Back in 1959, Parente and Hochberg helped lead the first teachers' strike in New York City history. It was a walkout by evening high school teachers that was so successful that evening school teacher pay nearly doubled. Before the strike, evening high school teachers were paid $12.50 a night for four hours work. As a result of the walkout, pay was increased to $24. That translates to $201.67 in 2017 money when adjusted for inflation. If the $201.67 is divided by four, it comes to $50.42 per hour. What is the current UFT per session rate? That would be $47.73 per hour. The strike won those evening school teachers better pay (adjusted for inflation) than what the corresponding figure would be for per session work today. Not all strikes are won but strikes can be a powerful labor tool if we would just use them or at least credibly threaten them.
In 1965, the evening high school teachers were ready to go on strike again and the UFT, by then fully consolidated in its current incarnation under Albert Shanker, reacted by threatening to break the strike and scab by having UFT teachers take the jobs of the evening high school teachers. The strike never happened and although evening high school teachers came under the UFT umbrella, working conditions never improved and the salaries didn't either. The program was disbanded in 2006.
Militancy in the UFT died as the Union became more bureaucratic and teachers became less active over the last four decades. In this century, it has been mostly downhill for NYC teachers in terms of working conditions. Too many teachers are dreading the first day of school next week.
We did our story on that 1959 strike back in January in response to a feature that Norm Scott and Kit Wainer did on Ed Notes that left out the High School Teachers Association when listing opposition groups to Michael Mulgrew's Unity Caucus (originally the Teachers Guild), both before and during the UFT era.
Six months after Norm and Kit wrote their story in January, totally out of the blue, came a comment at Ed Notes in response to a comment I made about the lack of mention of the High School Teachers Association by Norm and Kit in Norm's posting.
Here are the three comments:
That final comment is from Dr. Matilde Parente, who happens to be Roger Parente's daughter!
She is so right. That old guard are the people from the old Teachers Guild that ended up starting the Unity Caucus that controls the UFT to this day and certainly they are guided, as Dr. Parente says, by "complacency and self interest."
I have had the honor of a wonderful email exchange with Doctor Parente this summer. I have been rewarded to discover that Roger Parente, who passed away in 2013, and I have a great deal in common. We both saw the need to combat the "old guard" in the UFT. Roger wanted teachers to be militant and so do I. In addition, he came from a high school faction and I too have done much of my work in the high schools. I can't decide if getting to know Roger Parente on a deeper level through his daughter Matilde is serendipity or higher forces at work but emailing back and forth with Roger's daughter has energized me just a bit more to fight for teachers, and to expose the UFT leadership when they are doing an inadequate job defending our rights. Sadly, I have to do that on this blog too often.
I sometimes wonder how Roger Parente would've responded when it came up at a Movement of Rank and File Educators' summer series meeting in 2017 that the 19,000+ high school teachers would be better off restarting the High School Teachers Association as our union and dumping the UFT. The issue has been raised in other forums as well.
Dr. Parente was inspired by her dad's work. My wife Camille and I view him as an inspiration too. In the oped piece below that she submitted to the Wall Street Journal in 2010 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the first UFT strike, Parente compares teacher militancy to what is needed to reform healthcare. Enjoy it. Teacher morale seems so low now just like it was back in the days when the UFT was starting. Maybe history can repeat itself and teachers can rise up again.
Teachers and Health Professionals, 50 Years Later
They thought change would never come. They thought funding for the overhaul would never be found. Surely the public would never foot the bill, or support their calls for reform. They were paralyzed by fear – of speaking up, losing their jobs, becoming pariahs. Even though all admitted The System was horribly broken and underserved its clients, most of its workforce was too afraid, too pessimistic or just too beaten down to rise up to heated calls for action.
No, it wasn't today's health care debate but rather a transformative event with deep implications for health care reform. Broken was the New York City public school system, its clients were students and its workers were New York’s teachers. The action they eventually undertook was the monumental New York City teachers’ strike of 1960.
