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UFT contract guru Lucille Swaim dies

New York Teacher
Lucille Swaim

Lucille Swaim negotiated the union’s first contract.

Lucille Swaim, the coordinator of negotiations for every UFT contract from the first one in 1962 until her retirement in 2015, died on July 1 at the age of 87.

Her fingerprints are on every contractual improvement UFT members enjoy today.

“Lucille was a quiet hero,” said UFT President Michael Mulgrew. “She put her heart, soul and intellect into helping generations of educators and UFT members. She helped build this union.”

Swaim came to the UFT in 1961 during efforts to organize city teachers, and she stayed to negotiate the first comprehensive collective bargaining agreement covering teachers anywhere in the nation.

“That contract,” she later said, “broke the ground for teachers to start organizing across the country.”  

For the first time, a teachers’ contract covered not just salary and benefits but working conditions, such as class size and the right to a duty-free lunch. And for the first time, contractual grievance procedure required that an impartial arbitrator, and not the employer, be the final decision-maker in disputes.
UFT retired teachers who worked in the 1950s and ’60s can bear witness to just how extraordinary those improvements were.

Swaim said of that contract, “I was thrilled and saw it as a watershed.”

George Altomare, the director of UFT Professional Committees and a member of that first bargaining unit, said Swaim’s “fine-tuned contract language has stood the test of time and of arbitrators over the decades.”

Working behind the scenes, Swaim continued for more than half a century to play a major role in effecting improvements in salary, benefits and working conditions for UFT members.

Honored at Teacher Union Day in 2010 as recipient of the David Wittes award for her deep commitment to social justice, Swaim said, “It feels great to be able to provide some help to people who are trying to improve their working conditions.”

A union activist all her life, Swaim believed collective bargaining and union representation are the best ways to solve the problems of members and improve their lives.

After attending elementary school in Brooklyn, Swaim moved with her family to Ohio, where she earned an undergraduate degree from Ohio University. She earned a doctorate in labor economics from Harvard/Radcliffe. She interrupted her teaching career at Iowa State and Wells College in upstate New York to study industrial union contracts across the country on a yearlong grant.

Swaim came to the UFT on loan from the AFL-CIO in 1961 and never looked back.

Over the years and under four UFT presidents, Swaim sat across the bargaining table from numerous mayoral administrations, boards of education and schools chancellors and faced more and more challenges as the UFT grew and added new bargaining units.

Colleagues recall how Swaim learned everything there was to know about the work done by private-sector nurses to prepare for their first contract negotiation when the union organized them in the late ’70s.

That dedication, they say, was because she cared deeply about members and listened carefully to them to really understand their needs.

“She loved her job,” said Laura Page, who worked closely with Swaim for more than 40 years. “And her office was an encyclopedia of relevant papers for every contract.”

In 2011, Swaim received the New York State United Teachers’ highest leadership award: Not by Ourselves Alone: The Sandy Feldman Outstanding Leadership Award.

Michael Mendel, a former executive assistant to the UFT president, said, “Every union member owes a debt of gratitude to Lucille Swaim for all the work she’s done.”

Swaim is survived by a sister, Alice Gill, a union activist who worked for the American Federation of Teachers.

Related Topics: UFT History, News Stories