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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