UFT turns up pressure over school reopening in series of calls to assess strike support

UFT President Michael Mulgrew

New York City’s teachers union is starting to gauge support among members for a strike over school reopening plans, Chalkbeat has learned.

The United Federation of Teachers held a series of borough-wide calls Friday where school-level union leaders were asked to begin talking to rank-and-file members at their schools about a bigger pressure campaign, which could include a strike, according to multiple sources. In at least one Bronx district, the union asked school chapter leaders to set up meetings with their colleagues over the next two weeks. 

The calls with union representatives in the Bronx, Queens, and Brooklyn represent an escalation in a power struggle over school reopening plans in New York City, which remains the only one of the country’s largest school districts planning to open its doors to students at the start of the new school year. 

“The meeting was making sure that all the chapter leaders understand all of [UFT President Michael] Mulgrew’s demands and making sure that chapter leaders understood they would have to start engaging members, and that the potential of a strike is out there,” said Caroline Sykora, a high school teacher and union chapter leader in the Bronx who was on the call. 

It remains unclear whether there is an appetite for a disruptive work action among teachers or from the UFT’s leadership itself. But just discussing a strike or mobilizing teachers in other ways can be powerful: In other cities, union concerns have prompted districts to reconsider their in-person learning plans. 

Union officials confirmed they held a series of meetings with union leaders from schools across the city, but declined to comment on discussions about possible labor actions.

“The sessions briefed the leaders on UFT safety demands designed to keep students, staff and school communities safe, and what needs to be in place for a school to reopen,” union spokesperson Alison Gendar said.

The union has been criticizing elements of New York City’s plans to reopen school buildings for weeks. Many rank-and-file members have expressed concerns about returning to their buildings, worried about poor ventilation in classrooms, children who struggle with wearing masks, and those who live with high-risk relatives, among other issues. 

Mulgrew already raised the possibility of a strike earlier this week, when he laid out a list of safety demands he said needed to be met before teachers return to classrooms.

“If we feel that a school is not safe, we are prepared to go to court and take action,” Mulgrew said. 

Mayor Bill de Blasio has criticized teachers over their threats to do a labor action rather than return to the classroom, saying they need to step up and serve because remote learning won’t work for most students. With coronavirus test positivity rates in the city at record lows of less than 1%, de Blasio said that schools should reopen. He would only keep them closed if infection rates rose above 3% over a seven-day rolling average. 

But some teachers say they don’t trust the mayor to make the necessary decisions to keep them safe.  

New York’s Taylor Law forces steep penalties on public sector union workers that take such job actions. The union could lose its ability to automatically collect dues, and teachers could miss out on paychecks under the law.

Last month, the American Federation of Teachers said it would support strikes over teacher safety issues. 

Chicago teachers raised the specter of an action before the city announced it would reverse course and begin the year virtually. And earlier this week, Detroit teachers voted overwhelmingly to authorize a “safety strike” if the district doesn’t meet demands to start the school year remotely. The union said it was not a work stoppage because teachers would instruct students remotely.

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