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NYC Teachers Were About to Strike… Then Union Leaders Cut a Backroom Deal

On Tuesday, the City of New York and the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) announced a handshake deal, made without the input of UFT members, that will allow schools to reopen with in-person instruction in late September. The deal, which was made less than a day before an expected strike authorization vote, does nothing, however, to address the vast majority of the safety problems in schools, and it does not make any inroads in allowing teachers with high-risk family members to teach remotely.

Francesca Gomes

September 3, 2020
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Image: CNN

For the past several months, New York City public school teachers have been terrified of what the reopening plans for September will look like. NYC is one of the only school districts of a major city in the country planning on re-opening: others have been pushed online due to a combination of rising cases and educator activism. Mayor Bill de Blasio’s attitude has been that teachers need to “show up and serve people,” and to stop complaining about the serious lack of safety measures taken by the city. De Blasio insists that the city is doing the best it can. “Their job is to come in and serve our kids… it’s the right thing to do for our kids.” 

Thus far, the city has done nothing that would truly ensure safety. Moreover, it is impossible to pivot to small class sizes, ventilated classrooms and time outside in a school system that has been underfunded at every level and is based primarily around fitting as many kids in a classroom as possible to pass standardized tests. So while both Cuomo and the NYC City Council have slashed funding for education, the mayor is now trying to distract from this systemic issue by claiming the UFT has been too demanding in its safety requests.

The union leadership had started preparations for a strike, claiming that the district was not ready to re-open and that opening now would put students, teachers and communities at risk. Then, on Tuesday, UFT leadership cancelled the strike votes and announced that it had come to an agreement with the DOE to reopen schools as planned with a delay of only seven school days and with a few small changes. Rank and file teachers were shocked: schools are unsafe and this decision, taken without any input from the rank and file members of the union, is a direct betrayal of the union membership and will put thousands of lives at risk. 

A Deadly Plan 

The deal itself includes almost no remedy for the dangers posed by a school reopening. There is still no change to the fact that students will be eating in groups, in small classrooms with their masks off. There is still no plan to make any accommodation for teachers with immunocompromised or otherwise medically vulnerable family members. The “big change” in addressing the lack of ventilation, apparently involves little more than what the district is calling “ventilation checks.” Anyone who saw the videos that circulated on social media last week knows that the city considers a test done with a piece of toilet paper sufficient for these. 

The biggest shift in the plan, however, involves when to reopen. According to the agreement students will not be returning to in-person instruction until September 21, a delay of only seven school days from the original reopening. Meanwhile, teachers are still expected to return to school on September 8, as planned, with most riding crowded public transportation to get there.

There will be a UFT 50-item safety checklist required to be completed before a school can reopen, but there is no forthcoming information on whether there is any way to enforce this agreement. Long before the agreement with the UFT, the city had already promised to quarantine any class that has a single positive coronavirus test result, and to close any school with more than one positive result, for two weeks. However, there are still massive testing shortages and delays, with some people waiting up to 18 days for results. That’s why NYC private schools like Poly Prep are setting up their own testing structures. 

Further, the city’s track record with sticking to safety plans is deadly. In March, the city promised to shut down schools with coronavirus cases and then hid positive test results, even instructing people in schools not to report them, in an effort to keep as many schools open as possible

The issue of nurses in schools has also been a systematic one. The Black Lives Matter movement has consistently highlighted that there are more cops than guidance counselors and nurses in schools. Now, the city is promising “a school nurse in every building” — the biggest compromise they have made with the union thus far. The problem, however, is that many school buildings house several schools and thousands of students, and the prospect of one nurse for all of them is not terribly reassuring. And there is still no provision for bussing of District 75 students, many of whom have severe disabilities and health problems.

But even if these meager safety requirements were more robust, in-person schooling still simply wouldn’t be safe. There are new Covid outbreaks occurring in some NYC neighborhoods already, and the New York State Nurses Association (NYSNA) has said “There is no question that reopening in-person schooling will accelerate the spread of COVID-19 and expose educators and school staff to greater risk of infection.” The influx of the city’s one million students into the public transportation system each day could also trigger new outbreaks, yet neither the city nor the UFT has addressed this at all.

