UFT vs. Charters: Could new NYC charter schools mean layoffs down the road?

Governor Hochul is reportedly preparing to alter the charter cap so that as many as 106+ new charter schools can be ‘built’ (really co-located) across New York City. Charter schools are an assault on public education even in ‘good’ times. But today, enrollment is down, hiring freezes are up, and the specter of layoffs looms. Allowing more charter schools to open today could ultimately threaten the very nature of teaching as a unionized profession in New York. 

Frozen and Broken Dreams 

Even with new class size legislation that should technically force the City to hire more educators, the loss of thousands of students from our rosters has led to an anxiety that layoffs might finally hit New York public schools for the first time in decades. While layoffs have so far been averted, at a minimum, the DOE has recently frozen hiring for many licenses. When hiring is frozen, that means newer teachers must look elsewhere to start their teaching careers. When that happens, younger teachers find that in order to teach in NYC, they must work at charters.

Source: Graph by Nick Bacon using data from NYSED.

Charters have notoriously low rates of unionization and no concept of tenure or due process. As a result, teachers who work in charters must put up with horrendous working conditions. It is therefore no surprise that charters have twice the teacher turnover of public schools. Indeed, at charters, great teachers–and developing but potentially great teachers–are churned out at a dangerous rate. Even if you don’t care at all about teachers being happy in their jobs, this should matter to you. Teacher experience is known to be one of the most important factors in teacher effectiveness. If Hochul greenlights the creation of more charters in NYC, she will effectively ensure that good teachers who would have worked until the age of 63 at DOE schools are instead churned out at 23 in charters. Does Hochul really want a part in replacing the current system with that of a revolving door of ‘teacher temps’ who never make it to the years where they would be most effective at educating NYC’s students?

The Specter of Layoffs

We haven’t had layoffs since the 70s. That isn’t to say that there haven’t been threats. As recently as 2020, Bill de Blasio formally threatened he might lay off City workers, including teachers, due to budgetary woes caused by the pandemic. Our budgetary situation is at least temporarily much better, and no formal threats are on the table. But, there have been hints. Mayor Adams’ willingness to cut budgets for schools despite new class-size legislation does not bode well. And, ambiguous comments made by people at the top have implied layoffs could very well be a thing someday if trends continue. 

In the context of declining enrollment, new charters could spark a specific form of layoff in which DOE teachers are terminated and forced to become teachers at non-unionized charters. Imagine getting hired at a public school, forming pedagogical relationships with your students, getting tenure, becoming involved in your UFT chapter, only to be laid off because too many of your potential students enrolled in a charter school that was heavily marketing themselves next door. Not only would you now be jobless; you’d also likely be forced to apply for a job at one of the very charters that cost you your job. You’d still be an NYC teacher, but now you’d have no union, no tenure, and no due process. Your life, in effect, would be turned upside down, just so a few people at the top of charter schools could make a buck. Make no mistake, this is an actual risk if we allow charters to expand in the context of declining enrollment.

The Fight Ahead: Utilizing Contract Action Teams to Fight Charter Expansion

Charters are inherently bad for New York City educators. However, the fight against them presents an opportunity for unified action. All UFT caucuses agree that charters are something we need to fight. Now, with Hochul looking to expand their role in our city, charters are presenting an existential threat to public education and unionized teaching in NYC. As discussed above, teachers in earlier stages of their careers, especially teachers with ‘less hard to staff’ licenses, are particularly at risk, because a charter expansion could mean they’re laid off from the DOE and forced to find jobs with Eva Moskowitz. That’s unacceptable. And it would inflict untold damage on our union.

Here’s an idea: Let’s build off the successes of our new-found ‘contract action teams’ and start brainstorming ways we can fight charters. Unlike with the contract, for which actions are currently seen to be limited because we are still in the ‘pleasant’ stage of negotiations, the fight against charters is imminent. The battle lines are already being drawn. What can our chapters do to start readying for the fight? How can UFT leadership help motivate and support our chapters to do that organizing? Whatever the answer is, it can’t be nothing. Too much is at stake. 


UFT High School Executive Board Update!

