‘Teach-ins’ prepare educators for contract fight
UFT members are prepared to fight for the contract they deserve. That was the message resonating across the city on Jan. 30, as educators gathered in their schools for “teach-ins” led by members of each school’s Contract Action Team (CAT).
“The point of a teach-in is to raise people’s consciousness and galvanize them toward action,” said Amy Arundell, the UFT’s Queens borough representative, in a training session for chapter leaders and other CAT members preparing to lead the teach-ins. “This teach-in comes at a historic moment, when we’re kicking off our campaign to get a fair contract.”
CAT members opened each discussion by inviting members to reflect on existing contractual rights that matter most to them.
“I can’t imagine being tasked with other jobs during my lunch period, and a duty-free lunch makes this job possible for me,” said Clarissa Lynn, the chapter leader at Central Park East II in Manhattan.
Educators at IS 22 in the Concourse Village section of the Bronx also named duty-free lunch as an important contractual right, along with salary steps and differentials, parental leave and preparation time.
“Each one of these things was its own individual fight in its own individual contract,” said IS 22 delegate Heath Hampton. “It took individual lobbying efforts, it took individual organizing efforts to get things for us today, and we need to do the same to get things for teachers tomorrow.”
During a lively discussion of contractual rights at the Academy for Medical Technology in Far Rockaway, Queens, Chapter Leader Meghan Leston had an important question for members: “How did we get these rights?”
“The UFT fights for them?” someone guessed.
“And who is the UFT?” Leston asked.
“Us!” someone shouted, to a round of applause.
The importance of collective activism was a theme that ran throughout the teach-ins. At New Design HS in Chinatown, Chapter Leader John Chiaravalloti explained how the union’s 500-member negotiating committee worked to develop its demands based on input from a survey that was sent to the entire UFT membership in the spring of 2022.
Because UFT members are working under an expired contract for the first time since 2014, the teach-ins also gave CAT members the opportunity to demystify the negotiation process for educators.
“We have a lot of younger members who have never gotten a contract before, and there’s a lot of misconceptions out there,” said Randi Leibson, the chapter leader at PS 78 on Staten Island.
Pension reform, for instance, is governed by state law rather than collective bargaining, she said. But other changes that UFT members at PS 78 said they were hoping for, including a solid salary increase, could very well be addressed in negotiations, said Leibson.
The teach-ins were intended not just to educate members but to engage them. After teachers discussed what rights they’d like to see negotiated in the next contract, organizers led discussions about how their chapter could contribute to the fight.
Many chapters suggested schoolwide displays of unity such as color days. The members at PS 78 suggested forming an alliance with members of other unions who work in the school building.
The Academy of Medical Technology was among the schools that pledged to inform and engage families and parent-teacher association leaders. “We need parents to understand why we’re fighting and how it affects their students,” said a teacher at the Far Rockaway school. “We’re fighting for smaller class sizes, we’re fighting for common planning time, and that will affect the lessons we teach your children.”
When another UFT member at the school suggested a letter-writing campaign to elected officials, Leston pointed out that a similar effort was responsible for defeating proposed Success Academy charter school co-locations in nearby school districts.
“It takes a community coming together, raising awareness and pushing back,” she said.
At the conclusion of each teach-in, UFT members signed a pledge committing to participate in their school’s actions. At the Academy of Medical Technology — where members were excited to learn that an excerpt from a teach-in TikTok video they made had been featured on NY1 — there was good-natured teasing about wearing matching T-shirts for their next viral video.
While the teach-in discussions centered around the fight for a fair contract, there was one lesson for UFT members who participated that will last a lifetime: Information is power.
“Part of collective action,” said Pablo Valdez, a 6th-grade special education teacher at IS 22, “is being informed about what’s going on and what we’re all working toward.”
– Cara Matthews, Richard Steier and Bernadette Weeks contributed reporting.
At schools across the city, members gathered with their colleagues for “teach-ins” on Jan. 30, 2023, about the UFT’s contract negotiations.