If Educators Can’t File Grievances, Do We Have a Union Contract?
Over the week of March 9, it became increasingly clear that schools needed to close in New York City. Schools were already closed or closing in many states and Greater New York, as the most densely populated metropolitan area in the country, was at a higher risk of rapid spread than anywhere else.
By the end of the week, the UFT leadership began its ‘fight’: vowing to file a labor complaint, considering a lawsuit against the DOE, and eventually claiming it would file an injunction with the Supreme Court (as if they would care more than De Blasio).
Meanwhile, rank and file UFT members were organizing to protect themselves and their students. Job actions such as sick outs, walk-ins, and walk outs were discussed and planned in many union chapters across the city. De facto sick outs among educators and families alike were already happening for the entire week prior, and it was obvious the time to shut the schools had already passed.
At this point, UFT leadership and rank-and-file members agreed on the problem, but not the solution.
On Sunday March 15, facing rock bottom student and teacher attendance the next day, Mayor De Blasio finally closed the schools. Analysis since then has come to the consensus that it was the militancy of rank and file members, not the abstract legalese of the UFT leadership, that forced the schools to close.
Nevertheless, from March 17-19, public educators were told to report to school in order to transition to remote learning for the foreseeable future. Why was it necessary to ask educators to travel across the city to meet physically to learn how to teach remotely? No one knows, and no one remembers any valuable training happening. Two months later, over 100 educators have died, 16% of students still do not have access to remote learning, and about 50% overall do not actively participate. It’s as obvious as ever that the DOE and UFT were unprepared and incompetent in this crisis.
Now, the UFT doesn’t have the backs of its members. In April, almost 300 rank-and-file members filed grievances against DOE administration, citing violations of contractual provisions related to health and safety, as the DOE clearly violated health advisories from federal, state, and its own city government in allowing schools to remain open during the weeks of March 9 and March 16. The grievants wanted paid sick days added for all members, both those who reported and those who stayed home in order to protect themselves.
Instead of fighting for these members’ rights, UFT district representatives repeatedly told UFT rank and file members that grievances could not be filed. However, no written agreement between the UFT and DOE stipulates this. Further, there is a statute of limitations for filing grievances; if the DOE has not agreed to waive these limitations, the DOE could reject the grievances, as the time for filing those has already expired. Rather, the UFT was refusing to pursue these grievances, and by extension refusing to fight for the dignity of members who were put in harm’s way in March.
The UFT leadership has gone from an incompetent adversary of the DOE to a willing accessory in direct violations of educators’ health and safety. The message regarding grievances is that they are closed and indefinitely suspended.
Immediately, the UFT needs to do the following:
- file all grievances for teachers remotely, the same way teachers are teaching remotely
- negotiate a strong contract for online learning similar to that of the United Teachers of Los Angeles
- establish a specific and thorough safety plan for re-opening schools
- prepare rank-and-file for potential work actions in the fall, through political education and reorganization of the union to democratize it and maximize rank-and-file voice and action
During this time, more than ever, the UFT needs to be active, militant, and transparent to organize membership for fights ahead. This is no time to let the grievance process lapse. These actions towards members by the UFT leadership show bad faith in representation and a lack of basic solidarity. The time to show resolve and strength is now. We’re fighting, we’re watching what our union leadership does, and we’ll remember it.
by Derek Hafner, David Price, Caroline Sykora, Marian Swerdlow, and Andrew Worthington, all rank-and-file members of the United Federation of Teachers