The 2020 Wildcat Teacher Sick-Out That Shut Down NYC Schools

Four years ago this month, educators in NYC public schools organized an illegal sick-out to shut down schools as COVID-19 was breaking out in the city. Three rank-and-file teachers reflect on lessons from the strike for educators and other workers today.

Members of the teachers’ union, parents, and students participate in a march through Brooklyn to demand a safer teaching environment for themselves and for students during the COVID-19 pandemic on September 1, 2020, in New York City. (Spencer Platt / Getty Images)

It’s been four years since COVID-19 first exploded in New York City, and four years since public school workers organized an illegal job action to close the city’s schools. The unauthorized strike — technically a “sick-out” — received little attention amid the din of a national presidential election and larger panic about the pandemic, in part because teachers kept it close to the chest due to its extralegal character.

But four years on, to commemorate the anniversary of the sick-out, the three of us — as current and former teachers in NYC public schools — want to reflect on what the action achieved and some lessons we took from it. (Because of the extralegal nature of some labor actions described, we have left out the specific names of involved members and schools.)

First, we learned that — in cases where the union leadership is unwilling to actively organize and confront the bosses — rank-and-file workers can and must take the initiative ourselves to act together, so that the union can become the organization our students and coworkers need.

Second, it taught us that strike-readiness is built on the foundation of an organized shop floor. It is through the day-to-day activities of the union, rather than leadership actions or delegate assembly votes, that members grow the power to act collectively.

Finally, the most remarkable shift in organizing strategy exhibited by the sick-out was members acting together on our own behalf and on behalf of the communities where we teach. Instead of appealing to higher-ups in the union or elected officials, we took action directly, and won.

The Effort to Keep Schools Open

In the week leading up to Friday, March 13, 2020, an increasing number of students and teachers were opting to stay home instead of go to school. By that time there was heavy media coverage of the novel coronavirus that was spreading rapidly worldwide, intensely so in the densely-populated New York City metropolitan area.

In New York, the state’s Taylor Law grants public sector workers the right to collective bargaining while stifling job actions through the threat of fines and jail time. The cooling effect that the Taylor Law has on public sector labor militancy is difficult to overstate.

Nevertheless, by that Friday, many rank-and-file United Federation of Teachers (UFT) members had begun realizing it was necessary to organize and take action to protect students and school staff. Friday and Saturday saw a flurry of organizing calls and meetings. The conclusion many teachers came to was the imperative of organizing a sick-out action on a school-by-school basis, hopefully as part of a larger sick-out in NYC schools.

While many New York City residents, including teachers and students, worried about whether the symptoms they were seeing were due to COVID-19, Mayor Bill de Blasio, Governor Andrew Cuomo, and President Donald Trump failed on all levels to develop a testing infrastructure. As anxiety spread, De Blasio refused to consider closing schools. He claimed that schools were necessary for the city to function (parents needed to go to their jobs) and for social support (childcare, health care, food security) for students in unstable housing or impoverished living conditions, including over one hundred thousand homeless students.

To teachers, students’ reliance on schools for that kind of support was an obvious problem, one that should have been addressed before the city reached a crisis moment. This is symptomatic of a larger issue in the United States, where schools are used as Band-Aids for various social ills; instead of guaranteeing children adequate food and health care, for instance, schools are supposed to provide these necessities.

Besides, if schools were to close, then the ability of some parents and caretakers to work would be compromised. For businesses’ bottom line, students had to remain in school.

The top UFT union leaders, members of the union’s sixty-year ruling caucus called Unity, made public statements demanding the mayor consider closing the schools. These statements rang rather hollow, as union leaders weren’t doing anything to organize members to take action to make those demands a reality — par for the course for the UFT in recent decades.

The union’s strategy — which UFT president Michael Mulgrew frequently bragged about in 2020 — was based on making use of its “special relationship” and supposed leverage with then governor Andrew Cuomo. Needless to say, the state government did not deliver for educators.

It was clear through Friday and Saturday that members needed to take matters into their own hands. Absent a strike organized by the union leadership, rank-and-file members needed to either organize a sick-out or, in the case of less-organized worksites, make their own individual decisions about calling out sick.

The Rank and File Responds

At school sites where an existing shop-floor union culture had been built, school workers moved quickly. For instance, at one Manhattan school, staff decided to set up a new communication channel, as the union chapter was potentially going to be organizing what is known in labor jargon as a “job action” — and a “hot” (illegal) one at that. For sick-out organizing, communicating via an email chain as was typical would be risky, as emails could be easily forwarded to supervisors. So the school’s union delegates decided to use Signal, an encrypted app that would help members feel more comfortable speaking freely about a sick-out.

The rest of the weekend, the delegates sought to add as many members as possible to the Signal chat. Some members used the chat to help educate about job actions, public health, and the virus, while others worked to organize a communication tree to pull in staff who hadn’t joined.

The largest reform caucus within the union, the Movement of Rank and File Educators (MORE), released a statement urging UFT members to call out sick on Monday, March 16. This statement helped bring isolated chapters and individual members throughout the union under the umbrella of a single call to action. MORE also held an organizing-meeting conference call, which over seven hundred members across the city joined.

At schools that lacked a robust, organized union presence in the building, the rank-and-file response was harder to gauge, and the energy was harder to harness. At a campus in Brooklyn’s District 20, the union hadn’t established strong foundations, and there was a lack of unity among members. Calls to sick-out were met with blowback from union officers, and there was no concerted effort to organize staff. For instance, one official from the union’s Brooklyn borough office told members, “A mass sick-out is considered a job action and violates the Taylor law. We can use our collective voice in a more powerful way, without leaving students in schools without teachers and putting ourselves at risk for legal penalties.”

