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Teachers In New York Should Reject Weak Contract

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Gabe Berry is a UFT delegate writing in personal capacity.

On June 13, the United Federation of Teachers Delegate Assembly, in a specially convened meeting, voted in favor of a tentative agreement reached with Eric Adams and the City of New York. The agreement – reached just hours before a discussion of its full contents was put forward to the executive board – is now to be put for a vote towards the whole membership. The contents of the agreement include a $3,000 sign-on bonus, 18-20% raises spread over five years, and a once-a-year end-of-year “teacher retention” bonus starting at $400, increasing to $1,034 in five years, reflecting the “pattern” set by the AFSCME DC 37 contract. DC 37 is the largest union of New York City employees

Another significant part of the contract includes language around organizing the workday for virtual learning, touted by UFT president Michael Mulgrew, Chancellor David Banks, and Mayor Eric Adams as ending the era of “brick and mortar” schools and offering students and teachers a “voluntary” and “flexible” way to organize their day. This “no-concessions” contract, if voted, would amount to the UFT agreeing to institutionalize the disastrous policy of virtual learning during the pandemic, transforming teachers into traveling tutors, continue the DOE policy of pushing kids to be workforce-ready with as little academic and social-emotional support as possible, and set a precedent for the ruling class to wage an all-out assault on the work day. This contract, and the drive by Adams and Mulgrew to push through this by the end of June, represents a complete failure to address how the crisis in education is affecting the teacher workforce.

UFT Bringing Down Expectations

The lead up to this began when the current contract expired in September of 2022. Teachers had already faced the massive trauma of dealing with flip-flops from the city around COVID safety, moves to remote learning, betrayals over privatizing retiree healthcare, and last minute agreements pushed through over the membership’s heads. The strategy of the UFT leadership essentially amounted to “watching the DC37 negotiations carefully,” sending a survey to members about what they wanted without releasing the results, urging chapter leaders (UFT shop stewards) to organize “contract teach-ins” where membership can learn what’s in their current contract, organizing city-wide grade-ins where teachers were encouraged outside of contracted work hours to grade their work, and rallies in all five boroughs on the contract. 

In none of these actions was the membership informed of the demands the UFT would fight for and offered a real avenue for organizing collective action outside of the prescribed actions of the leadership and social media posts. In fact, members of the 500-person negotiation committee had to sign non-disclosure agreements barring any discussion with members about the possible contents of the agreement, the committee were literally being asked to “bring down” expectations with members. The leadership had insisted the goal was to get negotiations done by the end of the school year.

As negotiations went on, the UFT had reported to delegates and chapter leaders that they were going well with some hiccups here or there; that the Chancellor “agrees with us” on the workday (without details on what that means); and that the mayor and city council (despite having rammed through cuts last year) had now agreed to put more money for education in the budget. On June 5, the UFT’s leadership’s tone over negotiations took a radical shift. The NYCDOE had put forward a calendar late for parents and students, but before negotiations were finished over the workday, resetting the workday to include 37.5 minutes of small group instruction every Monday-Thursday. Michael Mulgrew was reportedly “furious” expressing how this was a complete blindside by the DOE. 

The tone taken towards the DOE with membership and, in a limited way, the public was that the DOE was “not negotiating in good faith” and chapter leaders were encouraged to organize pickets before and after school hours and to urge members to only work contracted hours. To underscore the escalation, the DA which was scheduled to meet that Wednesday was canceled. From then until June 13, the tone set was that it was possible negotiations could stretch into summer and into the next school year. At noon on the 13th, during teacher work hours, Adams, Mulgrew, and Banks announced in a special press conference on labor that a tentative agreement had been reached. The negotiating committee was set to meet at 2pm to put this TA, without full language, forward to the executive board, then to the DA which met at 4:30pm and voted on putting the TA forward to the membership at 6:15pm. 

All of this is to underscore the lengths to which the leadership went to prevent any real review or any real check by the membership. However, the procedural problems are only a symptom of the underlying failure of UFT business unionism. The agreement they are seeking to ram through makes no meaningful impact at pushing back against the destruction of teachers’ and educational staff’s working conditions and the public school system of NYC. The UNITY leadership’s goal was to always have a working business relationship with the city to prevent any meaningful mass action organized by UFT members by any means necessary. The UFT leadership essentially wants to play the role of being secondhand to the boss, another extension of the government in dictating the terms of work for working people under capitalism. Members of any union with a business unionist leadership should always expect these flip-flops and twists-and-turns. 

