Posts Tagged 'Strikes'

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?


Striking is not Antiquated: L.A. education workers prove UFT leadership wrong with 30% Salary Increases

Last week, we had the displeasure of hearing the party of our union leadership argue against members having the right to strike. In the land of pattern bargaining, striking is antiquated, said one. It’s white privilege, said another. We don’t need the right, because we’d strike anyways if things were ever actually bad said their caucus president. A few members additionally pointed to cities like LA and Chicago and said—they’re just striking for what we already have here in New York.

The timing couldn’t have been more ironic. For, but a few days later, highly diverse education workers in Los Angeles went on strike. And they didn’t go on strike to get what we already have in New York City. The City of Los Angeles offered them a better deal than the sub-inflation DC37 pattern that UFT leadership wants us to be stuck with. But, more importantly, the striking workers won. They’ll be getting 30% salary increases, among other perks.

 Let’s look at some facts/analysis.

  • The workers who went on strike in Los Angeles are not ‘people of privilege.’ They are amongst the lowest paid public sector workers in the city, filling approximately the same positions as the lowest paid workers in DC37.
  • Times are rough in Los Angeles, but they’re rougher in New York. Over the last 12 months, when compared with Los Angeles, general inflation is higher by a full percentage point in New York. Nevertheless, L.A. workers agree, that times are bad enough to strike.
  • Cities like L.A. don’t just strike to get what we have in New York; they strike even when they’re given a better deal than us. Indeed, LA’s latest offer was about a 23% increase over 5 years with a 3% cash-in-hand bonus, a $20 minimum wage, and full healthcare benefits for part-time workers (4 hours a day or more). That’s about 7 percentage points higher than what DC37 was given (16.21%) and two dollars more in terms of a minimum wage ($18). But, Education Workers United was seeking 30% and an additional $2 an hour over the next few years, as well as more hours for their workers. They weren’t ‘settling for less in solidarity,’ as our unions are. Moreover, health insurance is already 100% premium free for L.A.’s striking workers. To my knowledge, union leadership there is not trying to organize for members to pay more for coverage or be switched to inferior plans, as our own union leadership is doing here.
  • Striking is clearly not antiquated. The strike in L.A. has ended after just a few days of workers organizing together on the picket line. And they won. Per CBS, “the agreement includes a 30% wage increase and a retroactive pay increase of between $4,000 and $8,000. The increase will raise the average annual salary of its workers from about $25,000 to $33,000.”

In conclusion, Los Angeles proves New York’s union leadership wrong. When we organize together, we can do better. But in the bizarro land of New York, where the union organizes only to get us thrown off our healthcare, while threatening lawsuits to real progressive organizers, we’re told that the only way to truly be ‘union proud’ is to ‘don’t worry, be happy.’ Under the leadership of Unity Caucus, the UFT has become ‘post-union.’ Let’s take a page from L.A. and start acting like a union again. That starts with at least working to win back the right to strike.

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June 2023