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Why does the UFT leadership negotiate contracts that don’t respond to our or our students’ needs?

The explanation most often given by the opposition in the UFT has been: the UFT leadership is out of touch, they’ve been out of the classroom too long, so they make the wrong demands, and are willing to accept givebacks.  This is a good start for an explanation, but there are important parts missing in this.

For one thing, this explanation implies DOE would give us what we need if our leaders would only ask for it, and if our leaders merely said, “No,” would withdraw demands for givebacks.  Clearly, that’s not true.

The DOE and the City Administration will resist any demands that spend more revenue on needs of working families and poor families, whether its own employees or most of city’s students: raises, benefits, class size, workloads, supplies and so on.  For complex political reasons, as well as fiscal concerns, it will resist giving employees more control over work.

So, the union needs a strategy to overcome this resistance to win enough to keep the union and its current leadership viable.

The strategy the UFT has adopted for over forty years has been to cultivate relationships with “friendly politicians,” mayor, state legislators, governor, city council, and so forth. Mainly these relationships are with Democrats, but sometimes also Republicans.

UFT leaders make “friends” with politicians most obviously by giving them support in election campaigns support: the UFT’s default policy is to support incumbents.  This is especially true of legislators. UFT leaders also lobby on behalf of political leaders, supporting legislation the latter want, such as funding for projects they want, or mayoral control.

But there is another “service” the UFT leadership offer in exchange for sufficient contract gains to remain viable, that is less obvious but equally, if not more, important.  It manages the membership to limit its demands on the DOE and the state. It does this by lowering members’ expectations, by instilling fear of fighting or striking, or of even rejecting a contract, and channeling membership anger and demands into limited safe, and harmless, activities, such as fighting to save their own school instead of fighting against the policy of school closings.  It sells “reforms” politicians want, like ratings based on student performance, to the membership. So, bad contracts are “baked into” this strategy: it can’t be used to get better contracts

The most important politician for the contract is the mayor.  UFT has tried to develop this relationship with every Mayor from Dinkins in 1990. The UFT and Democratic mayors have publicly portrayed each other as “friends”. UFT has “helped out” these mayors at members’ expense: In 1991, the UFT managed a delay of raises negotiated the previous year when there was a shortfall in the city’s budget.  The 2014 contract helped De Blasio by setting a low pattern for other city contracts, and giving up any real retro pay, postponing both receiving the supposed “retro” raises and the back pay to future times in the contract. The UFT and Republican Mayors have publicly treated each other as “foes.” But the UFT still managed the membership, seeking in return just enough to make that management successful by forestalling rank and file revolt.    

This did not protect the members from a two year pay freeze under Giuliani, the worst giveback contract ever in 2005 and then a 5 year pay freeze from 2009 to 2014 under Bloomberg.  So, members pay a price when the mayor is “friendly,” and do even worse when mayor is hostile.

To get better contracts, we need more than leaders recently in classroom, who are “in touch.”  We need a different strategy.

It isn’t difficult to imagine a strategy that would be more successful than the one the UFT is currently pursuing.  For the past half dozen years teachers around the United States have engaged in protests, job actions, and strikes. They have won victories in Chicago, West Virginia, Oklahoma, and in several school districts in the Pacific Northwest.

Unity/UFT leaders contend that our union members are unwilling to engage in that kind of activism. But that claim is hollow. UFT leaders have made no real effort to activate the membership or convince them that a confrontational strategy could work. They have no way of judging how far our members are willing to go.

The UFT can prepare our members for higher levels of activism. One or two years before the expiration of the new contract the union can launch a member-driven campaign to set contract goals and decide on a course of action to win those goals. The campaign could begin with multi-school membership meetings in which members can share experiences and determine what goals they have in common. The union could encourage joint actions such as color days, and “honor pickets” in which members rehearse for a strike by picketing outside school until a few minutes before start time and then entering the building together. Borough and city-wide protests can develop a sense of union solidarity and collective purpose. Finally, as a union we can appeal to various community organizations through joint actions which link our contract campaign to a collective effort to fund our schools and make our city livable again.  

