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New York City’s Teachers Union Doesn’t Remember How to Strike

The United Federation of Teachers, New York City’s teachers union, is a massive local that could wield enormous power through striking. But the union hasn’t struck in nearly half a century — even in the face of a deadly pandemic and unsafe schools reopening. Why does the UFT refuse to use its most powerful tactic?

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. (Spencer Platt / Getty Images)

“The United Federation of Teachers [UFT], after the vote of the chapter, will move to close temporarily any schools where there’s a clear and present life-threatening danger to the students and the staff until such time as safety can be assured.”

So read a resolution passed by the UFT’s Delegate Assembly… in 1992. The issue then was guns and gang violence. Last week, in response to the reopening plan being imposed by Mayor Bill de Blasio, the UFT, New York City’s teachers union, came closer to a strike than I ever thought I’d see.

Strike talk had been rumbling among the teachers for at least a week, when Matthew Cunningham-Cook at the Intercept broke the news that a true-blue strike vote was on the immediate horizon. They could’ve just dusted off that old 1992 resolution and passed the thing again, word for word. They didn’t make it that far.

I won’t go over every spar and jab, which others have done well. Indeed, with teachers back in the building this week, and polls showing a majority of the public not feeling that it’s safe to return, it seems likely enough that the spars and jabs aren’t by any means over, the can only having been kicked a few days down the road.

One might think this is just the next frontier in the teachers strike wave that began with the West Virginia teachers in February 2018, and continued through the onset of the coronavirus (St Paul teachers were out as late as March 10). But the gargantuan UFT — with its membership at 120,000, the union has more members than twenty-two states; a UFT strike would include more than twice as many teachers as the Arizona statewide teacher strikes — isn’t just different in degree, but in kind.

My shock at the whole news cycle was borne out of my sense that the UFT simply doesn’t do this sort of thing. When I say “doesn’t do this sort of thing,” I don’t just mean that they don’t frequently talk strikes. They haven’t struck since 1975. This is not normal for a large urban teachers union in the United States.

Teachers strike. They have for decades. In the late 1940s, there was a teacher strike wave across Connecticut, New Jersey, Tennessee, Pennsylvania, Minneapolis, San Francisco, Jersey City, Chicago, Buffalo, and Delaware. In the sixties, when public-sector unionism stopped being explicitly illegal in much of the country, another wave hit. This was, in fact, how the UFT was founded, through a strike demanding union recognition.

When covering the 2018 strike wave for Labor Notes, I was surprised to find that there had been a late-eighties–early-nineties teacher strike wave that I was totally unaware of. During the 1987–1990 school years, teachers struck in Elizabeth, NJ, Detroit, Little Rock, Chicago, Cleveland, the rest of Arkansas, Los Angeles, Utah, Beverly Hills, West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Yonkers.

I was more surprised to recently find, though, that the UFT has authorized more strikes than I realized. Strike authorizations (which in most cases involve a membership-wide vote) are a precondition for a (non-wildcat) strike. They’re also a tool to flex on the employer and move things at the negotiating table.

The process for these votes tends to be: the top leadership body calls for a strike vote; an intermediary body of delegates votes on it, up or down, then the entire membership votes. If they vote yes, the strike is authorized and could be called at any time, usually by the contract bargaining team led by local leadership.

Last week in the UFT, we saw the executive board talking strike and preparing a resolution to go to the Delegate Assembly (DA). In the UFT, this consists of two representatives from each school, of which something like 25 percent attend each monthly meeting. Before it went to the DA, UFT president Michael Mulgrew settled with the city. But if it had gone to the DA, we would’ve seen an up or down vote, with an up vote kicking it to a full membership vote.

The last time the full UFT membership voted on a strike was in May/June of 2002. Before that, it was June 1993. March 1992 saw the DA pass the resolution I mentioned above, and before that, there had been no strike authorizations since the union went out on the picket line in the doomed 1975 strike in response to New York’s fiscal crisis.

So why doesn’t the UFT strike anymore?

A Fortress in a Hostile Environment

There are two big reasons. One has to do with the UFT itself, and how and why it’s structured as a fortress against internal opposition. The other has to do with bigger forces than the UFT, with how New York City’s public sector labor-management regime operates.

It’s not just that the UFT is a big important union, or that its president is considered the most powerful labor leader in New York state. Randi Weingarten, has been president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), the UFT’s national affiliate, since 2008 and was previously the president of the UFT.

Sandra Feldman, Randi’s predecessor at UFT, was AFT president from 1997 to 2004. Albert Shanker, Feldman’s predecessor at UFT (since 1964, just four years after its founding), was AFT president from ‘74 to ‘97. Before Shanker was David Selden, an AFT organizer in New York City since the 1950s, and one of the founders of the UFT along with Charles Cogen, the founding president of the UFT, who was Selden’s predecessor at the AFT.

Aside from a four year stint in the mid-oughts, every AFT president has come out of the UFT presidency since 1964. We’ll see what happens when Weingarten retires; supposedly Mulgrew isn’t all that interested in a national presidency — which would arguably be weaker in certain key respects than his local position. But Evelyn DeJesus, UFT vice president, was recently elected to one of the three top spots in the national union, so my money would be on a UFT-sourced successor.

The UFT is about 15 percent of the national vote at conventions, with the next closest local, United University Professions (UUP, the public higher education local of New York state, outside of NYC) at about 4.5 percent of the delegate count.

The UFT also, of course, dominates its state body, the New York State United Teachers (NYSUT). The New York delegation is a full one-third of the national convention vote. The Chicago Teachers Union (CTU), the second largest K-12 local in the AFT and the largest outside of New York state, is one-fifth of UFT’s size.

