Will New York Teachers Strike for Safe Schools?

Jia Lee

In response to Mayor Bill de Blasio pushing a public schools reopening despite the serious dangers it would pose, New York City’s United Federation of Teachers is considering their first strike in almost half a century. We talked to union activist and Brooklyn teacher Jia Lee about why a school reopening isn’t safe and what teachers are willing to do to stop it.

Striking teachers and supporters in Los Angeles, 2019. (David McNew / Getty Images)

Interview by
Eric Blanc

The United Federation of Teachers (UFT), which represents over a hundred thousand educators in New York City and is the largest teachers union local in the United States, is threatening to strike to stop unsafe school reopenings.

Jacobin’s Eric Blanc spoke with Jia Lee, a special education teacher at the Earth School, a United Federation of Teachers (UFT) chapter leader, and an organizer with the Movement of Rank-and-File Educators (MORE), the UFT’s rank-and-file caucus. The interview has been edited for clarity.

Eric Blanc

Mayor Bill de Blasio is saying that COVID-19 transmission rates in NYC are low enough to allow for schools to reopen safely. Is he right?

Jia Lee

When we talk about safely reopening schools, it’s irresponsible and unconscionable to take a citywide average. We live in a huge city, with 1.2 million students — Brooklyn itself is almost the size of Chicago.

And the reality is that transmission rates in some working-class neighborhoods are still very high. In Sunset Park in Brooklyn, for example, the transmission rate was recently as high as 7 percent, and you have a similar dynamic in some neighborhoods in the Bronx and Queens. But still there are schools in these areas that are planning on reopening in person on September 10.

And this isn’t just an issue for those neighborhoods. We have a lot of citywide schools in New York, which means that you’re going to have a whole lot more students from neighborhoods with higher COVID rates traveling on the subway all across the city, potentially bringing the virus into other neighborhoods.

So at this moment, a safe reopening in our city means starting remotely only. A safe and equitable reopening also means that we need immediate financial assistance from the city and the state to make sure every school is safely retrofitted and to make sure that parents who need help with their children can stay home.

It means including all voices from the school buildings in the decision-making process, not just admin and teachers. Lots of voices are currently being left out. We need to include school staff like paras, custodians, secretaries, and we need to include parents and students.

And a safe and equitable reopening means providing the funds to make all this possible. So many of our buildings were unsafe even before COVID — our ventilation systems and the rest haven’t been upgraded for years. What COVID has done is highlight the decades of neglect of our public services.

Eric Blanc

And now Governor Cuomo is talking about even deeper cuts.

Jia Lee

Right, it’s impossible to have a safe reopening if the state goes through with its budget cuts of up to 20 percent, which would mean losing nine thousand educator jobs in New York City alone.

The money is there to make our schools not only safe, but fully funded: New York state saw the rise of five new billionaires since pandemic began. The rich have gotten richer, while cuts are imposed on working-class people, especially in black and brown communities.

The city government is claiming that only the federal government can bail us out. But there are revenue streams in our state, where we have a regressive tax system. The top 2 percent of the population in New York pays about 8 percent in income tax, while the average worker pays 11–13 percent in income. Plus, there are major tax loopholes for the rich. So the funds exist to make our schools safe and equitable — but we need to organize to force the politicians to do the right thing.

Eric Blanc

What do you think about the mayor’s announcement this week that NYC schools can do outdoor learning?

Jia Lee

It’s not sufficient. Let’s zoom out for a second: all the policies and directives from the mayor and the DOE [Department of Education] are not being done through an equity lens. Some schools in the city — those that tend to be in richer and whiter communities — have already been planning for months how to address the reopening. They also have the funds to take necessary health and safety steps for the buildings, through the fundraising done by their PTAs [Parent Teacher Association].

But there are still schools in poorer neighborhoods that are completely unprepared for the reopenings. These are often in the neighborhoods in NYC with the highest rates of violence — some parents in these neighborhoods say these are not safe places for outside learning.

But these disparities are not being addressed by the mayor. If you want to do outside learning according to this new plan, schools have until this Friday to request permits. But this is all being done without giving us serious access to necessary resources like tents. And no guidance is being offered about what exactly should be done pedagogically with outside education. It takes training to do outside education well — you can’t just announce it will happen.

All these directions from the DOE are framed under the guise of “choice.” It sounds nice to say it’s up to parents and admins to choose — for example, parents can choose whether they want their children to do remote education only, or blended. But there’s no guidance or resources being given to those who need it.

Parents of means have greater flexibility: they can hire babysitters, they can organize pods. But city, state, and federal officials haven’t done what’s needed to give a real choice to marginalized communities. That would mean providing things like a monthly stimulus check (not just a one-off check); access to free health care; and a rent and eviction freeze. If you’re housing or food insecure, you don’t really have a choice right now when it comes to your children and school.

Many parents are telling us: “I don’t have a choice. I need schools to be open, even though I know it’s not safe.” And this is particularly true for black and brown parents.

Eric Blanc

Can you speak about the outreach MORE has done to parents?

Jia Lee

Back in March, when we saw how bad the pandemic was and that de Blasio and the DOE still were refusing to close the schools, MORE was the only organization that responded positively when parents and educators at Grace Dodge Campus in the Bronx and Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan began calling to close the schools.

