The Wall Street Journal declared 2023 “The Year of the Strike,” touting the successes of labor unions across the U.S. The United Auto Workers (UAW), Teamsters, Screen Actors Guild (SAG), and Writers Guild of America (WGA) all earned tremendous victories for their workers. Members of the UAW, SAG, and WGA went on strike, taking on some of the most powerful and wealthiest corporations in the world – Hollywood and the Big Three automakers. According to the WSJ article, the Teamsters at UPS “used the threat of a strike and innovative strategies such as practice picketing… to win a record contract.” This past April, teachers in Los Angeles received a 21% raise over the next three years, just a month after they went on a three-day strike advocating for better wages for support staff employees. Conversely, the UFT negotiated 15.75% raises over the next five years, left paraprofessionals in the dust with insulting starting salaries and longevity steps, forced a stunningly undemocratic revote when occupational therapists and physical therapists rejected their contract, resulting in OT/PT union leadership stepping down in protest, and did nothing to reverse an RFP to save the city 10% on our healthcare (coming soon to a doctor near you). While there is no singular reason why the union that represents the largest school system in the entire U.S. got us such a shabby deal, one explanation is the Taylor Law, which prohibits public sector employees from striking by threat of massive pay deductions (a two-for-one penalty for each day on strike), removal of automatic union dues check-off (a potentially huge financial blow to our union), and imprisonment of union leaders. The Taylor Law seriously hampers our ability to take any meaningful steps in negotiations and our union should be doing everything in their power to change or repeal the law altogether. 

To be fair, the Taylor Law was enacted over a half a century ago and is not the fault of our current union representatives. However, the fact that there is no discussion at all regarding potential changes to, or total removal of the Taylor Law, is a horrific oversight that undermines any efforts we make to improve our livelihoods and working conditions. In the late ‘60s, when Al Shanker served as UFT president, the Taylor Law was not quite as big of an obstacle because of Shanker’s fortitude and willingness to go to jail – which he did… twice – for the sake of his union members. Michael Mulgrew is no Al Shanker. Perhaps it is unfair to expect that type of dedication from your union leader, but such a level of commitment would not be necessary if we had been working towards changing or repealing the Taylor Law any time over the last 50 or so years. Because of the Taylor Law, we are always bringing a knife to a gunfight. 

During contract negotiations last year, the UFT offered the laughable suggestion that we grade papers and lesson plan in public places to curry favor and empathy from the public by showing them how tirelessly we work. This type of performative nonsense moves the needle not one iota. Our inability to strike often leaves us in the gutter, gritting our teeth while we accept substandard raises, impending cuts to our healthcare, the ransacking of our Health Stabilization Fund, unlivable wages for paras, virtual learning stipulations, an inferior pension tier for over half of our members, lack of teacher protection from abusive admin, and slower pay increases and a much longer wait until retirement compared to the NYPD, FDNY, and DSNY. 

To be clear, going on strike should be an absolute last resort and is not something to be taken lightly. Millions of people – students, teachers, school staff, families, and local businesses throughout the city are directly affected by any potential strike. However, our profession has suffered tremendous defeats over the last 12 years. Without proper recourse, we are sitting ducks just biding our time before more is taken from us. Changing and/or repealing the Taylor Law is an uphill battle, but it is a battle that must be waged. Kate M. Swearengen, a prominent labor attorney, suggests that the “current blanket prohibition on strikes should be limited to those employees who provide ‘essential services’” and that “good-faith bargaining… should be given teeth and enforced so that it is truly meaningful.” Others suggest that the only way to get the Taylor Law repealed is to do exactly what it aims to prohibit – strike. O. Henry would be proud of that twist. We must let our chapter leaders, district reps, UFT hierarchy, and City and State reps know that something needs to be done about the Taylor Law so we can regain some semblance of power before our next contract negotiation. Or, you can grade some papers at your local Chipotle. I’m sure that will truly make a difference.

David Ginsberg is a pro-union advocate who believes UFT members deserve better. 

1 Comment

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    Bronx Public Teacher

    TWO POINTS: 1) The Taylor Law and the Triborough Ammendment go hand in hand. If the Taylor Law is removed, the Triborough Ammendment would more than likely also be eliminated. This would mean if it became legal for NYC/NYS municipal employees to strike, that would automatically mean that any current contract would not be invalidated. 2)My understanding is that if UFT members hold an illegal strike, not only do we get dinged two for one with pay, but we also loose tenure for year. Are my statements correct? My guess is that you are proposing that having the ability to strike could get us a better contract in future negotiations. However, the big question is at what cost? Newbie teachers have nothing to loose by going on strike, while veteran teachers such as myself would not be keen on loosing needed pay for our mortgages as well as giving up the tenure protections that we have. I am all for conversations on the Taylor law and making possible changes, but that conversation needs to proceed with deep planning and forethought.

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