In the last week, I've been hearing from UFTers who are attending the virtual meetings that the UFT District Representatives, Borough Representatives and Officers are holding. The UFT should be putting out something logical, direct and fairly straightforward explaining how a strike or other kind of job action works that includes the possible advantages and discusses the risks openly. Instead, we get meetings with people who are used to selling subpar Contracts and lousy evaluation system agreements trying to sell the need for militancy and union solidarity. This is not a criticism as some of them have never done anything like this before and it isn't easy.
I understand some of you may have a little trouble believing some of the same people who told you the 2005 and 2014 Contracts were wonderful. Think about it, the leadership from the Unity Caucus is switching from a concessionary, bureaucratic, stance to a fighting one at lightning speed. Let me try to answer some of the questions and comments that I have seen so you can hear from a union dissident who from day 1 has believed that a militant union led by an informed and engaged membership is the best way to achieve our goals.
Question: Can I be fired if I strike?
Answer: NO! Read Section 210 of the Taylor Law for yourself, please. The penalty for striking is a fine of two days pay for each day out on strike, not termination. The Union can be fined heavily too and lose automatic dues checkoff. The UFT is risking a great deal more than individual members by talking strike.
Question: When would we be fined?
Answer: No time soon in all likelihood. The Taylor Law in Section 210 2 (f) gives employees 20 days after being sent notice that they engaged in a strike a chance to appeal. Then there is a review process at the Public Employees Relations Board that can be appealed in state court. The last time I looked one was innocent until proven guilty in the USA. You don't even pay a parking ticket while you are appealing it. The appeal process could take a long time to sort out. Norm Scott,who was involved in the UFT strike in 1975, told me yesterday that it was years, not months, before he was fined. The UFT would have a very good case that there were mitigating circumstances here. One of the factors PERB and the courts have to weigh when penalizing a union is "the impact of the strike on the public health, safety, and welfare of the community..." This would not be an ordinary strike as our potential safety strike would be to benefit, not harm, the public health, safety, and welfare of the community. While it would drag out in court, we could certainly make dropping the case against us a condition for a UFT mayoral endorsement next year. Repeal of the anti-strike provisions of the Taylor Law that the United Nations International Labor Organization ruled is a human rights violation should be a major state legislative goal.
Question: If we engage in a sickout, can we get around the fines?
Answer: It's possible since the DOE is almost encouraging us to stay out of buildings if we have something as common as a headache or a runny nose which are both symptoms of COVID-19. However, I don't want to get anyone's hopes up too high. The risks of Taylor Law penalties are real.
Question: Will we be terminated en masse if we strike?
Answer: NO! There was a risk of teachers being terminated in the 1959 Evening High School Teachers Strike and the 1960s UFT strikes when we were operating under a previous law that made termination the penalty for going on strike. Those teachers went on strike in spite of the risk. Today, the Taylor Law fines employees for going on strike. The penalty is not termination. This isn't 1981 with Ronald Reagan firing the Air Traffic Controllers for striking illegally against the federal government. If the DOE did try to use the disciplinary process to charge tens of thousands of strikers with misconduct, where would they find the lawyers and hearing officers? They could not.
Question: Can I lose my medical benefits if I strike?
Answer: Technically, yes but in reality the chances of it happening are slim to none. During the most recent GM strike, management threatened to take away healthcare benefits from the striking employees but they backed off. If we strike, we are violating our Contract (the DOE is violating it too by not giving us a safe work environment) so yes Mayor Bill de Blasio could try to take benefits away but our mayor fancies himself as a progressive champion of workers. He was a Bernie Sanders supporter. Do you honestly think de Blasio is going to go to the right of General Motors and take away health benefits during a strike for safety? Bernie would probably support us and join us. The Mayor would be siding with President Trump if he tries this. He would be to the right of GM management. In addition, I don't know if we will get 100% support for a strike but does the DOE even have the capability of taking off all of the strikers from health benefits but leaving the scabs on? I don't want to say it's impossible but it seems unrealistic.
Question: Will I lose my tenure if I strike?
Answer: NO. Once again, the Taylor Law fines public employees for striking. A previous version of the law may have taken tenure away for a year but I don't see it in the current law.
Question: Does the UFT need to take a strike authorization vote to strike?
