What will it take to stop an unsafe reopening?
Members of the United Federation of Teachers have the power to prevent an unsafe reopening. We showed that earlier this year. As the pandemic swept New York in March 2020 thousands of city teachers ignored UFT leaders’ warnings and began to call in sick and student attendance dropped. The threat of chaos was one factor that weighed on the mayor and pressured him to close schools.
We need the UFT to mobilize members and threaten severe disruption again should the governor and mayor attempt to implement their reckless reopening plans. The union should instruct chapters to plan actions such as encouraging members to apply for health accommodations, holding virtual or socially-distanced rallies, and contacting parents to let them know that their children will not be safe at school. The UFT should organize district membership meetings so that experiences can be shared and members can develop joint action plans. Finally, the UFT should plan for a safety strike in the event that the city and state insist on an unsafe reopening. Even our national union, the American Federation of Teachers, recognizes this need. In its most recent resolution the AFT wrote, “[N]othing is off the table when it comes to the safety and health of those we represent and those we serve, including supporting local and/or state affiliate safety strikes on a case-by-case basis as a last resort.”
The power of a credible strike threat has been demonstrated in Chicago, where the mayor caved on reopening school buildings hours after the Chicago Teacher’s Union scheduled a vote to authorize a job action. With cases popping up around the country, the governor and mayor are already aware of the risks. Having to reclose because of a spike in COVID-19 cases soon after reopening will be politically and economically disastrous. A well-coordinated campaign of largely legal disruption, led by a union that is willing to organize a strike if necessary, is the best way to pressure the employer to concede before we have to use the ultimate weapon.
How is our union leadership responding?
Unfortunately, UFT President Michael Mulgrew and his Unity caucus leadership have not risen to the moment. They have chosen collaboration over confrontation, and have refused to organize members to put any pressure on the city at all.
The Mulgrew/Unity team’s strategy consists primarily of lobbying Congress to pass the HEROES Act, the bill that already passed the House of Representatives several weeks ago. This Act would provide relief for state and local governments and for families in need. Both de Blasio and Cuomo are strong supporters of this bill. While we hope the Senate passes it, it should be noted that nothing in that legislation would enable schools to reopen safely. Schools will still lack enough physical space, ventilation, and teaching staff to maintain safety for students and staff. No opening plan can be safe without timely testing and effective tracing. Recently, many test results have taken 10 days or more to come back, by which time they are nearly useless; contact tracing efforts have struggled to gain even 50% compliance. Within schools the Mulgrew/Unity team has urged members to participate in reopening teams, even though our members have little say in what reopening will look like and the Department of Education has been willing to overturn school-based recommendations. The UFT has not organized members, not prepared for protests or disruptive actions, and not even hinted at strike preparation. The Mulgrew strategy is to support the governor’s legislative goals without pressuring him to act responsibly toward us.
MORE is not waiting for Mulgrew to lead
The Movement of Rank and File Educators knows that members cannot wait for the UFT leadership to take the initiative. Our members’ may be told to enter unsafe schools in just a few weeks. We are already working with union members around the city to build the resistance to an unsafe reopening.
More than two hundred UFT members attended MORE’s first membership training session in July. There we worked with members to help them strategize about how to reach out to their co-workers and plan actions that their colleagues might join. We are now developing district networks so that members who work near each other can share experiences, learn from each other, and plan joint strategies. Over the month of August we will build a campaign to show our employers that unsafe schools will be unmanageable schools.
We urge you to join us!