What should the UFT do in the midst of climate/weather emergency?

New Action / UFT has been busy lately, with Marianne Pizzitola and Kate Connors joining us last week to discuss healthcare, and with three subcommittees meeting later this week to discuss organizing (Oct. 3 at 5:30 PM), abusive administrators (Oct. 4 at 5:30 PM), and Tier 6 reform (Oct. 5 at 5:30 PM). (Please reach out to me at [email protected] for details/links).

I’ve been so busy, in fact, that I haven’t had a chance to write about the catastrophic flooding event last week. Luckily, Chalkbeat did a fairly good job covering the story. Daniel Alicea also put together a radio show, which included recollections from affected educators (including myself). From those sources, we know that the City knew in advance that conditions were going to be dangerous on Friday. Ultimately, Hochul declared a state of emergency, as over five inches of rainfall shut down a city without the infrastructure to withstand such a massive and rapid deluge. Soaked educators and students shivered in classes while emergency alarms echoed eerily in unison from their phones. Others were stranded, as teachers lost cars to the flood, and as teachers and students waited at or between subway stops with transit halted and severely delayed even in the early commuting hours. ‘Only’ 150 schools experienced some degree of flooding within their walls, but on their commutes, all teachers and educators had to deal with similar perilous weather conditions that killed at least thirteen people during Ida. Students at non-neighborhood schools, many who perhaps only know one or two ways to get from point A to point B, were stranded at or near schools by the end of the school day, as key roads were closed and as most subway lines in the city were shut down.

With so many lives put in imminent danger, we might have expected a concession that Adams and Banks were mistaken in keeping the schools open. That’s not what we got. Instead, Adams insisted without irony that “This was the right call. Our children are safe in schools. There is a big inconvenience when you close the schools.” I almost don’t feel the need to qualify how absurd this statement is, but I will. It doesn’t matter how safe schools are—and 150 schools being flooded and one being evacuated even brings that claim into question—but, again, it doesn’t matter how safe schools are if it isn’t safe for students/teachers to get to or home from them.

I’ve got to head out to work in a moment, so I won’t have a chance to polish this piece to the level I usually like to before I hit ‘publish,’ but I want to close with a quick discussion about what all this means for the UFT. Our lives, and the lives of our students, were put at risk on Friday despite the existence of technology to facilitate remote instruction in cases of inclement weather. Not only did the City send us in anyways; they doubled down after it was clear they were wrong to do so, insisting that they’d done the right thing. As climate change surges and extreme weather events multiply, we know that the likelihood of something like this happening again is almost certain. In the past, our membership has laughed off school not being cancelled in blizzards—not having snow days in NYC was a fact of life. But, 5 inches of rain in a mere couple of hours is far more dangerous than 5 inches of snow.

All this is to say that we’ve reached the point where the UFT can no longer ignore climate related extreme weather events. In a moment of climate crisis, our union cannot sit idly by. We can’t just go to climate marches. We need to actively start pressuring the City to do the right thing – to not put our lives at risk when climate events strike. It won’t be easy. Our union has given up most of its power outside of traditional bargaining subjects—and climate emergency is certainly not a traditional bargaining subject. In the end, we’ll need to regain a capacity to strike if we want to have any power, and that will be difficult with a union leadership who mocks and heckles members for having the audacity to utter the words ‘strike readiness.’ But we’ve reached the point where our lives will be at risk if we don’t start mobilizing. In that context, I hope even Unity will recognize the need to do things differently, though I won’t hold my breath.

-Nick Bacon, Cochair of New Action and member of the UFT Executive Board

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