Feature stories

Not for teachers only — Part II

Classroom paraprofessionals were among the first of a long list of nonteacher educators who became part of the UFT [see “Not for teachers only — Part I”].

In the 40 years since then, the so-called “teachers” union has welcomed New York City public school secretaries, nurses, guidance counselors, social workers and psychologists, occupational and physical therapists, lab specialists and technicians, and many other employees of the New York City public school system. Also not to be forgotten are thousands of retired members, whose continued support and participation are often the backbone of the union’s political action.

But the union’s reach does not end there. Beyond the city’s public schools, the UFT also represents staff in private schools, both for children and adults, and in hospitals and other health provider agencies. Today, the newest union chapter is also one of its largest: the 28,000-member family child care providers chapter.

All of these members, regardless of their employer or title, have contributed immeasurably to the strength and vitality of the now 200,000-strong UFT.

Federation of Nurses/UFT

The story of the Federation of Nurses/UFT illustrates the importance of a growing part of the UFT and AFT community: health professionals.

In 1979, the nurses at Lutheran Medical Center in Brooklyn, frustrated with stalled negotiations and inadequate representation by the New York State Nurses’ Association, sought a better bargaining representative. They elected the UFT, according to the chapter’s founder and leader, Anne Goldman, because of its collective-bargaining expertise and commitment to strong advocacy.

Since then, nurses at the Visiting Nurse Service of New York, the South site of Staten Island University Hospital and the Jewish Home and Hospital have all teamed up with the UFT, bringing the total number of registered and practical nurse members to 4,500.

Despite the difficulties that hospitals and health care providers have been facing, the Federation of Nurses/UFT has consistently obtained on-time contracts for its members.

The two strikes the chapter has mounted — in 1988 and 1994 at Lutheran — were primarily about standards of patient care, always nurses’ first concern. In the best UFT tradition, the nurses demanded and won a voice in the search for solutions to the chronic understaffing and nurse shortages that to this day sometimes impede good nursing care. In conjunction with the UFT’s state affiliate, the union recently won a campaign to abolish mandatory overtime for hospital nurses in New York State, further ensuring adequate patient care.

Family child care providers

The campaign to organize the family child care providers presented perhaps the greatest challenges for the UFT. Family child care providers take low-income children into their homes, caring for and educating them at state-determined rates. These dedicated caregivers are our children’s first teachers outside their homes.

nyt20100415_40b.jpgThen-UFT Vice President Michael Mulgrew and Family Child Care Providers Chapter Chair Tammie Miller deliver applications for long-delayed market-rate payments to the Administration for Children’s Services at a rally on Sept. 23, 2008.

But their work always has been undervalued. Before unionizing, providers usually worked 10 hours a day without sick days, vacation time or benefits, and earned, on average, below poverty-level wages of about $19,000 annually. And frequently, they had to fight the bureaucracy to collect even that.

One organizing challenge was the result of the providers’ isolation from one another. Working in their own homes, they had to be organized one by one.

For months in 2005, under the leadership of Tammie Miller (now the providers’ chapter chair), UFT members, providers and ACORN community organizers went door to door collecting thousands of union authorization cards from providers across the city.

The canvassers report that unfailingly the providers they spoke to were hugely excited at the prospect of sharing their problems and seeking solutions in solidarity with others in the same boat.

Another challenge arose because family child care providers are technically independent contractors, not city employees. (They collect government-funded vouchers from their clients and are paid by the city.) So they needed a state law to allow them to unionize. The Legislature approved such a law by wide margins, but the celebration was short-lived. Gov. George Pataki vetoed the legislation in 2006.

Still, the providers persisted, and sure enough, just months after Pataki’s veto, the new governor, Eliot Spitzer, issued an order that cleared the way for a representation vote. In October 2007, the providers voted to join the UFT, 8,382 to 96.

Meanwhile, even before the go-ahead for the vote, the UFT and the providers were working for fair treatment in pay practices, regulatory oversight and home inspections. The provider core leadership team was busy helping colleagues navigate a complex bureaucracy. They collected overdue pay, overturned hundreds of violation cases and saved the jobs of 1,000-plus providers over misinterpreted rules.

A longstanding controversy over market rates was settled when the UFT helped the providers document the real costs of doing their jobs and submit new payment applications. Finally, the union fought an epic battle to secure state-mandated prospective and retroactive raises that the city had refused to pay.

All in all, the providers saw immediate benefits totaling millions of dollars because of their partnership with a savvy and powerful union.

Perhaps the biggest fight was for a contract. After five years of perseverance and hard work, a union contract would give the providers a voice in shaping the policies that affect their working lives. In addition, high on their priority list were the training and the materials they needed to help their charges — toddler to teen — learn as they grew.

The state and union finally reached a tentative agreement that the providers ratified in January 2010. The contract, the first of its kind in New York State, phases in health insurance benefits, provides for professional development and grants to improve the learning environment, sets facility inspection and licensing standards and introduces a grievance procedure. Another key provision defines a process for setting the providers’ pay rate.

Most important, the contract promises to providers what the union strives to secure for every one of its members, no matter their title or their employer: livable wages, a strong voice on the job and the respect they deserve.

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