Posts Tagged 'Strike'

UFT: what makes a union powerful?

The other day, a friend and I were passing a strike that seemed to be in the early stages of gathering their troops. A small band of workers were holding signs and chanting. Especially if more people didn’t show up, my friend found it hard to believe that they were going to achieve their demands with mere optics. I agreed that signs/chants alone might not do much to sway their employer but countered that withholding their labor sure would.

UFT leadership, we know, has spoken against our having the right to strike. Indeed, they apparently did so quite convincingly, as the majority of voting chapter leaders and delegates agreed with them. On the other hand, UFT leadership also opted not to talk down an opposition resolution which supported the national right to strike for workers more generally. There’s another reso in the works supporting the Writers Guild strike. So, in the abstract at least, UFT supports the ability to strike, just not for teachers in NYC. Indeed, UFT officers and staffers frequently show up at the strikes of other NYC workers – often holding signs, joining in the chants, and even being featured as speakers. It’s an odd double standard, and it’s one I’d like to explore.

What is a union? No, seriously – what makes a union a union?

Unions are organizations of workers that use their collective energy and power to optimize their working conditions, job security, benefits, and compensation. We now know that the primary way that workers do this successfully is by joining together in withholding their labor power. A strike or credible strike threat has been the main driver of gains for labor across the country.  

Without the ability to withhold our labor, we still have tactics at our disposal. We can make use of ‘bureaucratic’ tactics, such as what the UFT typically utilizes via the infrastructure created under the Taylor Law and Triborough Amendment (e.g. PERB). We can also wear the same colors to show our unification, we can picket outside public buildings to demonstrate, and we can appeal to the public so that our employer feels pressured to do the right thing. And yes, we should do these things – we should use all tactics/strategies at our disposal. But it’s worth considering that all these actions I just listed (or their equivalents) are also used by workers who strike. The difference is that, when those unions use non-striking tactics, they are also accompanied by actual job actions or at least a credible threat.

During our contract actions, the UFT has used all of the strategies/tactics listed above. But we’ve done so while signaling that we have no interest in striking – that we don’t see its value, not for us. In other words, our union has utilized the ‘imagery’ of striking, but without a material threat of actually withholding our labor power. We haven’t struck, but we’ve engaged in a ‘strike style.’


As we now know, the City has called our bluff. While unions who withhold their labor power are getting salary increases that adjust to inflation, we are getting an effective pay cut under one of the worst economic patterns in the history of the NYC labor movement. I maintain that the reason for this is simple: our employer might see us using the optics of striking, but they know that no matter how insulting our wage increases are, and no matter how little the City adjusts our working conditions, we will still show up to work on Monday. And if they know we’ll show up anyways, what incentive do they have to really fix things? A fear of seeing too many blue shirts in one day?

So, let’s continue with our contract actions. For one thing, they build solidarity among us—another big part of what makes a union a union. Moreover, good negotiating met with well-coordinated public relations strategies can still help us improve working conditions. But achieving the right to strike, and organizing ourselves to be strike ready, would compound our power exponentially. It would make us a better and stronger union. And that’s something we deserve.

The contract may be on the verge of being sent out to UFT members for a vote, but there’s still time to begin signaling that our union is willing to become strike ready. Don’t we owe it to ourselves and our families to do so?


Why doesn’t UFT leadership want us to have the right to strike?

At last week’s DA, James Cole of MORE proposed an amendment to a resolution celebrating the UFT’s 60th anniversary. Had it passed, the amendment would have added language that recognized the role of striking in the formation and early success of the UFT. More controversially, it would have also compelled UFT leadership to lobby New York State to pass legislation guaranteeing the right to strike.

Immediately, multiple members of Unity Caucus took the mic to speak in opposition. Most powerfully, LeRoy Barr gave an impassioned speech about why we’re better off with the Taylor Law than without. As I pointed out when I spoke, this created a false dichotomy of ‘the right to strike’ vs ‘Taylor Law protections’, since the amendment didn’t ask to repeal the good parts of the Taylor Law and only asked to re-grant the right to strike. Barr also argued that if we really needed to strike, we’d go ahead and violate the Taylor Law. His rhetorical style here was compelling, but misleading. He simultaneously painted the UFT as being willing to strike while arguing against having the right to do so. He also left out the obvious – that we haven’t actually struck since 1975.

There were other Unity speakers as well, though Barr probably single-handedly did the convincing. One Unity speaker probably actually lost them a few votes when she absurdly suggested that striking was only for people with generational wealth and white privilege. For some more analysis on the blow by blow see MORE’s statement or my minutes (linked above). In the remainder of this article, however, I’d like to examine why Unity Caucus actually argued against our right to strike.

