Teachers Expect UFT to Vote on Whether to Authorize a Strike Over School Reopening

The New York City teachers union wants to ensure good ventilation in schools and access to Covid-19 testing.

A protester holds a placard that says We demand safe schools during the demonstration in New York, on Aug. 3, 2020.
A protester holds a placard that says, “We demand safe schools” during the demonstration in New York, on Aug. 3, 2020. Photo: Ron Adar/SOPA Images/Sipa USA/AP

Amid a still active pandemic, decades of underfunded schools with poor ventilation, and poor planning by the New York City Department of Education, the United Federation of Teachers is taking its first steps toward something it hasn’t done for 45 years: strike. The UFT’s Executive Board is expected to vote Monday on strike action, teachers say, and the decision will be then voted on by the UFT’s Delegate Assembly on Tuesday.

Annie Tan, who teaches in Sunset Park where, she said, there is a 7 percent incidence rate of Covid-19, told The Intercept that the union has begun meetings on the ground to discuss the possibility of strike action over reopening. The UFT is specifically looking to ensure that all issues with ventilation in the schools are resolved, that every staff person and student be tested, and that there be an intermittent testing regime as the school year progresses. “An injury to one is an injury to all,” said Tan. “We’re pushing for ventilated schools, pushing for supplies, pushing for PPE, and pushing for testing for all staff and students.”

On Friday evening, UFT Press Secretary Richard Riley told The Intercept, “At this time the UFT has no strike vote scheduled.”

The UFT, with 180,000 members, is among the largest unions in New York City. UFT President Michael Mulgrew is a close ally of Mayor Bill de Blasio. The union has tried to avoid direct confrontations with either the mayor or the governor during the pandemic. Once the strike is authorized by the Delegate Assembly, it is unclear what the next steps are, as the UFT constitution does not mention the word “strike,” “job action,” or “work stoppage.” But ordinarily, a strike authorization would allow the union to call a strike at any moment.

At this moment, Tan reported that UFT members, which include teachers and paraeducators “are scared of reopening and rightly so, as we don’t want to spread coronavirus.” Basic questions surrounding reopening have been unanswered; there is currently no official scheduled date for a reopening, but the mayor has said that it will be September 10.

“We’ve been asking for weeks who is teaching what,” said Tan. “For example, in a hybrid remote/in-person model, who is going to be teaching in person and who is teaching remotely?”

“Our principals know as much as we do,” she said. “Principals have already called to delay reopening, and custodial workers don’t feel like they have enough supplies.”

On Friday, de Blasio told WNYC that “I do hear the concerns of the principals, and that answer is coming to them very, very shortly.” The principal’s union, generally considered to be more confrontational than the UFT, urged earlier in August for an all-remote reopening due to concerns about ventilation and preparation.

Describing the conditions that could lead to a possible strike, Mulgrew told NBC4 that “under the pressure of the pandemic, we have created a strategy to combine remote and in-person learning, a flexible system where a team of educators will work with a given group of students. But even with this approach, many schools will still face a staffing shortage, which the system will have to address.” Mulgrew also made a statement a week ago, saying that “it’s time for New York City to put forth a transparent, clear plan under the guidance of medical experts so parents and teachers who have been stuck in this fearful dilemma of how to make an informed choice know the expectations for every single school.”

Even prior to the pandemic, conditions inside many New York City public schools were at a breaking point. A 2019 report from the New York City comptroller’s office found that 41 percent of the teachers hired in the 2012-2013 school year left the district within five years. The study did not measure turnover within the district — that is, teachers switching schools. In 2019, 650 out of 1,500 buildings surveyed by the school district had at least one deficiency in their exhaust fans, raising real concerns about ventilation. New York City schools are owed at least $1 billion from the state but have yet to receive the money.

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A successful strike requires significant internal organizational structure, and it is unclear if the UFT has it at this point. While the union had to undertake an aggressive internal organizing campaign in response to the Janus v. AFSCME Supreme Court case in 2018, which eliminated the requirement of nonmembers to pay fees to the union, the union hasn’t gone on strike in 45 years. Teachers in Chicago and Los Angeles spent years building up for their successful strikes, both of which featured strike authorization votes of the entire membership. While the planned votes of the UFT Executive Board and the Delegate Assembly are necessary steps forward for the strike, the UFT is also significantly less militant than the Los Angeles and Chicago teachers unions. The moderate-to-conservative Unity Caucus, which was recently reelected with over 80 percent of the vote, has controlled the UFT since its inception in 1960. And unlike the Chicago and Los Angeles teachers unions, which pioneered the so-called Bargaining for the Common Good strategy to embed a union’s contractual demands as part of a broader fight for social and economic justice, the UFT has tended to focus strictly on wages and benefits.

The New York City Department of Education did not immediately respond to a request for comment from The Intercept.

That focus continues now, argues Tan. “It’s not enough to be calling for safety, we need to be calling for funding,” she said. “I haven’t heard about the union asking Cuomo to raise taxes and find different revenue sources. [NYC Council Speaker] Corey Johnson and Michael Mulgrew are asking the city to borrow funds, but I haven’t heard anything about having sustainable sources for funding. We need safety, but we also need so much more. I’m confused why we’re not pushing for funding and resources to do instruction effectively.”

Still, the push by the UFT appears to be serious. Jake Jacobs, another New York City teacher, told The Intercept, “This week was really important because the union told all the district reps to have a meeting at every school and tell people that things are very serious. Now we’re two weeks away, we’re seeing how everyone is getting their heads wrapped around about what’s going on.”

Update: August 28, 2020, 9:29 p.m. ET
The headline has been updated to clarify that the sourcing on the strike vote is from teachers, not from UFT leadership itself. And this story has been updated to include a statement from UFT Press Secretary Richard Riley saying that a strike vote has not been scheduled.

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