The United Federation of Teachers Isn’t Fighting Back Hard Enough

Teachers unions across the country are organizing alongside community members, striking, and advancing an agenda that benefits teachers, students, and the entire working class. Not so in my union, New York City’s United Federation of Teachers.

New York City public schools teachers rally for a fair contract in the Brooklyn borough of New York on May 24, 2023. (Victor J. Blue / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

In 2023, education workers across the country are flexing their muscles. The Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) has been a militant and community-connected beacon for over a decade: credible, united for direct action, and gaining power to the point that one of its former leading organizers, Brandon Johnson, was recently elected mayor. In Los Angeles, United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA) is led by a caucus focused on class struggle and social justice, striking when necessary, and its members recently stood in solidarity with the non-teacher school staff to gain improvements for their contracts, as well as above-inflation raises. Education worker strike actions also formed in other locales, including among school staff in Oakland, university workers at Temple and Rutgers Universities, and school bus drivers in Alaska.

Things are different in New York City — and it’s not for lack of an antagonist. Despite his working-class-guy schtick, Mayor Eric Adams is openly hostile to municipal unions, including the United Federation of Teachers (UFT), the union representing nearly two hundred thousand public school employees in the city. In recent negotiations, he made an initial offer of a 1.5 percent raise and demanded an extended workday from teachers.

This stance isn’t exactly surprising. Adams has made a career of closely aligning with corporate interests. His administration is filled with former Michael Bloomberg–era education “reformers” who are anti–trade union and anti–public sector; he even joined a pro-charter school initiative with Bloomberg himself during his first year in office. Mayor Adams is clearly an enemy of public education and public education workers.

Yet the UFT’s opposition to the mayor has proven weak. The union has not gone on strike in almost half a century, and members have been largely unorganized and immobilized while the UFT hedges its bets on making gains via political connections. Due to increasing rank-and-file discontent, the union prepared a slightly more aggressive but still largely performative and unorganized contract “campaign,” but was only able to nudge Adams to give them a 3–3.5 percent average annual raise, still much lower than inflation.

Overall, the UFT’s new contractual agreements have won no major improvements for education workers. The union posted a litany of advisory and recommended measures secured in negotiations, but these measures are of little to no substance. And on top of the sub-inflation pay scales, the union has agreed to continued health care givebacks, plus remote learning programs without contractual parameters on class sizes (Adams has said he thinks four hundred students could fit in virtual classes).

Neglected are any of school workers’ other most pressing demands, such as more counselors or reduced workloads — the kinds of demands teachers in other cities have recently advanced. While the health care givebacks are technically not in the UFT contract but are rather through the city’s cross public sector Municipal Labor Committee (MLC), the UFT is a leading member of the MLC and included a letter stating its collaboration with the city on health care savings as an appendix in its last contract.

All told, the 2023 UFT contractual agreements beg the question: Why not fight harder by delaying the agreement, organizing members more widely and deeply, and elevating its actions toward strike readiness?

How the UFT Contract Campaign Never Began

A common argument against a militant turn for the UFT is that New York State a has a draconian labor law, the Taylor Law, that makes public sector strikes illegal and punishable. However, other states have similar or even harsher laws, and these have not prevented other unions, such as the “red state wave” of school workers from 2018 onward, from using “illegal” job actions such as the strike. The state’s law makes striking difficult, but it’s far from impossible.

Another common argument against UFT militancy is that New York City has marginally better funding for schools and pay for school workers than many other major metropolises. But funding and pay are still meager compared to affluent suburban districts near the city. As a result, New York City teachers are usually economically obligated to remain living as check-to-check renters in one of the most expensive cities in the world.

Faced with a UFT leadership uninterested in confronting the city’s political and business establishment, the best hope is for the growing progressive opposition in the union to continue to organize and develop, similar to what occurred in CTU and UTLA and in the United Auto Workers and Teamsters. The UFT and its ruling party, the Unity Caucus, arose in the 1960s following the McCarthy-era purges of the UFT’s predecessor, the Teachers Union, which had been closely aligned with community-based social movements. The UFT’s Unity Caucus leaders were liberal anti-communists who were openly hostile to much of the social movement politics of the 1960s, most infamously in UFT president Al Shanker’s fierce opposition to black community school control in the 1968 Ocean Hill-Brownsville strike.

While the UFT used strike actions throughout the 1960s to establish power, by the 1980s, it had become a massive bureaucracy and a close collaborator with the city government, a strategy that it has held to even as city governments have routinely ignored members’ conditions, voices, and well-being. The UFT leadership’s own willingness to promote itself as the arbiter of school and contract issues has often left rank-and-file members disengaged during contract fights and school-based organizing.

