit shall continue in force during the term of this Agreement, except insofar as change is commanded by law.”

The contract also includes arbitration decisions and Chancellor’s decisions on grievances. This is why the committees formed by the new contract are so important – they will be determining rules themselves, or having them decided in binding arbitration. And for the Article 8I “Central Committee” topics (paperwork, provision of curriculum and supplies, professional developmet, workload of members who are not classroom teachers or paras, and workspace), the arbitrator is instructed to issue a “brief award.” In the past, more text and specifics in arbitration decisions have often been helpful additions to our contractual rights.

Expedited Reorganization Grievance Procedure (Article 22?)

“The chapter leader shall be considered a proper grievant in all grievances relating to program deadlines and contractually mandated consultations, including allegations that postings are inconsistent with an agreement reached at contractually mandated consultations.”

“An employee shall notify the principal or his or her designee of a complaint within two (2) school days, after the employee has knowledge of the act or condition which is the basis for the complaint. Within two (2) school days following notification, the principal or his or her designee must meet with the employee in an effort to resolve the complaint. The employee may choose to be accompanied by the chapter leader. If the complaint remains unresolved, the employee shall have two (2) school days from the date of the grievance conference to file a grievance appeal with the Superintendent.”

(1) Program Preference

(a)  Grade level

(b)  More/less difficult

(c)  Subject

(d)  Sessions

(e)  Special classes

(f)  Special education classes

(2)  Special Teaching Positions

(3)  Cluster Positions

(4)  Compensatory Time Positions

(5)  Rotation

(6)  Number of Preparations

(7)  Numbers of Rooms

(8)  Postings

(9)  Consultations

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