UFT – Want Tier 6 Pensions Fixed? Do More than Just Donate to COPE.

The majority of UFT members have a pension problem. Tier 6 members, who now make up most of the UFT, pay exorbitant ‘pension taxes’ in the form of over-contributions for their entire careers, while traditional Tier 4 members had stopped paying into their pensions at ten years and never at the higher rates of Tier 6ers. Tier 6ers must retire at 63, even if they’ve been working for the DOE since the age of 21 or 18.  That means a pension retirement ratio of up to 45-63 compared to 25-55 or 30-55 for most Tier 4 members. As Ben Morgenroth showed in the New Action / UFT ‘Fix Tier 6’ presentation earlier this month, all of this means millions of dollars in lost net income, and less time to enjoy it. But don’t worry: UFT leadership has a plan – and that plan is for you to donate to COPE.

The Question of COPE

For those of you who don’t know, COPE is a special voluntary contribution that union members can make to support political activities not covered by our regular dues payments. They support our lobbying efforts, as well as political campaigns for politicians we endorse. It used to be that donating to COPE was a no brainer. However, in recent years, the question of COPE has become more controversial. Some long-time COPE payers have ceased making donations because of the question of where that money really goes. Part of that controversy stems from the politicians we have supported – such as Eric Adams (endorsed, somehow, by the DA after the primary). But the meat of the issue comes down to healthcare, especially regarding UFT-Unity Leadership’s odd campaign to change the language of City Administrative Code 12-126, a law which protects active and retired members alike from paying health insurance costs above the HIP rate. This (thankfully, failed) recent campaign was especially problematic, because it wasn’t even subjected to a rubber stamp vote at the executive board, and certainly never brought up at the DA. It left members asking: ‘are we, without even voting to do so, paying for things that hurt members long term just to give short term flexibility to union leadership in broader negotiations?’

Mulgrew and company have also irked COPE contributors by failing to lobby in favor of the New York Health Act (and seemingly doing the opposite, at least to membership) despite the passage of official UFT resolutions in that bill’s support. More recently, general questions of our union leadership coming to decisions to influence or challenge our City and State’s democracy without first checking with us, such as with the undemocratic recent decision of UFT Leadership to use our resources to sue governmental agencies to stop congestion pricing, have put COPE and similar activities once again under the microscope.

I continue to pay into COPE, hoping that the pros outweigh the cons. The main reason I contribute, in fact, is for pension reforms, even as I know full well that it is likely very little of that money is used for that purpose. To that end, with all the recent controversies in mind, is COPE really being used to fix Tier 6, or is it merely being used as part of an advertising campaign to get more members to pay into COPE, just to see that money used for other purposes – purposes that members might not even agree with?

Let’s Look at the Facts

UFT’s legislative priorities do indeed include fixing Tier 6, suggesting that COPE at least to some extent is being directed that way, although strangely the fine print doesn’t touch what I consider to be the main immediate problem affecting Tier 6 members – our overcontributions. Testimony by NYSUT President, Melinda Person, and UFT President, Michael Mulgrew, has also been linked to UFT members, but as of yet such testimony has seemed to be more about lip service regarding the general need to fix Tier 6, rather than about any specific reform bills we support. Indeed, the only gain that the UFT website attributes to COPE in terms of helping to fix Tier 6 is that NYS “[r]eformed Tier 6 to enable UFT members to vest in the pension system after five years on the job, down from 10.” Notably, earlier vesting is a rather minor ‘fix’ for members who still can’t retire on the pensions they’ve vested into until they are 63. In fact, earlier vesting seems to be just as big a win for TRS, who is likely to keep more money on their rolls (also used to fund pensions for other tiers), as ‘vested’ members who leave teaching after 5-10 years are now less likely to take their money out of the TRS pot, even if the former choice might be the better financial decision for them personally. Where are the reforms that benefit the members, rather than TRS itself – an earlier retirement age, lower contributions, a better final average salary calculation?

If earlier vesting for Tier 6ers is all that has been done with COPE, we must ask whether COPE—as in COPE alone—is really the best strategy to fix Tier 6, at least with Unity in control of those funds. Indeed, if this is the best we can do, it’s highly problematic that Tier 6 members must trust that all pension issues will be taken care of before they retire, even as the creditworthiness of our union leadership is at an all-time low. Do we really expect our union leadership to make our pensions better at the same moment that they are in cahoots with the City to make our healthcare 10% worse?

