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President's Perspective

The state of the union

New York Teacher

Michael Mulgrew Headshot

Michael Mulgrew

Welcome back! Teaching and supporting New York City public school students is rewarding work, but it demands a lot from us. I hope you had a chance to rest and recharge over the summer break.

We ended the previous school year on a high note. After a lengthy campaign by thousands of UFT members, UFT-represented employees secured the right to six weeks of paid parental leave. In the first eight days after the application went live in August, 430 people had filed for this new benefit. This campaign is a concrete example of what we can accomplish when we stand together in a powerful union.

Ironically, the same week that we won this historic fight, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling in the Janus v. AFSCME case that has made our circumstances tougher but may just make us stronger.

We have a lot of work ahead of us to ensure the UFT remains a formidable force, but we have reason to be optimistic.

Approval ratings for labor unions are higher than they’ve been in a long time. People are getting wise to the disadvantages of the so-called gig economy, where pay is low, benefits are few and job security is nonexistent. This summer, New York City became the first city to cap ride-share services such as Uber and to set a minimum pay rate for drivers. A new generation of workers in digital media, many in their 20s and 30s, are unionizing for the first time as well.

Polls also have shown a majority of Americans supported the teachers who walked out last spring in places like West Virginia, Arizona and Kentucky. The job actions by teachers who had nothing left to lose shone a spotlight on the gross underfunding of public schools in these states that resulted in decaying facilities, outdated textbooks and teacher shortages.

The walkouts put education funding on the political agenda in those states. They also awakened a new generation of activists among public school educators and inspired more teachers to run for office this November — on both party lines — than ever before. The AFT alone counts 300 of its members who are candidates for office this year. 

But let’s not kid ourselves. Workers and their unions are under attack by billionaires who are playing a long game. They will do anything to weaken worker rights and benefits in this country. Many public sector union members in New York State received phone calls and emails immediately after the Janus decision, urging them to drop out of their unions. 

The Koch brothers, Betsy DeVos and her family and other members of the wealthiest 1 percent in this country are investing a lot in this fight because they realize the true value of union membership, which gives working people a fighting chance against their unchecked power.

The wealthy elite has the support of the Trump administration, which is blatantly hostile to worker rights. The U.S. Labor Department rescinded an Obama-era rule that required companies to disclose if they hired consultants to counter union-organizing activities. The administration sought to debilitate federal employee unions, though a federal judge recently put the brakes on the attempt. And Trump’s nominee for the U.S. Supreme Court, Brett Kavanaugh, is an appeals court judge with a record of anti-worker rulings.

We are fortunate to be members of a strong union. Our victory in the paid parental leave campaign demonstrated the power of an informed and engaged membership taking collective action.

But we can’t take anything for granted given the enemies we face. This is not the time to stand on the sidelines. Your future well-being depends more than ever on your involvement in your union.

Here’s to a great school year.