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The power of collective action

New York Teacher
Michael Mulgrew Headshot

UFT President Michael Mulgrew

As the year draws to a close, it’s a good time to look back and reflect on how far we’ve come. Over the years, we have faced serious attacks on public education in New York State, but time and again, public school educators and parents rose up together to stop them.

Many of our colleagues across the country were not as fortunate. They suffered through years of state administrations that were openly hostile to workers and public schools.

In February 2018, West Virginia teachers said enough is enough and walked off the job in protest. So began a nationwide Red for Ed movement that has shone a spotlight on the harm done by cutting taxes, underpaying teachers and underfunding public schools — and on the power of collective action.

Nearly two years later, this labor insurgency has lost none of its vigor.

In October, more than 25,000 members of the Chicago Teachers Union went on strike for 11 days with an ambitious list of contract demands both for themselves and their students. Many UFT members wore red to school to let our Chicago colleagues know we stood in solidarity with them. The strike ended with a 16 percent salary increase for teachers over the next five years, the city’s agreement to spend $35 million to reduce class sizes, and the city’s pledge to supply each school with a nurse and a social worker.

In November, the Indiana State Teachers Association organized a massive one-day rally of 15,000 teachers at the state capital in Indianapolis. Indiana teachers are among the lowest paid in the nation, and many work more than one job to make ends meet. These teachers are also seeking more school funding. Their schools are doing without art, music and physical education. Their demonstration on Nov. 19 put Indiana legislators on notice that the status quo was no longer acceptable.

In Florida, the Fund Our Future statewide bus tour is making 50 stops in 30 counties to shine a spotlight on the needs of Florida’s public school students as it builds momentum toward a January rally at its state capital in Tallahassee. The bus tour, an American Federation of Teachers initiative, revealed schools with crumbling gymnasiums, water fountains with undrinkable water and leaky roofs that risk damaging computers and other equipment. The teachers union there is seeking higher pay, more school funding, smaller class sizes and a certified teacher in every classroom.

In each case, public school educators are taking action on behalf of their students and the common good, and that, in turn, has won allies for them in their fight for better wages, decent health benefits and working conditions.

The Red for Ed movement has had a profound impact beyond the schoolroom, too. In his book, “Beaten Down, Worked Up: The Past, Present, and Future of American Labor,” former New York Times labor reporter Steven Greenhouse writes, “The teacher strikes signaled that unions are off their knees and off their backs and are fighting again.” (You can hear more from Greenhouse in my December “On the Record with Michael Mulgrew” podcast.)

The optimism and energy of this generation of teacher activists has re-energized the entire labor movement. As we wrap up 2019 and prepare to face the challenges of 2020, it is something to celebrate.

As a New York City public school educator, you have one of the most challenging jobs there is. I hope your well-deserved break with friends and family is restful and enjoyable. Happy holidays to you!