“Those of us teaching the children of New York City do the work. Not only are we not getting the support we need, but we have leadership that actively works against our interests. This has to change.”

William Alatriste/NYC Council

UFT President Michael Mulgrew.

I’ve been a member of the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) for 38 years. I’m a great believer in union and its power. But I’ve come to question the way mine is being run.

In late October, UFT President Michael Mulgrew sent us an email stating the following: “The city’s Office of Labor Relations sent a letter to the head of the Municipal Labor Committee giving the unions notice of its intent to enroll all Medicare‑eligible city retirees in a NYC Medicare Advantage plan and eliminate all other retiree health plans, including GHI SeniorCare. If the unions don’t go along with it, the city has threatened annual health care premiums of roughly $1,500 for all in‑service municipal employees.”

I was gob-struck by this. It seemed to suggest if we in-service members did not toss our retired brothers and sisters under the bus, we’d be penalized. This was pitting one faction of our union against another, and looked blatantly anti-union to me.

I began to question our leadership’s approach to activism. Shouldn’t we be united? Shouldn’t we be working toward helping all union members? And why are we pushing to place anyone in an inferior medical plan in the first place?

The last UFT boots on the ground event was years ago. Our actions are not drawing much response from the press. Maybe we wear blue on this day, or black on that day. A few people do it, and get their pictures in the union paper, which no one outside of the union even sees. Maybe we go mark papers in Starbucks, in the hope people will take notice. No one seemed to notice before, though. One day, we had a “teach-in.” What’s a teach-in? Your guess is as good as mine.

A few years ago, we were talking about a strike. We were protesting unsafe conditions in schools, conditions affecting our students as well as ourselves. I was chapter leader. One member called me and said, “I’m not going to do it. I’m going to be a scab.” This member was shocked at my harsh reply. This member expected me to laugh it off and continue chatting. This member, like many of us, has no idea what union is.

I was aligned with leadership for a few years. I urged anyone who’d listen to educate members about unionism. Nothing ever happened. In fact, a lot of leadership’s activism seems directed against not our adversaries, but ourselves.

UFT President Michael Mulgrew got up at an AFT convention and threatened to punch out opponents of Common Core, a program that no teacher I know favored at all. For my money, it’s poisoned reading and writing instruction. Our English Regents exam is no longer called Common Core, but still follows it. When I teach kids how to pass it, I feel like I’m teaching them to hate reading and writing. Fortunately, the exam just makes them seek petty details and regurgitate given arguments. I know kids who cannot put together a coherent sentence who’ve passed.

Our leadership opposes the NY Health Act, saying it will ruin what we have. I’m not sure why. Everything I read about NYHA suggests we’ll have more, and so will every one of our friends and neighbors. The notion that we have ours, and everyone else can go fish is precisely why we haven’t got decent health care in this country. We can do better.

A union should move forward. But not only are we opposing NYHA, we’re also diminishing health care for ourselves. Leadership is laser focused on privatizing health care for retirees. There is, frankly, no way that for-profit Aetna having a veto over our health care is good for anyone in need of said care. It hasn’t been all that wonderful for our friends in Illinois. I’ve yet to meet a single retiree not on the UFT payroll who likes it.

It’s ironic, because after years of bringing charters to the city, and even (unsuccessfully) opening them, leadership now bemoans “corporate charters.” While I’m glad to finally be on the right side of this issue, it’s hard to fathom why, if corporate charters are so bad for us, corporate health care is something we should fight for.

Why is leadership out there making such unpopular deals? Well, in 2018, in exchange for a three-year contract that hovered around cost of living, Mulgrew and the Municipal Labor Committee agreed, without consent or knowledge of rank and file, to save the city $600 million a year in health care costs. They agreed to do this forever. We’re now learning the hard way that forever is considerably longer than three years.

We’re also being asked to demonstrate for a “fair contract.” However, we have no idea what this contract will entail. There is a Contract Committee, every member of which has signed an NDA. The only thing we know is that we’re looking at a pattern like the one DC37 got, with a 3 percent bump for 2023. Social Security calculated a cost of living increase of 8.7 percent, so that means our income is down by 5.7 percent. I don’t know about you, but I’m not inclined to go out and passionately demand any such thing. A fair contract would keep up with cost of living, at the very least.

The police just got a slightly larger raise, and are getting paid in full for the six years they’ve been without a contract. When Mulgrew got us a contract in 2014 under similar circumstances, we were paid off over seven years with no interest whatsoever. (You can imagine why so many of us are less than keen on our leadership’s negotiation skills.)

I have no idea why we made the 2014 deal. We could’ve gone to arbitration. I don’t see how the results could have been worse. In the highly unlikely event we ended up getting less than other unions, we’d have finally broken the pattern that ties us to 3 percent this year. In any case, money you get over a decade after you were owed it is considerably less valuable.

I was chapter leader of the largest school in Queens for 12 years. It’s a very tough job, but I loved it. It’s challenging because you have to be adversarial with your bosses. Sometimes they are wrong. Sometimes those you represent are. Nonetheless, you give them everything you got. You never, ever, take sides against them.

UFT leadership, in fighting to save the city money against member interests, has taken Eric Adams’ side rather than ours. That’s unconscionable. And when I parodied Mulgrew for that, he had UFT lawyers send me a threatening letter challenging my First Amendment rights.

Being criticized is part of leadership. As chapter leader, members blamed me for things. Maybe the results of disciplinary hearings didn’t go their way. Maybe leadership did something and I was supposed to change it.

However, I never went out and used their money to hire lawyers to sue them. Had I done such a thing, I’d have been unfit. Our leadership doesn’t seem to have the remotest notion of what union is or does. Thus, they’re dysfunctional, and so is our union.

Unity Caucus is the leadership caucus. Many or most of them hold union jobs. Their motto is, “We do the work.” I’d argue that people in offices are not, in fact, doing the work. Those of us teaching the children of New York City do the work. Not only are we not getting the support we need, but we have leadership that actively works against our interests. This has to change.

Goldstein is an ENL teacher at Francis Lewis High School. He blogs at nyceducator.com and can be found on Twitter @TeacherArthurG.

Editor’s Note: A spokesperson for the United Federation of Teachers shared the following statement with City Limits in response to this oped:

“Change is hard for anyone, and changes in health care can be particularly unnerving. The fact is that while millions of workers in both the private and public sectors pay thousands of dollars every year for their health insurance, New York City workers are among the few that have premium-free health care – because of hardnosed negotiations by the union with both the city and healthcare providers.

As healthcare costs rise across the country, particularly in the New York City area, preserving that premium-free care is a constant struggle.  That is why the city’s municipal unions, acting together, are creating a unique Medicare Advantage premium-free plan to meet the needs of our retirees, and are seeking a new, premium-free plan for active workers that would provide more services without any increase in the city’s cost.

At the same time, the UFT is bargaining with the city for a new contract for educators.  This process involves hundreds of UFT members on our negotiating committee, and all wage increases and work-rule changes will be voted on by all of the nearly 120,000 UFT members working for the Department of Education.”