Even the Unity/UFT leadership has led activities like this in the past. For example, prior to the 2005 contract the union encouraged chapters to organize pickets to demand a fair contract. There were UFT rallies at borough offices, honor pickets, color days, all of which culminated in a 20,000-strong gathering at Madison Square Garden in June 2005. Members demonstrated that they could be responsive to a leadership that wanted to organize them. Unfortunately, the following fall the UFT dropped the mobilization campaign and instead settled for a contract loaded with givebacks. Since then the union has negotiated three contracts: one beginning in 2007, one in 2009, and one in 2019.  But it did not prepare an active contract campaign for any of them, which is probably why we have not won back anything that we gave up in 2005.

Following the victories of teacher activism and teacher strikes in so many parts of the country it should be easier for a teacher union to point to successful strikes as examples to follow. So why won’t the Unity/UFT leadership do this? Why do they continue with a business-as-usual approach? Unfortunately, the answer is that the UFT, like most unions in the United States, is run by people whose principal interest is to maintain the stability of the union as an organization. Since its founding in 1962 the UFT has evolved into a massive institution which collects more than ten million dollars per month in dues. This revenue stream sustains a vast bureaucracy of hundreds of office staff, district and special representatives, and union officers. For the most part they are paid more than we rank and file members are and have better working conditions. They make and carry out policies whose purpose is to maintain the stability of the UFT as an organization because that is the best guarantor of their higher salaries, better working conditions and their jobs themselves. They have little interest in mobilizing for the best contract we can achieve. Strike preparation is risky activity.   It raises members’ expectations, which makes us less likely to vote to approve contracts with givebacks and inadequate raises. It creates rank and file leaders, who could potentially effectively challenge incumbent UFT tops for office.

Strikes themselves are even riskier.  In New York public sector unions can face financial penalties along with the loss of collaborative relationships with elected officials. Union leaders avoid those risks because they threaten the bureaucracy’s ability to maintain itself at present levels.  Although as rank and file members we also face risks in a strike, it is also the only effective way for us to make significant gains. The union bureaucracy can raise dues and improve their conditions in safer and comfortable ways. And as long as the rank and file keep re-electing the bureaucracy’s candidates and approving their contracts by wide margins, they have no incentive to move outside their comfort zone.

The Unity caucus is the political arm of that bureaucracy.  Caucus membership is a necessary qualification for anyone interested full-time or even part-time employment with the union. And caucus membership requires unconditional support for the union’s leaders, its policies, and whatever contract it negotiates.

The Supreme Court’s Janus decision, which struck down state laws requiring all public employees to contribute at least agency fees to their union, could have been a wake-up call.  In fact, in 2017 it appeared that the union intended to prepare for the eventual court ruling by activating its membership. It sent “door-knockers” to the homes of tens of thousands of UFT members with talking points that urged members both to stay union and to get more involved in their chapters. These doorway conversations often lasted fifteen minutes or more. However, by late spring the UFT changed the focus. The conversations were moved into the schools, and were cut to 30-60 seconds.  Members were now only asked to commit to continue paying union dues. The UFT leadership showed that it is more committed to maintaining its income stream than in developing a more inspiring and activist vision of unionism.

Unity/UFT leaders believe they can sustain the union by maintaining close and collaborative relations with politicians. However, the 2019 contract shows the limits of that strategy. We just ratified a deal in which our wages will fail to keep pace with inflation and new teachers will receive an inferior health care plan. This deal was negotiated at a time in which New York had a Democratic governor and the most liberal Democratic mayor we have seen in decades. The 2019 contract, therefore, likely represents the upper limit of what our current union leadership can achieve.

