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President's Perspective

Strength in unity

New York Teacher

Michael Mulgrew Headshot

Michael Mulgrew

At a time when our enemies are trying to gut public sector unions in this nation, UFT members scored an important victory — paid parental leave — that would not have been possible without a union.

The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in the Janus v. AFSCME case, as expected, went against working people and the unions that fight for them, but the union-hating billionaires in this country won’t get their wish if we stick together.

Just a week before the Janus ruling, we showed the power of the union — and what we can accomplish when we stand together and fight for what we believe in.

Our historic agreement with the Department of Education and the city — which the union’s Delegate Assembly unanimously endorsed on June 20 — provides six weeks of time off at full salary for maternity, paternity, adoption and foster care leave. When combined with current sick leave provisions, the new policy allows birth mothers to take up to 12 to 14 weeks of paid leave.

When the mayor gave about 20,000 nonunion managerial employees the same benefit in December 2017, his administration unilaterally canceled a 0.47 percent pay increase and took back two vacation days from the most senior managers. We made it clear that we would not accept an agreement that took away pay increases or leave time. The benefit will, instead, be funded by a 73-day extension of the existing UFT contracts with the DOE and the city.

We could not have won paid parental leave without our members. When I tried to negotiate it without a public campaign, I made little headway. As might be expected, the city was happy to keep the whole thing under wraps. You and your fellow members had different ideas. You sparked a public campaign that amplified the voice of UFT members and engaged tens of thousands of people in the fight.

We owe a huge debt of gratitude to Emily James, the English teacher at Brooklyn Prep HS who got the ball rolling with an online petition that gathered more than 84,000 signatures by September 2017.

With our support, she published an op-ed piece in the New York Daily News that October that brought the issue out of the shadows. The UFT launched its official UFT paid parental leave campaign in November after I met with a core group of concerned UFT members, including Emily, to discuss strategy.

More than 7,000 of you ultimately joined our campaign. More than 5,000 of you sent emails to the mayor and your City Council member in January calling on them for their support. Scores of schools organized baby showers to drive home the point. More than 500 members — or chapter leaders on behalf of their schools — signed up to wear purple on International Women’s Day in March to keep the issue on the front burner.

This campaign got its power from the wrenching personal stories you had about the impact that the lack of paid parental leave has had on you and your families. One hundred and nineteen of you shared your personal stories directly in an email to Mayor Bill de Blasio. Dozens of you testified before the City Council, spoke at rallies or wrote personal opinion pieces — and were willing to share your personal stories with the press.

Many more of you mobilized on social media, amplifying those personal stories through tweets and Facebook posts that kept the pressure on the mayor to support our cause.

And this collective action was not in isolation. It was a busy year. We also mobilized to oppose the proposal on the November ballot to hold a state constitutional convention. And we won, defeating the initiative by a significant margin. Many of you raised money and collected items for Texas, Puerto Rico and other places struggling to recover from a devastating hurricane season in the face of federal neglect and incompetence. Many of you told your stories for our #UnionProud campaign (see, knocked on doors and established school membership teams in advance of the Janus decision.

We showed that no matter what obstacles are put in front of us, it is critically important to be a member of this union. Now that the Janus decision has come down, prepare to be approached by our enemies. They will pretend to be your ally and tell you that you can get something for nothing. Don’t allow yourself to be tricked. Their real purpose is to take away everything you have won as a union member.

The winning of paid parental leave demonstrates the power of a union — nothing less than a fully engaged membership taking on an important issue and not giving up. We stand stronger when we stand united.

Let’s keep that in mind as the full implications of the Janus decision unfold.

Our fate as public school educators rests collectively in each of our hands.