For educators to be able to respond to moments of crisis swiftly and with the requisite trust in one another, union activists can’t neglect the day-to-day work of building rank-and-file organization and cohesion. It became very difficult at the site in District 20, especially with pushback from union officials themselves, to know who to trust, creating a sense of paranoia that poisoned the water for collective action.

Nevertheless, many educators did call out, with some texting coworkers discreetly and sharing  MORE’s call to action. But many did so in isolation from their colleagues and on the basis of their own individual health and safety.

As the weekend progressed, the school-worker sick-out — in the form of collectively organized actions as well as individuals calling out sick of their own accord — generated a plausible threat of a district-wide shutdown. By Sunday night, Sub Central, a platform used to log teacher absences, was overwhelmed and unusable. Gale A. Brewer, Manhattan borough president, tweeted that day:

Public schools: Close to 60 percent or even 70 percent of teachers are calling in that they will be out in every school, so there won’t be much teaching to do. Less than half of the students are likely to show up. Can we arrive at a plan to close and to care for students who cannot go home?

Worker self-organization had created a crisis for the city’s plan to keep schools open.

On Sunday, March 15, faced with plummeting staff and student attendance anticipated for Monday, Mayor De Blasio held a press conference announcing that schools would close for the following week until further notice. The statements of epidemiologists and public health experts hadn’t changed from previous days. What had changed was the workers needed to run the schools — they weren’t going to be there.

The Aftermath

While Monday, March 16, was classified as a “snow day” with all schools closed, teachers were told to report in-person for the rest of the week to prepare supplies and transition to remote learning. Most teachers opted to stay safe and call out.

This wasn’t time off, however. Teachers were only given a handful of days to transform their curricula and teaching practices to fit the needs of remote learning, a new territory for most educators. We were sent scrambling, taking on unpaid overtime in order to solve a problem our bosses did not anticipate.

After the schools were successfully closed, a handful of union school chapters filed a mass grievance, signed by over two hundred members, arguing that sick days should be returned to all UFT members on the basis that the NYC Department of Education had violated its contract, which states that schools should be kept free of deadly diseases. Remarkably, when the grievance eventually went to arbitration, the arbitrator declared the grievance groundless and stated that members should be punished for calling out sick during the onset of the deadly plague. His opinion was that professional attendance at a school with no students was more important than staff or community health.

Weeks later, it was reported that at least seventy-four UFT members had died from COVID during the early stages of the pandemic. For the first few days, the name of each school worker lost was etched in most members’ memories, but as time went on, the names started to blur together. And without an established and timely testing infrastructure, it was unclear how many other hundreds or thousands of school staff were killed as a result of COVID-19 spreading in the schools.

Struggles over safety and the contract continued throughout the pandemic, but our union seemed unwilling to harness the initiative and energy that members had shown in March 2020. Yet despite the lackluster response from union officials, the appetite for collective action remained strong. Months later, the potential for another strike for health and safety measures at the beginning of the 202021 school year was clear. In on-the-spot campus-based straw polls in District 20 during the summer of 2020, over 90 percent of teachers expressed support for organizing a strike — even in highly disorganized schools lacking regular union committees and meetings.

The victory of forcing schools to close was too late to save the lives of many workers, as well as those of countless family members of students who had continued attending class throughout that final week — and in buildings with poor ventilation, crumbling infrastructure, and a shortage of nurses at that. UFT members, as well as other teachers and workers in similar workplaces, should mine this experience for lessons to better organize next time, as it is only a matter of when, not if, the next disaster will come. And school workers and students will always be at risk in a system that too often disregards their interests.

Lessons Learned

We want to underline four key lessons from the sick-out that can guide workers activity at our sites and in our unions:

  1. Rank-and-file workers are capable of organizing independently of union leadership — and often have to in the face of inactive or resistant union leaders.
  2. Our union leadership’s deference to Democratic Party politicians left them helpless when conditions turned dire in March 2020.
  3. Only school workers organizing on their own for sick-outs stopped the catastrophe from getting even worse for NYC schools and the city as a whole.
  4. A strike-ready union is necessary to keep schools and communities safe.

Workers can organize on their own, and in the right circumstances are often willing to. If union leaders pivot away from their current primary strategy of trying to strike deals with elected officials and instead focus on shop-floor organizing, the union can and will build a sense of solidarity. Rank-and-file members, for our part, must take action and organize ourselves when union leadership is falling down on the job.

The UFT, and all unions, need to be able to organize toward strike readiness and be willing to confront their employers, whether public sector or private. In March 2020, it was clear that the city faced a dilemma between keeping school workers and students safe versus keeping New York’s economic engine churning. This kind of conflict is of course all too common. Corporate interests have infected public education in various ways over the past several decades, often under the guise of benevolence and philanthropy, including attacks on teachers’ autonomy and job security and the insidious attempt to privatize public schools via charterization.

The harmful effects of the Taylor Law’s public sector strike ban are clear. We need unions that recognize this and nevertheless organize their members to strike, when necessary, to win the world that workers, students, and our communities need.

For rank-and-file members, this means we should be active in our school sites as delegates and chapter leaders to build relationships and trust: organizing around issues that affect us and our students, raising transformative demands like smaller class sizes and more salubrious schools, and pursuing disruptive action ourselves if our union leadership won’t. Here, we can take inspiration from Massachusetts teachers, or the 2018 red state teachers revolts. Educators across the country have successfully pulled off illegal strikes, and we can too if we organize now, rather than only after contract negotiations falter or a crisis is already underway.

There are no illegal strikes, as the old adage goes, only unsuccessful ones. Thankfully, the 2020 sick-out showed us what a successful one looks like.