The UFT is Betraying NYC Teachers and Communities

Despite the outcry from teachers who realize what a terrible and dangerous plan their own union has agreed to, UFT leadership has completely dropped the threat of a strike, revealing to the public how little it is willing to fight for teachers and students. In fact, some of the union’s original demands — themselves woefully insufficient were also dropped. Additionally, a  strike would have confronted the anti-union Taylor Law, which prohibits strikes by NY state public employees, and which has been lorded over public sector workers for decades to force them to accept terrible contracts. The Taylor Law is fundamentally anti-worker. Teachers should go on strike against unsafe re-openings. It’s long past time for rank and file New York City teachers to force the UFT leadership to stop hiding behind the Taylor Law as a way to avoid taking militant action when it’s necessary — like now, in a life-and-death situation.

While the city had initially agreed to random temperature checks, UFT President Michael Mulgrew had said that this wasn’t enough. The UFT argued that “The state could expand [the vaccination] requirement by insisting that all students and staff who are planning on attending school be tested in August for active or prior exposure to the coronavirus.” But Mulgrew has since walked back this demand for full testing, saying now that a plan to test a random sample of 10 percent of students and teachers once a month is a “win” for teachers. 

The new reopening plan agreed to by the UFT is a clear abdication of its responsibility, not only to keep all of its own members safe, but to keep students, families, and communities safe as well. The teachers who comprise the UFT care deeply about their students and their families, and the thought of people losing family members due to a rushed reopening of schools is terrifying. Teachers also know just how catastrophic these reopening plans will be for Black and Latinx communities, which have already been disproportionately affected by the pandemic. 

In an attempt to “sell” this terrible deal to the membership, the UFT leadership has insisted over and over again that “We showed them we would not go back until it was safe.” Lower-level members of the union leadership have been insisting for weeks that the UFT could not demand that schools be fully remote. First they said it was because parents were needed as allies, then when it became clear that parents were overwhelmingly not in favor of the DOE reopening plan, the narrative shifted. Now UFT leaders are trying to sell the necessity of in-person school to their own members by pointing to the fact that in some districts with full remote learning, legislatures have used it as an excuse to lay off teachers.

The fact that the same union leadership that is proclaiming its own union’s strength is asking its membership to cower in the face of layoffs instead of fighting back is a serious weakness, and it exposes their determination to present teachers as obedient participants in the economic agenda of the city.

The leadership’s handling of the reopening has also exposed the ways in which it attempts to keep teachers in line. Weak demands are formulated without member input or without a systematic attempt to discuss next steps thoroughly. There were some meetings held with membership at the district level, though whether or not teachers learned about them was dependent on the workings of their individual chapter, and strike authorization votes had been planned and publicized. In contrast, rank and file teacher organizations, such as the MORE caucus, as well as a DSA-led solidarity group, had frequent meetings to discuss next steps and to plan for the possibility of the first strike of the UFT in 45 years.

A deal was then made with politicians and presented as a win. The Delegate Assembly, who agreed to the deal after a speech in which Mulgrew spoke about how proud he was of his union’s strength, passed the resolution to approve the deal with 82 percent of the vote. However, given the way the UFT Delegate Assembly operates — with membership in the leadership caucus, Unity, being contingent on the signing of a loyalty oath requiring them to vote as directed  — many of the votes seldom reflect the actual wishes or demands of the rank and file, illustrated by the results of the meeting on Tuesday. There was no attempt or opportunity to hear from rank and file teachers about their vision of the new plan, much less allow the rank and file an opportunity to vote on it. 

Teachers are understandably furious about this sellout on the part of their own leadership and the bureaucratic methods used to try to convince members to accept the deal. It has become painfully clear that the rank and file of the UFT must fight back against the city’s incredibly dangerous plan that puts teachers, students, and families in jeopardy. This city government’s priorities have always been money over people, the economy over lives. They are recklessly sacrificing people, and our only option now is to stop them ourselves. Plans for a strike must continue.

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Francesca Gomes

Francesca is a teacher from Brooklyn.

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