Seven moments in UFT history maybe more pivotal than this one

Even as many unions nationwide are struggling to retain their clout, the United Federation of Teachers is still flexing considerable muscle in New York City. But with a teacher evaluation deal still up in the air and Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s last months in office approaching, the teachers union is nonetheless at a crossroads.

Just how much the current moment translates into change for the UFT will not be clear for years. Other turning points in UFT history have been more obvious. Here are a few:

1960: The UFT is born out of rival factions

Teachers Guild President Charles Cogen, addressing a rally in Manhattan, later became the UFT’s first president. (Courtesy of UFT)

The Teachers Guild, a group made up primarily of older teachers, and the more confrontational High School Teachers Association merged in 1960 to create the UFT. Relations between the two groups, which were not the only unions representing city teachers, had thawed after members picketed together the previous year. The UFT’s future hegemony was not at all obvious then, as the union didn’t have collective bargaining power until December 1961 and the Teachers Guild didn’t dissolve until 1964. The UFT would play a crucial role in the education upheaval later that decade, including the 1968 teachers strike precipitated by the firing of teachers in Ocean Hill-Brownsville.

1968: Teachers strike for months

Books have been written about the conflict that raged after the school board in the Ocean Hill-Brownsville section of Brooklyn fired 18 white teachers without cause. In response, UFT President Al Shanker called a series of strikes, first in May of that year and then at the beginning of the next school year, which in total shut most of the city’s schools down for 36 days. That strained the relationship between the black and Jewish communities in New York, made Shanker one of the best-known men in the city; and, when the teachers were rehired, ultimately strengthened the UFT. (It was also a decisive blow to the concept of community control of schools.) But the victory did little to address the underlying issues of the racial and ethnic make-up of the city’s teaching force or the city’s funding priorities that would make the 1970s a turbulent time for city schools and the union.

1969: Paraprofessionals join the union

The UFT has continued to gain strength by representing groups other than traditional classroom educators, a practice that has allowed it to grow its ranks even when the number of teachers in the city stagnated. In 1969, in one of the first major augmentations, 1,000 paraprofessionals joined the union, even though they had different concerns from other educators. The move created a precedent for expansion that led to school psychologists, nurses, guidance counselors, secretaries, and other employees who are now included under the UFT umbrella, as well as employees who don’t work with public school students at all — such as nurses at Jewish Home and Hospital and a few other hospitals in the city. The UFT’s largest boost came in 2007, when city child care workers voted to be represented by the UFT, with the hope that the union would be able to negotiate to increase their salaries. That added 28,000 members to the UFT’s rolls and swelled the union’s representation to include those taking care of children before they even reach the city school system.

1975: The UFT keeps the city from declaring bankruptcy

This oft-cited moment of cooperation between the union and the city was not without considerable tension — the year had already seen a five-day strike in September and thousands of teacher and paraprofessional layoffs that would reshape education in the city for years to come. But $150 million in UFT pension funds provided for city bonds did allow Mayor Abraham Beame to avoid declaring bankruptcy in October 1975. According to “Tough Liberal,” Richard Kahlenberg’s 2007 biography of Shanker, Newsweek at the time quoted a Bank of America vice president calling the union president “the most powerful man in the United States” in the lead-up to that decision, which Shanker made following the intervention of New York’s governor. The city made it clear that the union’s money was New York’s only option, and the union earned widespread praise for its actions.

1986: Sandra Feldman takes over

Sandra Feldman taught fourth grade at P.S. 34 in Manhattan before becoming a union official and, eventually, its president. (Courtesy of UFT)

After 25 years at the helm of the UFT, Shanker resigned to focus on leading the American Federation of Teachers, the national union. Feldman had worked closely with Shanker for decades, playing a crucial support role in the strikes of the 1960s, and she continued his brand of unionism. But Feldman also turned the union’s attention more strongly than ever to the way that teachers were treated as professionals — and to the quality of the education that union members were providing to city students. Under her leadership, the union significantly ramped up the professional development it offered its members through its Teacher Centers; secured state funding for mentoring; and negotiated a contract that allowed for teacher input in school management. Feldman also proposed new ways to deliver instruction, suggesting, for example, that schools offer ungraded “primary units” for students who enrolled with inadequate preparation. The emphases on teacher practice and student outcomes have remained central to the union’s self-identification ever since.

1995: Teachers reject a contract agreement

Feldman negotiated a new contract that included a 13 percent, five-year salary increase and a temporary ban on layoffs — but it also froze wages for two years. Resenting the wage freeze, particularly as city officials were giving big raises to themselves, teachers voted down the contract by a 56 to 44 margin. It was the first — and still only — time in the union’s history that teachers rejected a contract negotiated by their elected leaders, and the stunning defeat signaled dissent within the union at a moment when the city’s financial situation made the union especially vulnerable. Teachers didn’t approve a contract for another year, and when they did, they signed off on many of the most controversial provisions.

2002: Weingarten helps enact mayoral control

Randi Weingarten testified at a hearing about the renewal of mayoral control in February 2009. (GothamSchools)

Now that the union leadership and Mayor Bloomberg, more often than not, are trading jabs and filing lawsuits against one another, it’s clear that mayoral control of city schools has proven to be an extraordinarily controversial policy decision. But Bloomberg won centralized authority over an education system that had been decentralized for 33 years only with support from Randi Weingarten, the last UFT president, in 2002. As one New York Times analysis phrased it, “Ms. Weingarten and her union are scrambling to keep their foothold in the power structure,” which they did by presenting the union as partners with the city on improvements. The implications of that decision are likely to shape the union’s future, especially as it reconsiders its school governance platform after more than a decade of mayoral control.