Paid Family Leave Victory
By Ryan Bruckenthal, Mike Stivers, and Rosy Clark
New York City’s public school teachers in the United Federation of Teachers just won six weeks of fully paid parental leave! Before this victory, the City made teachers use sick days or take unpaid medical leave in order to start a family, often financially forcing new parents back to work far sooner than they wanted. In a workforce that is 77% female, this policy especially hurt new mothers, not to mention equating pregnancy and childbirth with sickness. Fathers, adoptive parents, foster parents, and parents that used surrogacies, could take a maximum of three personal days. Now, new parents can spend adequate time with their loved ones during one of the most important times in their lives, without facing financial pressures. But Paid Parental Leave didn’t just fall from the sky or from an overly benevolent City Hall, it was fought for by rank and file teachers and union activists, with DSA members and socialists playing a leading role in the fight.
What started out as a petition from a rank and file teacher named Emily James quickly caught on like wildfire after more than 80,000 signed on. This past winter, the Movement of Rank and File Educators (MORE) in the UFT began planning our campaign for Paid Family Leave, knowing that it would take a movement from below and a series of escalating actions to get what we wanted from the City. New York State had passed a law giving most private sector employees in the state paid family leave starting January 1, 2018, yet the law specifically excluded teachers and other public sector union members. Therefore, our demands were clear: full paid family leave with no givebacks. We organized a march from our union headquarters to the Department of Education, gaining the attention of the local media. We then organized a panel on paid family leave, bringing together other public sector and higher education union members excluded from the NYS law, showing us that we could build a coalition around the demand for paid family leave. When the national teacher strike wave kicked off in West Virginia, we caught serious momentum and spoke with rank and file teacher union leaders across the country about organizing tactics. We decided on one particular tactic learned from our comrades in West Virginia and Arizona - the walk-in. During a walk-in, school staff meet outside before school to rally, flyer the public, and generate media around the issue. Then, everyone walks in together in a display of solidarity. Less than two weeks ago, we successfully organized walk-ins at 18 different locations across the city, rallying hundreds of teachers to pressure both the UFT leadership and DOE.
Of course, we didn’t get everything we wanted. This policy doesn’t cover workers that need to care for sick or dying family members. And of course, it’s only six weeks long - a paltry amount of time compared to countries with much smaller economies. Still, this victory is a vindication of the power rank and file workers have both in pressuring union leadership to take on political fights and in extracting concessions from employers, in this case the City of New York. At a moment when the Janus Supreme Court case is very likely about to yield an anti-union verdict, this campaign shows that there is power in a union that empowers the rank and file membership to organize and fight, and that when we fight, we can win. The fight for Paid Family is not over, for teachers or other public sector workers across the city, state, and country, but we Democratic Socialist Teachers are ready to continue the struggle for the schools and society our students and communities deserve.