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Huge grievance victory in Queens

Long battle against a retaliatory principal ends in triumph
New York Teacher
Teachers celebrate a victory
Erica Berger

PS 186 Chapter Leader Christina Tewksbury (left) and other staff show their happiness with the decision at the conclusion of a meeting to inform members of the ruling.

A UFT school chapter in Queens stood up to — and together against — a hostile principal and won.

An independent arbitrator on Jan. 19 ordered Melissa Haidary, the principal at PS 186 in Bellerose, Queens, to “cease and desist any discrimination” of UFT members on the basis of their association with the union and their participation in union activities.

One teacher hugs another
Erica Berger

Teachers Patricia Mahalko (left) and Janet Rotela celebrate the victory.

“It was a long and arduous journey, but it was worthwhile,” said special education teacher Patricia Mahalko, one of the 39 teachers who came together to file the union-animus grievance in 2018.

The 41-page decision by arbitrator Mary J. O’Connell was the culmination of a years-long battle and resolution process.

“For eight years, the principal created a climate of fear and distrust,” said PS 186 Chapter Leader Christina Tewksbury. “We were fearful and disrespected, and our voices were not acknowledged or heard. This decision validates what we went through and empowers us to create the kind of environment we need at the school.”

UFT Queens Borough Representative Amy Arundell applauded the PS 186 members for being willing to exercise their rights under the DOE-UFT contract.

“It’s an important lesson,” she said. “The language in the collective bargaining agreements doesn’t live on its own. When members enact them, these rights become more powerful.”

UFT Grievance Department Director David Campbell said it was unprecedented for such a large group of teachers to come together and file such a grievance, but that display of unity was part of what made the case so powerful.

“Usually it’s one person who has been retaliated against for union activity who files a grievance,” he said.

The grievance, which focused on events that took place during six months in 2018, was first delayed when a new arbitrator took over the case and then by the pandemic. The arbitrator held nine hearings at which 15 union witnesses and 11 DOE witnesses testified.

The following incidents were discussed:

  • After some teachers voiced concern that a final-day “class swap” to introduce students to their new teachers would deprive them of a prep period, the principal told staff at a luncheon later that day that she, too, could follow the contract closely regarding personal days and child care leaves, a comment that members interpreted as a threat.
  • The principal gave staff three hours one morning to submit written lesson plans for the week — something she had not requested before or since — two days after a union meeting in the school at which the visiting UFT rep told the members that a principal doesn’t have the right to collect lesson plans in that manner.
  • The principal disparaged the UFT and urged staff members to discuss problems directly with her instead.
  • After the death of a teacher, the principal did not allow a union official visiting the school to address a staff meeting or independently meet with staff.

“This decision is about the indisputable fact that the principal made a series of comments to the staff which demonstrated her union animus and took a specific action — the request for a week’s worth of lesson plans in a three-hour window — which constituted harassment of bargaining unit members and discrimination against the employees because of their participation in the union in violation of the agreement,” the arbitrator wrote.

Hannah Fiasconaro said it felt good that the staff came together and stood up for themselves.

“Before the arbitration, issues with administration often left teachers feeling powerless,” she said. “We worried that seeking out union support would make our situation worse. No teacher should feel that way. We have a right to seek help from our UFT representatives and exercise our contractual rights.”

Related Topics: Labor issues, Grievances