Answer: Since a job action is not covered in the law, I don't think a membership vote can be compelled but I have never heard of a union going on strike without first getting the majority backing of the membership. The Delegate Assembly in my opinion would not be a sufficient mandate but I would still support the action if it were for a just cause. Back in 2002, the last time there was a UFT strike authorization, we voted in the schools. For those interested in precedent for a live vote of the UFT membership for an illegal strike, please read this account of the buildup to the successful 1962 Strike that was led by my UFT heroes Roger Parente and Sam Hochberg. Going on strike was opposed by Albert Shanker and then President Charles Cogen until after the majority voted to strike. The membership is ultimately in charge of a union, not the leadership. (The account of the 1962 strike I cited was inexplicably taken down from the UFT's website as was an earlier reference to the 1959 Evening High School Strike. All we have online are ICUFT blog excerpts.)
Question: Will this be a long safety strike if we were to actually do it?
Answer: In all likelihood, though one never knows, the job action would not last more than a day or two. If the UFT was to strike or do a sickout or remote out, the City-DOE would almost certainly seek an injunction to stop it while we would be in virtual court seeking an injunction to close the school buildings because they are not safe. While we play dueling injunctions in court, the UFT's hand would be incredibly strong, I mean stronger than ever, if there were 100,000 UFTers who were not reporting to the school buildings. If 50,000 UFTers report to work in the buildings, we weaken our hand considerably, not only for right now but for the next generation. All of you who have been screaming that the UFT does nothing will be creating a self-fulfilling prophecy because when the UFT tries to do a safety action, you will have undermined that effort. Militancy will be set back another few years and we will be at the mercy of the City-DOE even more. As mentioned over and over, we have a contractual right to a safe work environment.
The only other possible course of action is for the city to try to wait us out by refusing to negotiate. Comptroller Scott Stringer and Speaker of the City Council Corey Johnson have already showed up at the press conference announcing a possible job action and the UFT has plenty of other allies in the political and activist world who will support us. The progressive mayor will not ignore this; it would be an international story. There is no such thing as a guarantee but the odds are this would be a very short strike or that just us having a viable threat of it will force the City-DOE to settle. We will have plenty of community support. The UFT has cultivated that through the years.
Question: If we engage in a job action, we will play right into de Blasio's hands and lose all public support. The city has no money. Won't this lead to layoffs?
Answer: Layoffs and the safety of the buildings are two different issues. 1/3 of the families have already chosen remote learning full-time for their children. That's a whole lot of people who think it won't be safe for their children in school buildings. I predict that number is only going to go higher and higher if the news keeps pouring out about how unsafe buildings are. If the UFT just waits for the City-DOE plans to fall apart without taking action, it could produce during the time we go into the unsafe buildings a spike in the virus that nobody wants. The UFT did not strongly advocate for members to leave or not enter unsafe buildings in March. It looks like they are trying not to make the same mistake twice. If you don't believe buildings are unsafe, read this excerpt from Gothamist last week:
Speaking on WNYC's Brian Lehrer Show on Tuesday, Dr. Irwin Redlener warned that schools are "going to become hotbeds for the infections to take hold again and spread through the community."
"It's almost inevitable if we are in fact going to even hold some classes in real time in real classrooms," he added.
Earlier in the month, Redlener penned an op-ed in the Daily Beast in which he argued that schools should not reopen until point-of-care rapid testing and a vaccine are available.
"Until then, most school systems should hit the pause button rather than run that cruel experiment," he wrote.
A widely respected authority on pediatrics and public health who works at Columbia University, Redlener has informally advised the mayor throughout the pandemic. He now joins the chorus of critics led by the teachers' union that the reopening of New York City schools will put children and teachers at risk for contracting coronavirus.
On layoffs, with federal stimulus money in doubt, layoffs are on the table, safety strike or no safety strike. Those who are saying the mayor will be mad at us if we do a job action and we will require fewer teachers online so he will downsize the teaching staff have it all backwards. The Patrolmen's Benevolent Association is no friend of the mayor. They are one of his fiercest adversaries and they don't hide it. Guess who is being exempted from layoffs under the current layoff proposal: The NYPD apparently. When you fight, you may lose but you also may gain respect.
Furthermore, the city needs borrowing authority from the State Legislature and the Governor in order to meet its needs unless the federal government bails us out. We have plenty of friends in the State Legislature. The big mistake Al Shanker made in 1975 was not getting a no-layoff agreement before we used our pension fund to buy all those city bonds. The UFT did not make the same mistake twice and got a very nice package in 1991 in exchange for loaning the city part of our raises. (Scroll down on that link to my speech that I never got to deliver.)