Independent rank-and-file organizing in the UFT and opposition to the ruling Unity Caucus both grew during the COVID-19 pandemic, leading to teachers voting over 42 percent for the big-tent opposition slate calling itself United for Change, signaling change of leadership could eventually be possible after over sixty years of Unity control. Opposition caucuses won all the high school board executive seats and nearly gained the middle school seats as well.

The ruling caucus also lost some ground among its strongest supporters, retirees, who voted less overwhelmingly for the incumbents than ever before — likely in large part because of the UFT’s backroom deals to create health care savings for the city, which so far have primarily affected retirees. This possibly explains why the UFT leadership, despite keeping negotiations tightly closed and opaque to rank-and-file members, felt the need to posture toward more of a contract fight than they had in the most recent bargaining cycles.

The UFT organized “Contract Action Teams” (CAT) at schools where members were willing, a needed move in any decent contract campaign. But the union failed to make an aggressive push to reach unorganized chapters, and the CAT teams did not go beyond actions like solidarity photos, “work-ins,” leafleting parents, and a few tepid rallies. These actions are crucial for member engagement but, as carried out by the UFT, were nowhere near sufficient.

The union failed to mobilize for more confrontational actions such as those by UPS Teamsters this year during their own contract negotiations. It failed to inform members, including its own five-hundred-person negotiating committee, about what exactly was being demanded at the bargaining table. Most importantly, it failed to meaningfully organize with other municipal unions or even other school workers represented outside the UFT such as school aides, cafeteria workers, or safety agents. This is all in stark contrast to Los Angeles and Chicago, where in recent years the unions went on strike alongside Service Employees International Union (SEIU) locals that represented non-teaching titles in schools in order to gain contract victories for all.

Without any such alliance in place, the UFT put itself in a weak position, claiming it would be forced to follow pattern bargaining of the first local to make a contract with the city, meaning one municipal union’s negotiation should follow the same wage patterns given to the other municipal unions that have recently signed contracts.

And so it did. District Council 37 received a 3 percent raise, the health care givebacks were rubber-stamped to continue by the MLC, and the UFT was poorly prepared to get tough with the city, leading to the city releasing a school calendar that cut holidays and expanded the amount of working days in the year without consulting the UFT before the release. UFT members were told to mobilize by the leadership but never even knew the actual demands they were being asked to rally behind.

The UFT represents many different titles and negotiates many different contracts. Paraprofessionals and several other titles remain insufficiently compensated or protected. Counselors lack caseload caps of any kind, let alone contractual mandates for increased staffing, which exist in the recent contracts of unions in LA and elsewhere. All titles received low pay raises (which, again, mathematically amount to cuts given the pace of inflation), and health care concessions were already baked in.

The union at least secured much-needed retroactive pay for the past year of no raises due to an expired contract, plus a $3,000 signing bonus that DC37 agreed to and UFT members and all city employees were offered to try to satisfy both economic necessity and frustration. Unsurprisingly, given the expensive living conditions in the city and the lack of any forceful, coherent contract campaign, most titles voted in favor of their contract by a 3:1 margin.

With members in material need of a pay boost of any kind, many most likely deemed consenting to the agreement an immediate economic necessity or inevitability, or both. The UFT/Unity practice of stifling opposition debate and representation creates an atmosphere where the status quo is seen as unimpeachable.

The lone voice firmly in its own supermajority against the contract was the bargaining unit representing occupational and physical therapists (OT/PTs), staff nurses, audiologists, and supervisors of therapists. Expected to have advanced degrees, these titles receive neither the pay nor the protections that classroom teachers receive. The group, OT/PTs for a Fair Contract, led a successful “Vote No” campaign in 2018, then won control of its chapter leadership, and now is continuing to press UFT leadership to renegotiate with the city.

Unfortunately, the Unity leadership seems content to shame the opposition leaders, claim no gains can be made with the city, and push for an immediate revote on the same terms members have already made clear they find unacceptable.

The UFT’s solution to the no vote on the tentative agreement for this chapter was to break the chapter up into subgroups and make any specific subgroup that voted no revote on their contracts. The rationale was that some groups supported the contract in the vote counting (for example, the supervisors, who received salary boosts of 14 percent that brought their pay scale parallel to staff such as school counselors). The UFT leadership considered a yes vote to be the only acceptable answer.

According to members of the largest subgroup, the Occupational and Physical Therapists, they have been told by UFT leaders that they will not be returning to the bargaining table anytime soon. In response, the elected leader of the OT/PT chapter, Melissa Williams, has resigned in protest.

The contract cycle will not fully conclude until these final workers decide they have received their fair representation, which could be difficult to find. This lack of democracy is precisely a symptom of the weakness of the UFT in comparison to robust, member-engaged rank-and-file memberships in LA, Chicago, Oakland, and elsewhere. As long as the UFT leadership neglects to educate and organize its membership or form closer ties with communities, New York City school workers will be unable to join the ranks of fighting teachers unions that are advancing the public good.