Dear UFT Member,

The New Action UFT caucus, as a member of United for Change coalition (UFC), would like to take this opportunity to thank you for your support in last spring’s UFT election. UFC received 42 % of the Active Teacher vote, 32% of the Functional vote, 30 % of the Retiree vote, 43.83 % of the Middle School vote and 55.87% of the High School vote. Our 7 High School Executive Board members have been working the first half of the school year for all members and divisions. Two of our resolutions have received bi-partisan support, while the majority have been shut down by our union bureaucracy. It is worth visiting Newaction.org to read the full informal minutes of UFT Executive Board meetings to get a sense of how hard New Action and other UFC members are working to represent us at the executive board. However, for your convenience some of that work is summarized below. We have put forth the following:

  1. A resolution to preserve our medical benefits for both active and retired members. This resolution, unsurprisingly, was defeated by Unity Caucus, i.e. the UFT leadership. As most of us know, the Mayor and UFT leadership are thus far unsuccessfully lobbying the City Council to do away with 12-126, a statute designed to protect health care for all City employees/retirees. That goal directly contradicts the mission of New Action, who is working behind the scenes to try and preserve traditional Medicare as well as high quality premium-free healthcare for in-service members. 
  2. One resolution to organize and mobilize all members for a contract fight. (Again, defeated by Unity).
  3. One resolution compelling full disclosure of a finalized tentative contract and memorandum agreements to prevent what happened in 2014 and 2018. We can’t allow back-room deal agreements to go into appendixes of which members aren’t informed before a vote. 
  4. One resolution on ending the disproportionate impact of discontinuances of high school probationary teachers. Unlike teachers of the elementary and middle school grades, high school teachers are discontinued from all of the DOE’s high schools, regardless of district, when they are discontinued or denied. This resolution, written by New Action and UFC, would compel the UFT to petition for equalizing the rights of high school teachers. The resolution received bipartisan support and will go to the Delegate Assembly for final approval.
  5. One resolution on Tier 6 pension reform. This resolution would have made the UFT lobby for an immediate return to at least Tier 4 benefits, a return to a 25-55 option, exclude COPE funds from any politician who doesn’t support our pension goals, and compel the UFT to immediately mobilize if any new inferior pension tier is introduced. The resolution was defeated by Unity, who instead opted to push a ‘keep doing what we’re doing’ resolution on Tier 6 reform at the December DA. When New Action tried to put forth an amendment with most of the above goals, Unity defeated the resolution using a dubious parliamentary technicality. 
  6. A resolution to end the reign of terror on abusive administrators by forming bi-partisan “ swat teams “ to go into schools with a history of abuse and restoring the once-successful PINI program. This resolution was also defeated by Unity, who argued that their existing infrastructure is good enough. 
  7. A resolution to fund health care with taxes on millionaires and billionaires. Again, this was defeated by Unity Caucus, who would rather save money by forcing retirees onto Medicare Advantage or making members pay premiums to keep existing traditional Medicare.
  8. A resolution on creating a Minority Report, so UFT members get the full scope of debate in official UFT communications about contentious union issues like healthcare. This resolution was defeated by Unity, who disregarded the15,092 UFT members who voted for United for Change.
  9. A resolution to support the teachers who were allegedly abused by a group of administrators after being brought to NYC from the Dominican Republic. This resolution received bipartisan support and was introduced at the Delegate Assembly. 

Currently, we are proposing the UFT use all of its resources to keep GHI premium free. We also urge all school chapters to support the UFT teach-in on Jan. 30th and build strong Contract Action Teams. We urge all of our supporters to participate and propose strong, collective rank & file actions.

In solidarity,

Nick Bacon, Gregory DiStefano, Michael Shulman, New Action/UFT co-chairs

New Action/UFT…a caucus of the United Federation of Teachers

Fighting for educators, building chapters, increasing democracy, with a progressive agenda

615 77th Street, Brooklyn, NY 11209

UFT: Let’s do those contract teach-ins right today

Contract teach-ins start today. As I wrote last week, I’m in favor of the teach-ins, albeit with some modifications. I support them to the extent that they help members learn, think, and build some organizing infrastructure around our contract. I oppose them to the extent that the timing is odd (though better late than never) and the materials designed for them resemble propaganda to pre-organize members for a potentially undeserved ‘yes’ vote. 

Luckily, at this point, we have some new materials. The good folks over at MORE published a much better version of the UFT’s official powerpoint. It looks to resemble the original powerpoint well enough that it could be switched out without any new planning. And, James Eterno over at ICE-UFT published an awesome article thoroughly analyzing the flaws with UFT leadership’s explanation on what we ‘do and don’t’ have power to bargain over. (Spoiler alert: we have way more power than union leadership would have us believe). I’d frankly print out that article and read it with your chapter. You might also take a look at some sample contract demands like New Action’s and share those with your chapter.

