Anger brewing over NYC teachers’ contract

May 22, 2014

More and more NYC teachers are ready to say "no" to the UFT deal, writes Leia Petty, a guidance counselor and member of the Movement of Rank-and-File Educators.

"DO THEY think we're stupid?" This was the question a teacher asked me as I entered my school building the day after the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) contract settlement was announced. He was referring to the $1,000 signing bonus and the text alert which stated, "The wait is over! We have a proposed contract that pays 18 percent with full retroactivity."

It sure makes for a good headline, but many UFT members aren't buying it.

The UFT is run by the Unity caucus, which has maintained control over the union for nearly 50 years. There is a refined combination of undemocratic maneuvering and engendered passivity that has helped maintain its control over the union, but one only has to read the union's own reporting on the contract to realize it's a bad deal.

For starters, they need a complicated graph to explain when and how we will receive "retroactive" pay--which many rightfully expected would come in a lump sum after working under an expired contract for the last five years.

Some feared that retroactive pay would be the carrot the UFT used to sell a contract that contained changes in working conditions and health care that could forever alter our profession.

MORE members speak out against the contract
MORE members speak out against the contract

Instead, we have a rotting carrot (the incremental retro distribution and raise structure doesn't cover cost-of-living increases) dangling over a contract that does nothing to alter class size (the number one concern for parents and teachers), cements the new evaluation system and Common Core curriculum, creates a separate due process for teachers who are "excessed" from closing schools (the Absent Teacher Reserve, or ATRs), begins a merit pay scheme, and provides the opportunity for "innovation" whereby up to 200 school can opt out of sections of the contract through a vote by their staff (in cases where schools wanted to lengthen the school day or school year, for example).

I was admittedly shocked by the widespread rejection of the proposed contract among my school staff--considering the UFT leadership's praise and the outright celebration of the contract blasted on news channels and in newspapers throughout the city.

But I shouldn't have been. The attack our profession has experienced over the years, combined with an increasingly out-of-touch union leadership, has created an opportunity to organize a campaign against the contract that can send an important message to our union, our public-sector brothers and sisters who this contract will set the pattern for, and newly elected Mayor Bill de Blasio: We deserve more.

This is a sentiment many teachers are reporting in schools around the city. Megan Behrent, a high school English teacher in Brooklyn, reported:

Most of the members at my school think the contract is a bad deal. Many (if not most) will vote no. The big question is whether we can do better, or would voting no possibly produce something worse. People have very little confidence in our union leadership. And for some of our younger teachers, making starting salary, things are bad, and any pay increase is something that people need.

That being said, at our chapter meetings the sentiment was overwhelmingly against it. The concession around due process for ATRs was something that really bothered people. Since we were a school that faced "turnaround" at one point, many people remember that we could all be ATRs.

WHY IS the UFT selling this contract so hard? How could the home page of the UFT website be filled with confetti and balloons while members in schools around the city are reporting widespread anger and dissatisfaction with the contract details? In the last week alone, more than 100 teachers have turned out to happy hours organized by the Movement of Rank and File Educators (MORE), which is organizing a public campaign to vote down the contract.

Megan Moskop, a MORE activist and middle school teacher, said, "At M.S. 324, quite a few teachers feel really turned off by the way they were told to celebrate by union leadership, then got more details of the contract a few days later and realized there was no cause for celebration. One teacher even called it betrayal of trust."

How could the UFT be so out of touch? Do they think we're stupid?

It's definitely true that the UFT is out of touch with the membership. There is little internal democracy that would allow for an accurate polling of the membership, and none was done during contract negotiations in order to know what the demands of teachers are. Monthly delegate assemblies are attended by a small percentage of delegates and chapter leaders (many of whom signed loyalty oaths to the leadership).

Those employed by the union to provide support to chapter leaders are, at best, a resource to answer basic questions over e-mail. At worst, there have been reports of district representatives doing school visits around the contract, and using bullying and fear tactics in response to critical questions and concerns.

As of late, the means used to sell the contract has shifted from celebration ("the wait is over!") to desperation ("this is the best we can get, and if you don't vote for it, we'll get in line behind 150 other public-sector unions and likely get worse.")

As a guidance counselor, I don't use the term bullying lightly. But my experience at the Delegate Assembly where the vote was taken on whether to bring the proposed contract back to the membership was one of the worst miscarriages of union democracy and bullying I have seen since elected chapter leader of my school.

After speaking for an hour, UFT President Michael Mulgrew allowed for 30 minutes of questions, where he got to respond in length after each one--especially lengthy if they were critical questions--and then allowed only 10 minutes for comments.

He proceeded to turn off the microphone on one critic (who happened to be the one to remind him to follow the democratic norm of alternating between those for and against) and then rushed through the vote while over 30 members, including myself, were waiting in line to speak. In short, the most important decision we have made in our Delegate Assembly in nine years was only allowed two opposing comments.