Frighteningly, in the post-Janus world, a public sector union that cannot inspire members, risks losing them. In September 2018 UFT President Michael Mulgrew reported that no more than five active members had dropped out of the union so far. However, only 2600 out of 4000 new hires had joined the union. A union that mobilizes and energizes them can convince them that dues are worth paying. A union that cuts their health care benefits will have a tougher sell.

We can turn things around. Teachers around the United States are showing that another model of unionism is realistic and effective. We, the rank and file, must insist that, and pressure, our union to prepare for the next contract battle by engaging members to more actively protest around issues such as over-sized classes, abusive administrators, or unsafe and unsanitary building conditions. Concrete victories can demonstrate that union activism is worthwhile and prepare our members for bigger battles in the future.

-Kit Wainer, Chapter Leader Goldstein H.S., and Marian Swerdlow, former CL FDR H.S., retired

Throughout the entire rushed process of ratifying this contract deal, the UFT leadership has insisted that there are no givebacks and that the process is transparent and open.

However, the contract MOA clearly states that the raises are contingent on the union’s acceptance of an agreement between the city and the Municipal Labor Committee (MLC), an umbrella group of public employee unions, on $1.1 billion dollars of health care savings.  Where is this money coming from? It’s completely unclear, whether from the city Office of Labor Relations, the UFT information, or the letter of agreement between the MLC and city.

However, we have obtained a detailed list of the proposed savings areas and the cost of each, which for the first time is publicly detailed below. Take a look and ask yourself if this is really a giveback free contract.

Some highlights for a memo summarizing the June 18th meeting of the MLC Steering Committee:



Year 1:  $200 Million

1) $131 million in residual savings from the 2014 City and MLC health savings agreement

2) $40 million in savings from changes to the Empire health plan that include three basic components:

  • Site of Service Redirection – Empire will implement a program to shift outpatient services from hospital based sites (which charge higher rates) to office based sites (which charge less); the program will not be obligatory, but will encourage members to use lower cost office based services when they are available and appropriate;
  • Engaging the “WinFertility” care management company to reduce the costs associated with multiple premature births that require high cost neonatal ICU stays. WinFertility provides intensive genetic screenings and counseling to reduce the incidence of these outcomes for parents who are receiving fertility treatments;
  • Tighter control of length-of-stay standards for hospital providers, including aggressive review and claw-backs of unnecessary or excessive expenses charged by hospital providers;
  • None of these programs to generate services would entail any added costs to members in the form of increased co-pays or out-of-pocket costs, though more details about the Site of Service Redirection are needed.

3) $25 million in savings from changes to the Emblem Rx Formulary list and emphasis on “Smart 90” program to expand the mail order of medications in 90 day batches; the formulary changes are mostly related to shifting to more generics, but more details need to be provided.

4) $10 million in savings by implementing various Emblem Health Plan HMO updates to generate cost reductions of a technical nature with no impact on members;

Year 2: $300 Million

1) $40 million in recurring savings from the 2014 health care agreement;

2) $50 million in savings from the various Empire Plan changes discussed above, including site of service, WinFertility and length of stay claw backs from provider hospitals. In the first year, these savings were prorated at $40 million because they would not be in place for a full year;

3) $40 million in savings on the basic GHI CPB plan, stemming from implementation of a Centers of Excellence Plan under which the plan will contract with high quality and low cost providers for certain specified services; this will begin with oncology and orthopedic hospital centers and expand to other services over time;

4) $31 million in Emblem Rx formulary savings; this is the full year cost savings discussed above;

5) $213 million in Emblem HMO savings; this savings is being generated entirely by a written commitment by Emblem HMO to limit its increased charges to the City to 3.5% in FY2020; Emblem was budgeted for a 6.5% increase in FY2020; Emblem is thus passing 3% in savings to the City and assuming the costs out of its pocket by guaranteeing the savings to the city regardless of actual costs that it incurs;

6) Emblem health expects to generate the savings it has guaranteed to the city from the implementation of a Wellness Program which will provide incentives (not mandatory) for employees to sign up and participate in care management programs involving screenings to diagnose nascent health issues and assignment of nurses to engage members in care management; Sites of Service plans; Centers of Excellence for orthopedic and oncology, expanding to cardiology and other areas; Rx savings (formulary and Smart90).