  • Possibility 1: Unity isn’t against the right to strike. They just didn’t think it was appropriate for the amendment to go into a resolution celebrating the anniversary of the UFT. This is an argument I’ve seen circulating on social media. It was also brought up to me by a few people who attended the D.A. I’ll admit that, while I spoke in favor of the amendment, even I was a little surprised to hear it raised in the context of a resolution celebrating the birth of the UFT. But, while a sense that this amendment was out of place might explain why some people were turned off enough to vote it down 62-38, that’s clearly not why Unity Caucus spoke against it. If that were why, they would have mentioned it. They didn’t. They did, however, argue against the logic of petitioning for the right to strike.
  • Possibility 2: Unity actually thinks we’re better off without the right to strike.While opposition clearly disagrees with this position, it’s possible that Unity believes it to be true. After all, there are provisions of the Taylor Law / Tri-borough Amendment which ostensibly help us and which likely only exist in ‘exchange’ for public sector workers giving up their right to strike. A good example of this is that our contracts don’t expire if a new one isn’t negotiated by the time of its ‘expiration.’ It behooves us, of course, to keep this right, but again—currently we’re only talking about adding the right to strike, not getting rid of the parts of NYS labor law that we do like. So, until we’re directly facing legislation that only gives us back striking rights in exchange for getting rid of other labor rights, this argument falls flat.
  • Possibility 3: UFT leadership represents the City more than it represents its own members. This argument is commonly mentioned in arguments and conspiracy theories, as to why, for instance, UFT is throwing retired members onto MAP. So it’s worth considering. There is an uncanny resemblance, after all, to LeRoy Barr’s arguments against striking and the City’s own in their amicus brief submitted to the Supreme Court during the Janus case (follow the footnote for an excerpt).[1] Nevertheless, the argument is unlikely. UFT leadership is commonly at odds with the City; they are not ‘lockstep’ on everything. Possibility 3 falls apart when we look at the many times UFT has represented our members in opposition to the City. Frankly, our years with Bloomberg are case and point. Therefore, while the City of course benefits from UFT not having the right to strike, that doesn’t necessarily explain why UFT leadership is also against it.
  • Possibility 4: Unity thinks that UFT leadership and the labor bureaucracy is better off without the right to strike. Unity of course did not make this argument. If they had done so, they would have clearly lost the vote. But, as the caucus that makes up the leadership and paid staffers of our union, Unity clearly benefits from us not having the right to strike. First of all, it’s much more difficult to organize a strike than it is to do backroom deals with the City. If they could keep their jobs and not have to organize strikes, that would benefit them. Second of all, without the right to strike, rank-and-file educators seemingly aren’t directly involved in union fights. Therefore, Unity can take credit for all of our union’s wins (‘we do the work’), while hiding behind the downsides of labor law (like bad ‘patterns’) when things don’t go our way. This helps them hold onto power both during and between elections. Finally, Unity itself doesn’t have to deal with the consequences of being a weak union (i.e. subpar working conditions and low pay). Members of UFT leadership either barely work in schools or don’t work in them at all. They also enjoy Wall Street level salaries that aren’t paid by the DOE; they therefore aren’t affected when we are forced to take a bad pattern. Neither are the many Unity members who get patronage jobs. Many of those jobs, I’d add, only exist because we are so committed to Post-Taylor business-style unionism. If our organizing abilities got strong enough, they might limit the need for some of the positions in our union bureaucracy. This means that many UFT staffers have a direct interest in keeping membership from having a right to strike.

Possibility 4 is the most likely reason why Unity Caucus argues against our right to strike. Sorry, but that’s not a good enough reason to deny us what the U.N. has called a ‘human right.

[1] Excerpt from the City’s amicus brief in Janus: “When a ban on strikes paired with collective bargaining and automatic dues collection proved an ineffectual response to the crisis, the City and State turned to agency shop agreements as part of a broader labor management strategy designed to promote labor stability. The City’s collective bargaining system flourished thereafter, and its success has helped protect public health and safety ever since. Over the decades, the reliable funding provided by agency fees has enabled the City’s public-sector unions to pursue informed bargaining strategies that benefit the workforce broadly, rather than short-term or confrontational approaches designed to serve only the interests of those most willing to pay union dues. Effective collective bargaining regimes are time- and resource-intensive, and must protect all represented employees, whether active or inactive, member or nonmember. Financial stability helps empower unions to build long-lasting and constructive bargaining relationships with the City, improving the provision of public services to the benefit of all residents. Indeed, disagreements between the City and its unions now rarely result in the sort of public disruption that plagued New Yorkers before agency fees were used.”

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June 2023