The AFT, with 1.7 million members, is the AFL-CIO’s largest union by membership, and the third-largest union in the country, behind National Education Association (NEA; about 3 million members, not affiliated with either labor federation) and Service Employees International Union (SEIU; about 2 million members, still riding with the Change to Win federation).

My sense is some of this is double-counting the same members (NYSUT is both NEA- and AFT-affiliated, as are some other large states and locals, in Florida, California, and others), but it means that the AFT has a good amount of formal power in the AFL-CIO.

All of which means that the Unity Caucus, the organization that has held power in the UFT since its founding in 1960, turns out to be a pretty massively influential organization on the national level, albeit indirectly. It’s why efforts within the UFT to replicate the kind of leadership takeover by union militants that happened in 2010 in the CTU should be of such interest to the labor left. It’s also probably why the UFT has been set up to be such a fortress against non-Unity influence.

There are purely logistical challenges to trying to take leadership as a working educator in a 120,000-member union with over 1,700 worksites. This challenge is massively compounded by the strange quirk of the UFT allowing for its more than sixty thousand retirees to vote in local leadership elections.

In fact, the retirees vote in such disproportionate numbers that the UFT felt it was only right to cap the retiree vote and restrict it — to what shakes out to be about 45 percent–50 percent of the vote in elections. And opposition leadership slates don’t have any access to these retirees.

An opposition group filed charges against the UFT with the state public labor board trying to challenge this internal union setup, but to no avail. Since an opposition group isn’t a legally recognized entity, and since retirees aren’t public employees anymore, they had no standing in the eyes of the law.

This isn’t to say there haven’t been divisions and own goals in the UFT opposition over the many, many decades of marginal opposition. But marginality breeds marginal fights, and the structural barriers to a meaningful challenge to UFT leadership are many.

We Are Pro-Bargaining for the Common Good

To see all this as a symptom of the UFT’s fortress-like stolidity is maybe to get the causality all backward. The UFT was once, after all, a striking union. They struck for recognition, they struck for work rules, they pulled off “the strike that broke New York.” They went to jail, and Woody Allen joked in a real Hollywood movie about UFT President Albert Shanker precipitating the apocalypse! The ability to spark nuclear holocaust — now that’s real union militancy.

NYC’s fiscal crisis, and UFT’s last strike, plus Albert Shanker’s decision to financially bail out the city with the teachers’ pension funds (all while the city laid off thousands of teachers and cut pay), is the key here. More than anything else, it was that crisis that changed how New York’s public sector unions in general, and the UFT in particular, engage with the state.

What the 1975 strike represents, in its twin movement of bailing out the employer with worker money, while miserably failing on the terms of its own militancy and its own picket-line-level demands, is the then-unresolved tension between what some now call “Bargaining for the Common Good” and the all-out wars teachers unions used to lead their members into, casualties be damned.

For the UFT, it marked the beginning of the resolution of that tension, not by picking one road or the other, but through something like corporatism, the UFT more or less merging itself into New York’s public education corpus, blurring distinctions between labor and management. After all, if the teachers’ pensions are funding the city, striking against the city is kind of like striking against yourself, right?

The Taylor Law is in some ways a perfect cipher for the UFT’s move from militant opposition to partner in management. At its core, it outlaws strikes in the public sector in the state of New York. It was first passed in 1967, over the vocal opposition of the UFT (and others). Shanker famously went to jail multiple times for leading strikes in 1967 and 1968, and the UFT lost dues checkoff for some time.

In 1972, the Triborough Doctrine was a ruling from the Public Employment Relations Board, New York’s public-sector labor judiciary, that essentially extended stalled contracts in perpetuity. This was expanded and codified into actual law in 1982, with the Triborough Amendment.

The Taylor Law is a perfect cipher for the US labor regime: passed against labor’s vocal opposition when labor’s strength was skyrocketing as an explicit cudgel against that strength, it morphed into an unbreakable lattice of “labor peace” that both harshly penalized union members and leaders for striking, and removed management’s ability to unilaterally change contract provisions when a contract expired.

Beloved laborisms like “no contract, no work,” lose their meaning under the Taylor Law. The expiration date of a contract becomes instead a “best if used by” date. This meant contracts were no longer treaties borne out of shop floor class struggle, but strictly state-mandated baselines to be tweaked by technocratic negotiators.

The Taylor Law, plus the Triborough Amendment, was the state locking the door and letting labor know: “Now youse can’t leave.”

And very few in labor have any stated problem with that (aside from a couple resolutions passed by the New York State Nurses Association, and the Professional Staff Congress, City University of New York workers’ main union).

Take, for example, this statement from NYSUT’s website:

Contrary to current claims, Triborough has not tipped the balance of negotiating power unfairly. In fact, during the last [38] years, it has been remarkably successful in preserving the labor-management balance of power and in deterring strikes.

Before Triborough, the number of public sector labor strikes in New York peaked at 28 annually. In the years following the amendment, no more than four strikes have taken place in any given year, and there have been many years with no strikes at all.

I don’t know if the UFT’s maneuverings this week are better understood as bluffs, feints, or something else. But I do know the union hasn’t thrown a punch, let alone landed one, since 1975. The distinction between being too scared to fight and being too powerful to need to is an important one.

But in either case, whatever the reason, the union’s strike muscles have atrophied. Whether the UFT can, or wants to, break out of its paradigm of labor-management collaboration could mean big things not just for New York City’s teachers and students, but for the entire US labor movement.