7) In addition, in exchange for the commitment to cap its increase in premium costs to the city at 3.5%, Emblem is asking for an agreement that all new hires will have to enroll in the HMO plan for the first year of employment; this requirement would be only for the first year, after which employees will be free to switch to any plan they wish; this requirement would not apply to existing employees or employees who transfer from one agency to another or who receive promotions to a higher title.

Year 3: $600 million

1) $40 million in recurring savings from the last healthcare agreement;

2) $50 million in ongoing savings from the Empire plan (discussed above);

3) $45 million in ongoing GHI CPB savings (discussed above);

4) $31 million in ongoing Rx savings (discussed above);

5) $435 million in Emblem HMO savings with Emblem agreeing to cap the increase in its premium charges to the city at 3% (versus the budgeted increase in premiums for FY2021 of 6%); again, Emblem will guarantee these savings out of its own pocket and if the target is not met, it will eat the loss;

6) To help offset its lost revenue, Emblem health is again asking that the agreement require new hires to enroll in the HMO plan for the first year of their employment for the second year.

“What happens if we vote it down?”
“What will happen if we don’t approve the contract?”

People ask and want to know the answer.  Whatever happens, experience says it won’t be the “doom and gloom” scenario that UFT leaders threaten it will be.

In fall, 1995, UFT leaders unveiled a tentative agreement with no raises in the first two years, and givebacks in pay, benefits and working conditions.  As the membership ratification vote proceeded, it was obviously in danger of rejection. Then-president Feldman wrote in a letter to the membership dated November 12, 1995:

“What would happen if the members reject this agreement and send us back to the bargaining table?  I believe we would be faced with chaos and crisis. Job security would be gone and massive layoffs could begin as early as February.  By next year, between the city, state and federal cuts, the layoffs of teachers and paraprofessionals could reach into the thousands.

“In addition, if we reject this settlement, we probably would lose some of the very positive gains we won in the agreement such as longevity on eligibility date and electronic deposit.  And all those givebacks we successfully fought off such as loss of prep times, sabbaticals and the mid-winter recess – would go back on the bargaining table. Nor is there much of chance that a rejection of this contract would result in a better agreement . . .”

These scare tactics failed, and the contract was voted down.  How did the results compare with Feldman’s fearmongering?

  1. There was no chaos.  There was no crisis.
  2. Not a single UFT member was laid off.
  3. A new proposed pact was negotiated before the end of the same school year.  
  4. It retained all of the modest gains in the rejected pact.
  5. It didn’t have any new givebacks.  Prep times, sabbaticals and the February recess stayed.
  6. It was a better agreement, if only slightly.  The worst givebacks were axed: a provision to hold back 5% of the salary of new teachers was removed.  Instead of 25 years to top pay, it was reduced to 22 years. A few small sweeteners were added.

The takeaway is that union leaders will use threats to get a contract approved, but in the one case where a contract was rejected, all those threats proved baseless.

But the second proposal, which the membership accepted, still had no raises in the first two years. Although the union went back to the negotiating table, it did not organize the members to fight and pressure the city for a better deal.  So, it takes more than just voting “no” to get a significant improvement in a contract. It takes a struggle by the rank and file and allies.

-Marian Swerdlow,
Retired 
Chapter Leader, FDR High School, Brooklyn

DC37 members were able to join the state’s family leave plan, which is an important benefit for those taking care of aging parents or sick children. But the new benefit is paid for exclusively through employee contributions, and only provides for partial pay up to 55% of the employee’s salary. So paid family leave ended up being a free sweetener to the contract for the de Blasio administration.

New York City workers help to set a pattern for employment wages and benefits across the metro area. We are among the few workers who do not have to pay any part of their health care premiums — an important legacy of the strength of previous union bargaining efforts that we have worked hard to protect.