Question: NYC's infection rate is very low and the City-DOE are doing all of these inspections to make sure buildings are safe. Shouldn't we rely on their expertise and go to work in schools?
Answer: I am not a scientist by any means but top scientists are urging that opening school buildings should be delayed as we stated earlier. Sending hundreds of thousands of students and close to 100,000 DOE employees back into the school buildings might spur on a second wave of COVID-19. Doctor Anthony Fauci said we would be engaging in an "experiment" if we open school buildings. No school system that I know of suffered the losses that NYC did in the spring. I am not willing to take the chance of risking lives. My own kids will be learning fully remotely in the fall. I don't trust anything the DOE says and neither should you. Watch this video if you want to see part of a DOE's toilet paper and yardstick school air inspection. In addition, this was in Chalkbeat NY concerning the inspections of schools:
With about two weeks left before school starts, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced Tuesday a last-minute effort to send teams of engineers from the School Construction Authority to conduct classroom-by-classroom inspections of ventilation systems.
Meanwhile, the education department had already tasked hundreds of educators — instructional leaders, achievement coaches, and others who work in the city’s borough offices — to begin doing walk-throughs of school buildings this week. The education department only announced the engineer inspections after Chalkbeat inquired about having educators who felt unqualified for the task doing detailed inspections. These educators will still make a determination about whether school buildings are safe to reopen. Many say that they haven’t been trained what to look for and that they are being asked to wave inspections through even if they find red flags.
“Under no circumstances should you complete a survey and indicate that the building is not ready to open without consulting the Director of Operations,” stated a memo obtained by Chalkbeat that had been sent from the director of operational support to education department staffers tasked with conducting walk-throughs.
Anyone who trusts the DOE inspections or much of anything the DOE says needs help that I can't provide.
Question: UFT President Michael Mulgrew seems to go back and forth with his emails, Town Halls and press conferences between militancy and concessionary unionism so why should we trust what he says?
Answer: Michael Mulgrew is not the UFT. Yesterday, he seemed to be falling back on his natural anti-militant tendencies when he wrote: "We have a responsibility to try to reopen school buildings because the infection rate in New York City is so low. But if the mayor attempts to open a school building that is unsafe, we are prepared to go to court or take a job action." That was no call to action and didn't even acknowledge that the goal should be to get all of the schools to delay opening. However, at last week's presser he was singing a more militant tune. He can only go where the membership takes him. Mulgrew is feeling the heat from below. He needs to know the membership is close to 100% with him if he takes us in a more activist direction. Otherwise, as said earlier, we will set our cause back another decade or more. If the UFT doesn't get militant when member lives are possibly at stake, when will we?
In 2002, the UFT threatened a strike. The main issue was how to use the extended time being negotiated. It was not easy convincing the Jamaica staff to go on strike but in the end we pretty much got there. Randi Weingarten promised us voice and choice in the use of extended time. She put one of her biggest critics, me, on the UFT Strike Committee. I learned a great deal that spring from Staff Director Tom Pappas as he talked logistics and the trick of the strike he told us was not actually striking but being able to convince the City we were serious. One day that spring, I was travelling home from a relative's house in New Jersey. I remember it like it was yesterday. I turned on Newsradio 880 to hear the traffic and Chancellor Harold O Levy was being interviewed. The reporter asked him about a teacher strike that we were voting on. He answered in the most condescending way: "There's not going to be a strike." Everyone but me knew we didn't have the guts to do it. The result was management controlled extended time; the provision was so bad it was renegotiated four times and then the UFT finally surrendered on so much more with the 2005 Contract. We refused to battle like a union so we lost. That could repeat itself now.
I want to add here that I understand Mulgrew's reluctance to be strong and I get a little down myself when looking at some of the anti-job action comments here and on Facebook. My whole UFT life was spent fighting the activist fight in whichever way was possible. I was only ever successful because a huge majority, not everyone, in my chapter was with me. Peaceful struggle when it is called for is in my DNA.
Mulgrew's career has been to play the political game. UFTers could have voted for me when I ran against him in 2010 but over 90% of you who voted, chose him. I was vindicated slightly in 2016 when a majority of the high school members who actually bothered to vote, chose me to be their Vice President but Vice Presidents are elected at large and the High School Division is but one of four in the UFT. That election did propel some independent thinkers to be on the UFT Executive Board. Mike Schirtzer is still there now. Show them support.
In the end, Mulgrew will get as far as a united membership will take him. It's up to all of you more than him. Understand your power and use it wisely.