This is the first installment of a series profiling rank-and-file union members. Rosy C. teaches pre-K in a public elementary school in Brooklyn, and in this interview she discusses the UFT’s victory gaining paid parental leave and its slightly muddled response to the Janus decision.
What union are you a member of?
The United Federation of Teachers, or UFT. I am also a member of the Movement of Rank and File Educators, or MORE, which is an opposition caucus within the UFT. I am the Delegate at my school, which means that I assist the Chapter Leader in union business at our school, and can attend the Delegate Assemblies of the UFT.
How long have you been a member? How would you characterize your involvement with the union?
I have been a member for two years, since I started my job as a teacher in the DOE. I was eager to get a job in a public school and become a member of the union, and was also excited to get into organizing within the union through MORE, but I wasn’t sure how conducive my new school environment would be to that. Lucky for me on my first day I met my Chapter Leader who is an active member of MORE and DSA, and was able to get started organizing almost right away. I have been the Delegate at my school for a year.
What do you feel are the major issues your union is focused on right now?
The union leadership has been especially focused recently on getting paid parental leave for members, which it successfully negotiated for in June of 2018. New York City teachers can now take 6 weeks of paid leave after they give birth to, adopt, or foster a child. Teachers of any gender can take this leave, and if you are the parent that gives birth to a child you can use your sick days to take up to an additional 6 weeks. MORE was active in achieving this goal as we held rallies, forums, and a walk-in action to spread the word and keep pressure on our public officials. We know that our fight isn’t over as we in MORE were pushing for paid family leave as a more comprehensive benefit than parental leave, but we are excited that this victory was achieved.
The union leadership has also been taking steps to try to prepare for and combat the anticipated loss of membership due to Janus, with questionable results. They organized a door-knocking campaign to engage members with political arguments encouraging them to become more active, followed by an attempt to organize “Membership Teams” in schools to talk to every staff member about continuing to remain union members. By the time of the Membership Teams effort, the union's message had changed in that the "you are the union" message was dropped, and the level of personal interaction with members was reduced to one or two minutes. Membership Teams were trained to seek mere commitments to stay in the union and to update members' contact information. The Mulgrew leadership has made it clear that membership activation and mobilization is not part of its strategy to defend the union. Instead, the sole purpose of the revised conversations appears to be to maintain the flow of dues income. Union membership has not been presented with a metric for how successful the campaign is at either reaching people or at convincing them.
What is/has been the attitude of your employer toward the union?
My personal employer, the principal at my school, has a fairly positive relationship with the union. The Chapter Leader at our school has a good working relationship with her, and our teachers are happy with the work environment at our school. Usually people would recommend that a teacher who is not tenured yet (you can’t get tenure until you’ve been working for 4 years) should not serve as a Delegate, but I talked to my Chapter Leader about it and we agreed that there is virtually no threat to my job by me getting involved in the union in this way.
Discuss the ways your union has advocated for the interests of its members.
The win for paid parental leave is the biggest marker for UFT at the moment. They negotiated to win that victory by pushing back the expiration of our contract which was supposed to happen in November of 2018, and I believe will now expire sometime in February of 2019. This was a big success since before this we didn’t have any paid time off for maternity or paternity leave, forcing people to use their sick days.
Are there issues you feel your union should organize around that are not currently being addressed?
The UFT leadership is not always as transparent as I think they should be about their negotiations and motivations, and it was frustrating as a rank and file member to watch them negotiate for Parental Leave without knowing what was going on. I also think they made a mistake this year when a group of teachers got together to organize a Black Lives Matter Week of Action in Schools, and the UFT leadership argued against endorsing it, which got people to vote against it. I was extremely disappointed.
This year will still bring a lot of debate around the contract, even if it is happening in February instead of November. I am curious to see what impact the Janus decision has on our membership, and what the union leadership does to make sure that our members feel engaged with the union. MORE is committed to working for the rank and file teachers and we are looking forward to fighting for what our members deserve in the next contract.