Back to School Heat Wave: How Should UFT Respond?

Heat surged to record levels yesterday, just as New York City’s students reported for the first day of public school. In a functioning City, schools would effectively also be cooling centers. Students could escape the heat, learning new content under the comfort of reasonable temperatures. But, for too many students and teachers, that’s not what happened yesterday. Instead, thousands of students reportedly returned to classrooms without functioning air conditioning units.

When I did some digging on the UFT website on how to respond to air conditioning issues, I found this document. Perhaps the most absurd section is this excerpted passage below, which makes bizarre use of capitalization to emphasize that the UFT doesn’t have any power to act.

NYSUT is supporting a bill that would mandate that classrooms be no hotter than 88 degrees and no colder than 60 degrees. 88 degrees still sounds a bit high to me, but this at least would give us something. Now, when NYSUT supports something, UFT generally does too. But, surprisingly, UFT leadership has been silent in official communications with members. Those of us in the schools can easily see the problem, so is it just that air conditioning is working just fine in the centrally cooled offices at 52 Broadway or is something else going on?

My guess is that this is one of those situations where UFT leadership is choosing to stay quiet, hoping members will forget about the problem when the heat wave inevitably dies down later this Fall. After all, the temperature issues are difficult to solve. Many of NYC’s buildings were built before the age of ACs and likely need significant retrofitting to allow air conditioners to work in every single room at once. Many schools also have old ACs that need to be replaced. Both things are hard to do in a City whose mayor is reducing funding of schools. And when the City says no, we know all too well how UFT leadership responds.

In the wake of of the City’s failure to prepare for heat-wave issues, and in the wake of UFT leadership’s lack of communications to members, rank-and-file educators are once again returning to ‘wildcat’ strategies. The UFT could have sent out a survey to schools, but they didn’t, so members created their own version in collaboration with parent leaders on the PEP. When our union isn’t doing the work, or is working against our interests (as with healthcare), this is often all we can do – just as retirees had to form their own grassroots union-style organizations to fight the City and their own unions against the imposition of an inferior Medicare Advantage plan.

Retirees won (so far), and we can too. But we’d all be much happier, I think, if our union fought the right fights in the first place.

-Nick Bacon, UFT Executive Board and Co-Chair of New Action Caucus.


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