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