Strategies Other than COPE

Daniel Alicea, in his thorough article this weekend, showed that there is much we can do in traditional collective bargaining settings (i.e. without COPE proper) to fix Tier 6. Historically, there have been several instances in which contract negotiations led to successful joint pension lobbying efforts by the UFT and the DOE. Last week at the DA, Mulgrew went as far as to suggest that NYS looks for joint agreements between unions and municipalities before committing to pension reforms legislatively. Yet, strangely, such an agreement is absent from our latest 5.5-year contract, even as Tier 6 reform efforts are supposedly underway. In other words, what little UFT leadership can do without resorting to COPE funds in the realm of traditional collective bargaining, they are opting not to do. Make no mistake, that represents nothing other than a failure of UFT leadership to collectively bargain on our behalf, a failure which has been commonplace for decades now because of the ‘union light’ model that we use.

In an apparent response to Daniel, as well as to his line of questioning at the DA, Peter Goodman wrote another piece singling out opposition for our apparent bad-faith ‘strike’ based strategy to fix Tier 6, but to be clear, this is a misunderstanding. Yes, we, the UFT, have not had a strike since 1975, even as our wage gains have started falling well behind those of more militant teachers unions and even behind the American non-union average. And yes, many in opposition believe that much of our shortfall over the last several decades has been because of our unwillingness to act like a union when we need to and build a credible strike threat. After all, even without striking, a credible strike threat exponentiates the impact of all other union strategies, something Los Angeles teachers saw firsthand when they achieved a significantly better contract than ours without actually standing on any picket lines. While Unity is quick to tie our lack of strike potential to the Taylor Law, I point more to our union leadership’s active lobbying to membership against reforming it (notice that the right to strike is not on our legislative priorities this year). But no, even though a credible strike threat would significantly increase the chances of non-strike strategies leading to fixing Tier 6, opposition has not called imminently for a strike to fix Tier 6. In fact, we have come up with an extremely detailed series of possibilities that far outstrip UFT Leadership’s ‘just join the NYSUT campaign website and donate to COPE’ plan. Here is ours (which includes, by the way, both of those things):

  • Join the existing FixTier 6 campaign.  Go to FixTier6.org
  • Donate to COPE. Tell them to support campaigns that prioritize specific pension improvements. Priority #1 is to end the Tier 6 tax by reducing the contribution rate and stopping contributions after 10 years.
  • Educate members in your chapter about the problems with Tier 6 and how they can get involved to help our union to fix it.  Share this presentation and see the UFT toolkit: tinyurl.com/ufttier6toolkit
  • Ask your chapter leader their opinion on Tier 6 reform and what they are doing about it.
  • Urge your CL for monthly updates on specific actions the UFT has taken towards pension improvements. Bring UFT speakers to chapter meetings to speak on pensions.
  • Have your chapter Political Action/CAT Teams organize around this issue.
  • If chapter leadership is not acting on this, organize for the chapter leader and delegate elections this Spring.  Make this and other chapter issues basis for election campaign.
  • Write and sign petitions. Contact and pressure elected representatives.
  • Demand contingent provisions in a 2024 MOA and the 2027 contract by which the City/UFT will jointly lobby the State for pension reforms.
  • Initiate ladders of job action until our demands are met.
  • Organize, hold and attend rallies to help raise public awareness and gain public support.
  • Vote in UFT elections for candidates who offer specific pension reforms with
    reasonable timelines for reaching them and appropriate job actions if not met.
  • Publish Op-Ed pieces in well-circulated media about the pension crisis.
  • Post articles and information about the Tier 6 pension on social media. Share the information with teachers and non-teachers alike. Help to inform the public!
  • Go to delegate assemblies and town halls and ask UFT leadership to report on their pension reform efforts. Pressure the UFT to aggressively pursue this issue on our behalf.

And of course, tell your Chapter Leader these are non-negotiable:

  • End Tier 6 contributions after 10 years.
  • Full benefits at 55 with 25 years of service.
  • Restore the 8.25% fixed rate TDA, especially in light of rising interest rates.
  • Pension benefit based on best single year.

And that’s how we fix Tier 6. We can’t just donate to COPE and hope for the best, especially when we have no evidence that any substantial share of COPE funds is being used to advance our pension agenda. Yes, we need to hold our leadership accountable and make sure they are using our COPE infrastructure to fix Tier 6, especially now that they are using this vague campaign as their primary mechanism of soliciting donations into that system. But we can’t fix Tier 6 through COPE alone. While it’s key that we utilize a multi-faceted campaign that—yes, uses our COPE funds to fix our pensions—we will increase the ‘bang of our COPE buck’ by activating our union’s power through real organizing.

Nick Bacon is a co-chair of the UFT’s New Action Caucus as well as an elected member of the UFT Executive Board.

Nick Bacon is a co-chairperson at New Action Caucus. He is also an elected member of the UFT executive board

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