Subsequent visits by district representatives to schools have shocked teachers with the method employed to convince members to vote yes. John Yanno, a history teacher in Brooklyn, reported:

Today, a special representative for the UFT visited the school to sell us on the contract. Not many people attended, but most of the people there were pretty angry. One chapter leader charged that this wasn't the first time the UFT dangled some money in front of us to distract us from the givebacks. Others raised concerns about the future of the ATRs. The rep seemed unable to respond to our concerns and attempted to turn the tables on us by intimating that if we were having certain problems like we were describing, the chapter leader needs to do a better job.

IN THE face of so many unanswered questions and insulting behavior, many members are looking to Facebook, blogs and the MORE caucus for answers. It's an important organizing opportunity for those who are trying to rebuild democracy in the UFT and for social justice in our public schools. Kevin Prosen, a middle school English teacher, reported:

Thirty-five people came out to a meeting sponsored by MORE in Astoria, raising questions and debating the contract. In contrast to the one-directional conversations of a typical union meeting, the MORE gatherings have been freewheeling, participatory discussions. Teachers took vote-no flyers back to their schools.

Recent developments in teachers' unions nationally--the Chicago Teachers Union voting down Common Core, the election of Barbara Madeloni from Educators for a Democratic Union to lead the Massachusetts Teachers Association, the campaign for union president by Jesse Hagopian from Social Equality Educators in Seattle--have been an important source of inspiration for those of us in New York. But as Lee Sustar reported at, we're facing an uphill difficult battle within one of the largest and most top-down teacher unions in the country.

And the contract proposal is more than a result of an out-of-touch and undemocratic leadership. Both of those traits accompany a larger strategy that sees lobbying and rubbing elbows with the Democratic Party as the primary strategy for improvement in schools. The extent of political activity organized by the UFT comes via press releases, political endorsements and the occasional symbolic rally. All of these are in the service of the strategy of electing Democrats who, they promise, will then be our "friend."

But these friendships aren't working out to well.

This contract is the first fully negotiated by newly elected Bill de Blasio, who is regarded as an ally to labor and often held up in contrast to the relationship our union had with former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who he replaced. But Bloomberg set the bar pretty low for de Blasio--apparently, all it takes is a returned phone call to feel like a "friend" after Bloomberg's reign. Much of the language used to convince people to vote for the contract praise this newfound collaboration.

Mulgrew wrote, "We have all lived through a dark and difficult period for New York City public schools. Our previous mayor took our school system in a direction that we educators knew was totally misguided and he refused to negotiate a contract with us in good faith." Later, he wrote, "Working in partnership with Mayor Bill de Blasio and Chancellor Carmen Fariña, we now have the opportunity to rebuild our city's school system with educators--not bureaucrats or consultants--in the driver's seat. Our agreement is the product of a shared belief that it is our school communities that must be the agents of change."

Yet the contracts ensures that consultants and bureaucrats will remain in the driver's seat, as neither mayoral control, Common Core or the new evaluation system will be challenged as a result of this contract.

Emily Giles, a high school science teacher in Brooklyn, was told by a UFT district rep visiting her school, "Don't you think it would make things harder on de Blasio in the future if we vote this down?" It's a strange turning of the tables--we're supposed to accept a contract that many believe will hurt us in order to make things easier on de Blasio?

This goes beyond the UFT's leadership personal concern for de Blasio's feelings. It represents a deeper concern for the working conditions of Michael Mulgrew (his potential strained relationship as a result of a contract rejection) over the working conditions of the 100,000 members determined by this contract.

But rebound relationships never end well. First, de Blasio betrayed campaign promises on curbing charter school expansion. Now, we get a disappointing contract--and it will set the pattern for over 150 other municipal unions. A movement for better working, living and learning conditions across New York City will have to make demands beyond the limited horizons set by this new partnership.

A VOTE "no" campaign, however many votes we can muster, will send an important message to our union leadership and the political elite about what we are unwilling to accept. But convincing people to vote "no" is also about reaching out to our coworkers and teachers in neighboring schools to do the organizing and mobilizing that our union is unable, unwilling and afraid to do.

The MORE caucus released demands for the contract we should be fighting for, which includes decreasing caseloads for counselors, reduction in class size, equity for students and a fair raise. It's an important tool that can increase the confidence and expectations of our members that our union leadership is currently undermining.

Teachers' unions around the country are showing a different way forward, with many uniting behind the Chicago Teachers Union's vision for "the schools our children deserve." This past weekend, hundreds of parents, teachers and students gathered for the Save Our schools rally in New York City that brought together those in the vanguard standing up to Common Core, high-stakes testing and for racial and social justice inside our schools and communities.

Rosie Frascella, a teacher activist and organizer of the most recent high school boycott of the standardized test mandated by the new teacher evaluation system, said at the rally:

We might not all agree on the why, but we must all agree on the how. How do we build trust and partnership among parents, teachers and students in order to build a movement that will not only hold politicians accountable, but will truly put parents, teachers and students first?...

We must organize locally and use the grassroots organizations here today as our foundation. We may not have the money that the reformers have. But we have the people, we have the knowledge and we have the power. When the staff members at my school risked their jobs for the well being of their students, the leadership of the UFT was absent and silent...But these are our schools. This is our fight. We are the union. The time is now. And we are ready."

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