But the continuation of concessions that threaten those benefits sets a dangerous precedent that will, over time, weaken health care to all those in the region.

In an era where universal single-payer health care been re-legitimized, it is foolish for city unions to concede ground on the benefits that protect working families. Instead we should be campaigning to expand protections for all.

This piece was originally published in the NY Daily News.

Lamphere and Myrie are teachers in the New York City public schools and members of the Movement of Rank and File Educators, the social justice caucus of the United Federation of Teachers.

In 2014, UFT leadership watched the Friedrichs case come at them (and all of us) like dinosaurs watching the extinction-causing comet hurtling towards earth.  They stared slack-jawed, and did nothing outside of introducing a hashtag or two and a tepid social media campaign. That extinction-level event was dodged (through no effort of their own), and, like clockwork, a new comet appeared called Janus vs. AFSCME.

Janus is a court case designed to deal a grievous blow to the labor movement in the U.S. By mandating that workers in union-represented workplaces be allowed to “free ride”, or receive the benefits of union representation without paying dues, the right wing forces using the plaintiff, Mark Janus, as a marionette,  mean to deny unions the money they need to function. If the outcome of the case is as expected, it will make the public sector in the whole country “right-to-work”, an arrangement that is deeply dangerous for American workers, but perhaps more so for the already decaying business unionism model of which the UFT is a prime example, since unions operating in this way rely heavily on paid staff and financial contributions to Democratic elected officials, tools that may become more scarce if, as expected, a large number of current members choose to withhold their dues post-Janus.This is doubly dangerous for the UFT and similar unions which have a large number of disaffected rank-and-file members with no perceived stake in or support for their unions; the UFT is thought by many of its members to be ineffective regarding even core responsibilities like protecting members from abusive supervisors and filing grievances against violations of our contract. All of this is a formula for massive post-Janus defections.

The response of Unity Caucus (the invite-only clique that has run the UFT since its founding and includes Michael Mulgrew, Randi Weingarten, and anyone else who has ever held any power within the union) can best be described as sclerotic, and too little too late. Chapter Leaders have been hearing a lot about Janus during the 2017-2018 school year, and the door-knocking campaign, in which UFT activists are trained to go door-to-door having face to face conversations with members in their homes about the importance of sticking with the union, seems like a step in the right direction. I’m concerned in this case, though, that the horse is already out of the barn. The UFT has done little to no real organizing among its core NYC educator constituency in decades,  and it may be too late to mobilize a profoundly disconnected membership to save the union; a disconcerting number don’t seem to care whether it lives or dies.

It is that sense of alienation that brings us to the Membership Teams. Each UFT chapter is supposed to have a group of activists whose responsibility it is to speak one on one with all the UFT members in the building, make sure the the union has up to date data, and ultimately ask each member whether they plan to continue supporting the union once it becomes legal to receive most or all of the benefits of union membership for free. There is an app, MiniVAN, which is to be used to guide the conversation, but more so to provide data to the union about their membership. The app provides a script for the team member, with pauses to input the answers to various questions into the database, and a dramatic handing of the smartphone over to the member at the end, who presses a button pledging to stick with the union.

This kind of member-to-member organizing is exactly the sort of thing that the UFT should have been doing all along, so I’m encouraged to see my union creaking into action. But even now, when UFT leadership is more or less trying to do the right thing, the lumbering, inflexible, bureaucratic way it is being executed highlights the degree to which they have become indistinguishable from the corporate/bureaucratic hierarchies they are meant to be protecting us from. Rather than using an online dashboard to add and edit people’s responses and info as you add them, as is standard in this, the year 2018, to use the app, you need to manually enter which member of the team is meant to speak to each UFT member in your building into a spreadsheet that the captain passes along to the District Rep, who then passes it along to Central for data entry. That UFT member is then linked with that particular team member, and only those people will show up in each team member’s app. Somebody drop off your team for whatever reason? Too bad. Did someone on the team get into a passionate conversation about the union with someone with whom their team leader has not linked them in the app? Too bad, there’s no way to adjust those lists, at least as far as the UFT Special Rep that ran the training for the membership teams in my district was aware. That’s somehow even LESS user friendly and flexible than the online portal for the ADVANCE teacher evaluation system that UNITY caucus collaborated in the development of and loves very, very much… if a kid on your roster leaves or changes classes or schools, at least you can make an alteration to reflect that reality.