To deepen and broaden this work, over the summer MORE developed a Health Justice working group, mostly with parents and community organizations in the Bronx. A lot of teachers were told by admin (and sometimes even UFT leaders) that they couldn’t voice their worries about the buildings to parents. But we’ve been saying, “No — parents have the right to know.”

And this work has really taken off, because parents want to hear the truth about the situation — and they’re not getting that from the mayor or the DOE. We’ve organized public forums everywhere, explaining why the schools are still not safe and putting forward a positive vision for the schools our students deserve.

Last week in District One, where I teach, we had a Family Parent Forum on Reopening by MORE, with four hundred people on the call. Parents afterwards were coming to us saying, “We had no idea about the state of the buildings, the mayor and media haven’t said a word about it.” These forums have been really empowering, I think they’ve given a taste of power not only to educators, but also to parents.

And at the recent meeting of the Panel for Educational Policy [the governing body of the Department of Education], we helped organize folks to show up. We got about three hundred and fifty parents, students, and educators to be on this call, to give over nine hours of testimony — the meeting ended up going from 5:30 PM to 4 AM. And what was remarkable was the consistency of what was being said in the testimonies: the school buildings are not safe; this fight is a racial equity issue; and the voices of those most affected have not been heard.

Eric Blanc

I’ve been really moved to see how much bottom-up educator activity has erupted over the past month all across the country. What has that looked like in NYC?

Jia Lee

It’s been a real upsurge. It feels like it took a life-and-death situation to activate some people.

There has always been a core group of organizers in MORE. But we’ve always known that there is a much larger outer layer of educators, who were politically aware of many of the problems in the system, yet who were not active. Now, COVID is life or death. And it’s not just their own personal lives, but their family members who they live with who are immunocompromised. Educators are also concerned about their students and their families. These types of personal stories have really come into our organizing spaces.

In March, almost overnight we had hundreds of educators on a meeting pushing to organize a sick-out. It was a huge victory when we forced the mayor to finally close the schools. And all summer we’ve been systematically organizing.

Through MORE’s Working Conditions committee, we’ve held many organizing trainings with educators across the city. They are like the Labor Notes Secrets of a Successful Organizer trainings, but focused on the question of school reopening. We train folks on how to have one-on-one conversations with their coworkers, how to map out and contact everyone at work, and how to organize an escalating campaign at their schools.

This is the type of training that the UFT should be providing — but it’s not. So we also talk about what to do if your [union] chapter leader is not responsive and doesn’t want to support organizing.

For instance, in my chapter, we sent out a letter to parents about the reality of the situation. Our [UFT] district rep. told us not to do it because the superintendent would get upset, and there could be consequences. But we said no, they have the right to know — and we have to start organizing.

There’s been a real surge, not just in numbers of those involved, but also in terms of analysis. For so many years, educators have been working under this mode of being afraid to speak out. We’ve been pushed to be compliance managers, to not question systematically racist practices.

Until recently, most educators here didn’t really share the type of political understanding that was central to the Chicago and Los Angeles strikes on the question of funding and how these crises disproportionately impact families of color as well as paras and schools aides, who are disproportionately black and brown. This type of race and class analysis is now much more widespread.

It’s been incredible to see teachers who initially were afraid to speak out, now agree to speak on public panels. Watching educators stand up with a new awareness has brought me to tears. We’re seeing people find their power and their truth. And once you have that awareness, it’s hard to shut it out again. People are going to come of this struggle with a clearer vision — and more conviction to fight.

Eric Blanc

The UFT leadership recently announced that the union would consider going on strike if the schools were not safe to reopen. Obviously, this would be a very big deal, not only because of how many people would be affected, but also because this would mean challenging the Taylor Law’s ban on public-sector strikes in New York. What has strike preparation looked like concretely?

Jia Lee

It’s great that the UFT leadership is finally open to taking action, that it’s asking us to strike if all buildings are not 100 percent safe. The UFT is saying we should be prepared to strike to ensure safe buildings, by doing things such as making sure the city ensures HVAC [heating, ventilation, and air conditioning] systems, nurses, and signage, and that it has a serious plan for testing and tracing.

Unfortunately, the UFT leadership is not yet talking about stopping the nine thousand potential layoffs, and it has not done much to build up the organizing capacity of members, or even to mobilize them, over these past months and years. In fact, they are still not demanding to start fully remote, which is the demand that MORE has been making since the beginning.

Now, suddenly with three weeks before school, the UFT leadership is talking about a strike. It’s a positive response to pressure from below. But my worry is that the leadership might be using talk of a strike as solely a bargaining chip, to try to negotiate for limited safety measures and lesser cuts.

So it’s time for us as rank-and-file educators and union members to ramp up our organizing to demand that the semester begin remotely. MORE has issued a strike preparation guide for our coworkers. And if we’re going to go on strike, it needs to be in alliance with parents to demand the schools our students deserve, to reverse the austerity measures implemented over past decades in the name of corporate ed reform.

Safety demands are essential, but they don’t go far enough. To inspire people to take (or support) such a huge risk as a strike, we need to be fighting for zero layoffs, for no cuts, and to tax the rich to ensure an equitable education for every student in NYC.

We need to put forward a positive vision of what we want, to articulate a vision for the schools — and the society — that our students deserve.