The UFT Strike that wasn't (yet)
"The United Federation of Teachers, 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 & gang violence. Last week, in response to the reopening plan being imposed by Mayor Bill de Blasio, the United Federation of Teachers, New York City’s teacher (or more precisely, something like certified instructional and support staff 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, it seems likely enough that the spars and jabs aren’t by any means over, with the can only having been kicked a few days down the road, with teachers back in the building tomorrow, and polls showing a majority of the public not feeling it’s safe to return.
One might think this is just the next frontier in the teachers strike wave, which began with the West Virginia teachers in February of 2018, and continued pretty much through the onset of Coronavirus (St. Paul teachers were out as late as March 10th), but the gargantuan UFT (120,000 members! If the UFT were its own state, it would be 28th out of 50 in raw number of union members! The UFT going out would consist of more than twice as many workers as the Arizona statewide teachers 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 mean just that they don’t frequently talk strikes, I mean they haven’t struck since 1975. This is not normal for a large urban teachers union in the US.
Teachers strike, they have for decades. In the late 40s, there was a big teacher strike wave across Connecticut, New Jersey, Tennessee, Pennsylvania, Minneapolis, San Francisco, Jersey City, Chicago, Buffalo, Delaware. In the ‘60s, 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 recognition strike).
When covering the 2018 strike wave for Labor Notes, I was surprised to find that there had been a late 80s-early 90s 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, Yonkers.
I was more surprised to find in researching this post, 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. This week in the UFT, we saw the executive board talking strike, and preparing a resolution to go to the Delegate Assembly (in the UFT, this consists of two representatives from each school, of which something like 25% attend each monthly meeting). Before it went to the DA, 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 decision.
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 NYC’s Fiscal Crisis.
So why doesn’t the UFT strike anymore?
There are two big reasons. One has to do with the UFT itself, how it’s structured, how and why the UFT is such a fortress built against internal opposition that might like to see a strike. 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, the current president of the American Federation of Teachers since 2008, UFT’s national affiliate, 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 4 years after its founding), was AFT president from ‘74 to ‘97. Before Shanker was Dave 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. You get it. Aside from a four year stint in the mid-00s, every AFT president has come out of the UFT presidency, since 1964. We’ll see what happens when Randi retires; supposedly Mulgrew isn’t all that interested in a national presidency (that’s arguably weaker in certain key respects than his local position), but Evelyn DeJesus, UFT VP, 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% of the national vote at conventions, with the next closest local, UUP (the public higher ed local of New York State outside of NYC) at about 4.5% of the delegate count. The UFT also, of course, dominates its state body, the New York State United Teachers, or NYSUT (pronounced nigh-sut). The New York delegation is a full third of the national convention vote. The Chicago Teachers Union, the second largest K-12 local in the AFT, and the largest outside of New York state, is one fifth of UFT’s size.
It should also be noted that 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 NEA (about 3 million members, not affiliated with either labor federation) and SEIU (about 2 million members, still riding with Change to Win, which is a whole other conversation). 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 I’m sure plenty 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 to replicate in the UFT the kind of militant takeover that happened in 2010 in the Chicago Teachers Union should be of such interest to the broader labor left. It’s also probably why the UFT has been set up to be such a fortress against non-Unity influence.
There are obviously purely logistical challenges in trying to take leadership as a working educator in a 120,000-member union with over 1700 worksites. This challenge is massively compounded by the strange quirk of the UFT allowing for its 60,000+ 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%-50% of the vote in elections. What’s more is that opposition slates don’t have any access to these retirees; at least with working members, you know where they work. An opposition group filed charges against the UFT with the state public labor board, 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.
And anyway, to see all this as a symptom of the UFT’s fortress-like stolidity is maybe to get the causality all backwards. 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! Nuclear holocaust? Now that’s 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.
All of this is a bit too much for a blog post (as I watch the sprawl of what I’ve written above with some horror), but I don’t think one can fully appreciate the UFT’s sleeping giant-ness, and what it means for the rest of the labor movement, without a bit more context.
Obviously 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 New York State. It was first passed in 1967, over the vocal opposition of the UFT (and others). Shanker famously went to jail multiple times, and the UFT lost dues checkoff for some time. In 1972, the Triborough Doctrine was a ruling from the PERB (again, each state has its own public sector labor judiciary, because federalism rocks) that essentially extended stalled contracts in perpetuity, and this was expanded and codified into actual law in 1982, with the Triborough Amendment. There’s a way in which 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.” 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.
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, CUNY workers’ main union).
“Contrary to current claims, Triborough has not tipped the balance of negotiating power unfairly. In fact, during the last  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 what, 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, the natural law would tell you that a muscle atrophies. Whether or not that’s just fine with the UFT’s 120,000 working members, I’ll just say let’s see how tomorrow’s first day of school goes.
Happy Labor Day.
[Recommended further reading:
Fear City by Kim Phillips-Fein
Blackboard Unions: The AFT & the NEA 1900-1980 by Marjorie Murphy
City Unions by Mark Maier
The Strike That Changed New York by Jerald Podair
Reds at the Blackboard by Clarence Taylor]