Teachers, administrators and prominent political figures gather in New York City on March 25 to mark the 50th anniversary of the United Federation of Teachers strike. What set the stage for the unprecedented action were overcrowded, underperforming classrooms and appalling working conditions for teachers, then paid at 1930s-level salaries, documented in Stephen Cole's The Unionization of Teachers, a case study of the UFT. To strike activists such as Roger Parente – who led the 1959 evening high school teachers' strike that foreshadowed the citywide strike, the first-ever by organized professionals in the United States – the unparalleled job action was imperative. Yet, as Cole and other historians have noted, bleak conditions faced by underpaid teachers and the need for meaningful educational reform weren't enough to spur teachers to rebel. As Parente, Sam Hochberg and other young Turks understood, it would take an insurgency to propel educators and their tired leadership to flex their power. Until they finally did, educators were too meek and unsure to forge an action plan.
The health care debate has been marked by an odd silence from doctors and other health care workers, much like the silently suffering educators who found their voice during the 1960 teachers' strike. As individuals and in organized groups, health professionals appear resigned to air grievances and opinions in journal articles and editorials. Despite an open secret shared on the front lines of the health care system that quality care is nearly a random event, most medical organizations have bowed out of the debate’s crossfire. Like teachers 50 years ago, they may not see how they stand to win or where to find support for their reformist calls. Strike for their patients? Unthinkable.
However, health professionals can choose other job actions certain to unleash a tidal wave of change in medical practice nationwide. These changes are powerful enough to immediately defuse the health care reform conundrum to reign in health care costs, improve patient care and enhance safe medical practice.
The job action proposed is doable for every health care professional that belongs to a professional society, from the American Medical Association to specialty societies and allied health groups: Withhold dues. Ditto financial support for political action committees that support lobbying activities that leave major reforms out of sight and undone. Declare that support will resume only when these societies identify and attack three major problem spots in each specialty that, when rectified, will significantly reduce health care costs, improve patient care and commit each organization to take up the gauntlet to greater reforms.
The American College of Cardiology is leading the charge with efforts designed to reform practices in that specialty "from the inside out." Beyond its pioneering work that rolled out treatment guidelines, the ACC has fine-tuned its approach to costly chaos in cardiology care with its Quality First initiative. The ACC's blueprint for reform identifies critical areas that call out cardiologists and medical systems to make major practice improvements that reduce unnecessary procedures, advance patient safety and deliver higher quality care in ways that save lives and significant health care dollars. The blueprint cites pilot incentive programs to tackle laggard areas with action plans designed to 1) Reduce hospital readmission rates for heart failure patients and unnecessary cardiac imaging studies; 2) Promote greater penetration and adoption of electronic prescribing and health information technology; and 3) Improve appropriate medication delivery systems with emphasis on patient compliance and adherence. All are specific, actionable and life-saving.
Every health professional society must make it their mission to identify three areas in their respective specialties amenable to major revision now. As health care professionals know, wasteful, low-yield, high risk: benefit ratio or ineffective measures and procedures are hiding in plain sight. To give teeth to the mandate, societies should follow the ACC's lead and issue specified goals, practice guidelines and deadlines to get the job done. That means target numbers and measurements, two things medical professionals slavishly follow in testing procedures but underutilize with regard to practice, performance and outcomes.
The ACC collaborated with the American Heart Association to decrease deaths from cardiovascular disease by issuing numerical goals, the first practice guidelines and timelines. Other professional societies can follow their lead to advocate for and roll out meaningful, life-saving and cost-slashing quality measures that every practice, hospital and community can achieve across all fields, from neurosurgery to physical therapy and bloodbanking.
The solution proposed will not expose, dissect or revamp other deeply rooted ills in the health care system. What it will show, as did the teachers’ strike, is that yes, it can be done. Even by those tough enough and smart enough to practice medicine but who would rather sit out the health care fight whispering and doodling somewhere in the back row.