If the DOE was asking me to do inane, redundant data gathering/paperwork like this, I’d be speaking my UFT District Representative and pondering a paperwork complaint. I understand why the union wants this data, but the only part of this that means anything is the part at the end when people tap something to agree to stick with the union, and that can be accomplished quite ably with a signature on a piece of paper after a real face to face conversation, so why all the extra steps?

Now that we are finally organizing, they want us to be staring at, or at least repeatedly going back and forth to our smartphones to do data entry as we talk to people about why supporting the union is so important. These are some of the most important organizing conversations we will ever have. I understand the desire for the UFT to have relevant data about their membership, their feelings about the union, what they think about Janus, updated contact info, and, most importantly, whether people plan on maintaining their UFT memberships or begin freeriding. But this is way too much to cram into a single 1:1 conversation; you can’t make up for 20 or 30 years of being a remote top-down business model union in one conversation. Not to mention that we reconfirm member contact info every September, and that the union sent out a fairly extensive survey to all members only a few months ago.

This is a grotesque approximation of the 1:1 organizing conversations most of the true UFT activist have all the time, but filtered through the most hide-bound, bureaucratic lens possible. They are finally trying to do the right thing, sort of, but it has been so long since anyone in a real position of authority at the UFT has done any organizing that they have no idea what it looks like anymore. The membership team at PS 58 was formed in the fall, but lay dormant until May waiting for UFT leadership to creak into action to train and equip us and transmit unified marching orders. I now regret the lost time we spent waiting on our putative leaders to do their jobs. I now realize I had not fully assimilated the lessons of West Virginia or of Arizona: the seas of rank-and-file educators in the streets and in the capitol buildings has been the power terrifying the enemies of public education and winning real victories for public education, NOT the AFT/NEA officers desperately trying to keep up, in some cases collaborating with districts to send educators back to work with their goals unmet. Despite years of seeing the dysfunction of our union leadership, part of me still held out hope that, on the brink of their own annihilation, they would prove worthy of the name; if not for their members, then at least for themselves. But no more. I’m not waiting for support or, God forbid, initiative, from the top. We ARE the union; if the current educator revolt across the country has taught us anything, it’s that the rank and file don’t need their ineffectual leadership to get results. Our membership committee, our UFT chapter, and our colleagues across the city are sick of waiting for leadership to catch up. The time to act is now. If, instead of waiting for our ostensible leadership, we take our cues from our rank-and-file colleagues rising up across the country, we may even succeed in saving the UFT in spite of itself.

Dan Lupkin
Teacher/UFT Chapter Leader
PS 58, The Carroll School

Mindy at the Women's Strike this year where she can always be found holding up the MORE Banner!

Mindy, left, at the Women’s Strike this year where she can always be found: holding up the MORE Banner!

To our own Mindy Rosier:

We  appreciate your work as an unrelenting  union activist and social justice advocate but also as a member of MORE.
Today, the UFT will be recognizing you with a #PublicSchoolProud award – Congratulations and enjoy the celebration at Teacher Union Day!
Keep on Keeping on.

Please take a look at the latest MORE Newsletter – with reportbacks from your High School reps at the UFT Executive Board, advice for new teachers in your schools, and a letter about teacher diversity…

Download, copy and distribute to your schools! If you need copies – please email us at more@morecaucusnyc.org – we have lots!

We are also looking for people to help coordinate distribution in your district – please email if you can help.

Are you a chapter leader? Take a stack to get to other CL’s in your district.