But the fact of the matter is, the DOE was never going to negotiate in good faith to begin with. Capitalism is in complete disorder and in order to save it, the capitalists are going to fight as hard as possible to reorganize the workday in any sector they possibly can to save costs and keep profits high. At the Delegate Assembly, Michael Mulgrew argued that this was the best contract possible. But given that the raises amount to a cut in real pay, teachers during a teacher shortage are being paid pennies as a bonus, and now the DOE is given full leeway to cut up the workday to make teachers work at any hour of the day without an increase in pay, this only underlines how the leadership is a tick on the lifeblood of the union and no longer serves the interests of its membership.

There has been discussion among teachers that all of the negotiation tricks and tone shifts were bluffs to put forward a sellout contract. While it is not out of character for union leaderships to outright lie to their membership, this is not the primary issue. In all possibility, there could very well have been a blindside by the city that the leadership was not prepared for, but therein lies the rub. Union members deserve a leadership that is able to go into direct confrontation with their employer and name them enemy number one, which means having a genuine understanding of the class forces at play. At every instance, the UFT leadership could have warned members about the virtual workday and pay cuts, which Adams has alluded to, but 

chose to frame it as something that offers “flexibility.” All cities and states are bleeding first year teachers, and all they get for helping students address enormous challenges, including a massive mental health crisis and many falling far behind during the pandemic is a tiny bonus. Their primary goal is to protect their privileges and their relationship with the city, not to represent their membership.

What’s Needed Now

Even given some minor benefits such as increasing paid parental leave and decreasing paperwork in some areas, the TA as it stands does not meaningfully address the structural problems of what educational staff face. The city still plans to ram through a literacy curriculum which does not address the cultural and linguistic diversity of the city. There are no plans for structuring meaningful restorative or social-emotional learning for students, and flowing from that, increasing staff in order to meet those needs. There is zero plan for meaningful, ongoing education for the membership about the union and its importance. Most teachers recognize how inflation has meant a real pay cut and the impact of the pandemic on our working conditions. That, and many other reasons, is why opposition groups in the union like MORE, and Socialist Alternative are calling to organize a no vote on the TA.

Arguments have been made that a no vote will only bring about minor improvements. Other arguments have also been made that a no vote needs to be accompanied by a threat to strike action. Both of these arguments are true in the sense that they underline the need to organize a forceful fightback against the city. However, what cannot be accepted is acquiescing to the fight despite being in a minority. There are many examples in workers history where minority leaderships have been able to lead the membership to fight for and win more, such as when MORE led the walkouts during the pandemic. 

There has also been an argument that since DC 37 set the wage pattern for bargaining, the UFT cannot negotiate higher. This is an argument from tradition and no union is under any obligation to respect a process that undersells their membership. The immediate key question for a minority opposition is not a mechanical one of whether or not there are the numbers to fight or if the membership is ready to fight back, but whether or not the opposition can pose a clear fighting approach with real demands that go about addressing working conditions on the side of workers. The strike by Los Angeles educators provides a fantastic example for how a leadership can mobilize membership to fight for those demands.

United for Change, the opposition coalition that ran in the latest UFT election, has put out a list of five demands. They include a living wage meeting inflation, premium-free and quality healthcare, a smaller class size guarantee, real teacher autonomy with reduced case loads, improvements to tenure, evaluations, family leave, and pensions. These, along with MORE’s own demands, can be a good start towards envisioning what’s possible for membership. There should also be an immediate plan of lettering and tabling at schools to inform teachers of the TA, rallies calling for a no vote, and organizing before and after school pickets at schools that are properly mobilized for them. MORE has called for not just organizing a no vote, but for schools to not open until a genuine TA has been reached. This kind of escalation can be built for as long as the demands are clear and determination is consistent and clear, which can steer teachers into confidently voting no. Even a yes vote of 60-40 by the membership given how little time leadership has given members would represent a massive push-back against the city and leadership, which should embolden opposition to keep growing and fighting harder.

Right now, heavy criticism has been lobbied towards Eric Adams from many sides given his agenda of becoming a tech Bloomberg. However, a key component of naming the enemy that is still missing from MORE is calling out the role of the Democratic Party. This is not a minor point given how they run both the city and the state. While undemocratic processes need to be addressed, we also need a political strategy to fight back that names exactly who are fighting.

A union contract represents a cease-fire in the overall class struggle. Right now, the fight for the dignity of working conditions in public education is against Eric Adams, the Democratic Party, and the capitalist system. The TA may be passed, but it won’t be one without some scuffs. There is kindling from the injuries of the past and new examples of victories right now that demonstrate a potential for a push-back from the rank-and-file. But if a contract is a cease-fire in a struggle, this TA shows just how much you can get from dog and pony show politics. Workers deserve better. When you see the agreement, vote no and urge your fellow educators to also do so.

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