In case you are interested, I’m also sharing my notes on the contract discussions below (prepared in advance of serving as a panelist at EONYC’s awesome and well attended inter-caucus contract discussion last night). The full recording of that event is here. It is worth a watch by chapters who want to get a sense of perspectives from across the UFT political spectrum – MORE, Solidarity, ICE-UFT, New Action, and Unity). My notes for that event follow. Good luck at your teach ins, everyone.

What would a fair contract look like?

I’m critical of our current contract. I’m extremely grateful for much of what is in it, but I’d love to see things improved. That’s why myself and the rest of New Action came up with our list of contract demands (linked above and here).

Teachers without contracts tend to be paid less. They tend to have very few rights over workday and working conditions. It’s very easy to fire them when they speak up. In the UFT, for all of our issues, that’s not the case, at least not at all to the same extent. Until recent inflation hit, we were able to claim fairly decent pay relative to unionized teachers (though pay must be increased and the time it takes to get to ‘top’ pay must be decreased). We also have many rights over workday and workplace issues and something of an infrastructure for dealing with violations. It’s not perfect. And in many ways, we have fewer rights today than we did yesterday. But it’s much better than the alternative. 

The trouble is our pay is increasingly not following inflation. Anything less than inflation is a pay-cut. And with threats from management that we might not get a contract (or at least decent COLA ‘raises’) unless ‘healthcare is fixed’ (i.e. unless our share of healthcare costs is increased, e.g. via premiums), I’m pessimistic that we’re going to get anything close to what we’re asking. Some teachers might be OK with that, as long as working conditions are improved. I commented once that I might be OK with less of a pay bump if we got rid of PD Mondays in exchange. But the truth is, too many of our members are living paycheck to paycheck. At a minimum, our contract has to have us breaking even in terms of pay/healthcare. That means pretty substantial ‘raises’ that exceed anything close to recent contract patterns.

What about costing? Can’t we improve our contract in ways that don’t ‘cost’ the City anything?

There are absolutely ways to improve our contract in ways that cost the City nothing. Chapter Leaders and other strong unionists could be given better protections, so that Open Market wasn’t the only solution for abusive administration. Better provisions specifying times for IEP writing could be given. Teachers could get more say over the administrator hiring process and win back the right to seniority transfers. Without even changing state tenure law, we could provide better due process rights for probationary teachers. The list goes on. Many of these things describe rights we had in the past and currently lack. If things that don’t even require ‘costing’ aren’t improved, or if worse still–we give back any rights–we should be particularly wary of approving such a contract. 

Does saying no to a contract mean we absolutely have to strike?

In 2018, I remember a big push from Unity staffers to get us to approve the contract. I was told that if we all voted yes, it would show that we all had confidence in our union. Typical ‘Unity’ stuff. But we can say no. I’m a member of the 500 person negotiating committee. If we don’t get the contract we deserve in our first round of bargaining, I personally won’t be offended if it’s voted down, even if that somehow means erasing language I personally had a hand in writing. The City is used to a union leadership who fights for us, but uses relatively conservative strategies, and is a bit too eager to come to an agreement. Heck, the last contract (2018) came early, and came with us saying yes to hundreds of millions of dollars in healthcare givebacks. I think if the membership starts saying no to less-than-stellar deals handed down to us by leadership, that’s going to send a message to union management that they have to do better. That’s also going to send a message to the City that we won’t accept less. With some organizing from ‘below’ by the rank and file, that could mean convincing UFT leadership to use more aggressive tactics that get us a better deal. Will that mean a strike? Not immediately, and hopefully not at all. But a union that hasn’t struck since the 70s likely doesn’t put too much fear into City management. If it came to it, a strike could be just what is needed to restore a currently off-kilter power balance between our union and City Hall. I’d rather it didn’t come to that, but we also probably aren’t getting ourselves a great contract by wearing blue or baking cookies.

To solve the fear/apathy problems in our chapters that might lead members to feel like there’s no point in organizing for the contract, the first step is sitting down and really thinking about what contract would be worth fighting for. Don’t let UFT leadership tell you that the things that are most important to members can’t even be a part of the contract. Don’t let them tell you we can’t do better than whatever first draft the UFT’s 500 member negotiating team comes up with. People will be willing to fight for a contract if their chapters agree to a contract worth fighting for. They likely won’t fight if it’s just for the provision of career ladder positions. 

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February 2023