As members of a powerful and well-established union, it is often easy to forget how difficult it was to form the UFT — or that there was ever even a time without the union. But it wasn’t so long ago that New York City public school educators — teachers, paraprofessionals and all the other titles our union represents in city schools — were not organized. Neither were our members in health care and child care or at charter and private schools.
Most UFT members — especially younger members and those employed in schools — know the union primarily through the services it provides, whether access to professional development or representation at grievance hearings or negotiating contracts on members’ behalf. What you may not know is the extent of the union’s work to organize new members and why this work is essential.
Constantly organizing new members is critical to the health of every union, and the UFT is no exception. Unions must either grow or decline; a union that is not expanding is in trouble.
That’s because our strength lies in our numbers. The whole purpose of the union is to bring together large numbers of workers to do together what we cannot do alone. If one of us complains about working conditions, he or she is vulnerable; but if we all do, then the employer has no choice but to listen.
The labor movement today is a fraction of its former size — and strength. Just consider: In 2013, 11.3 percent of U.S. workers were in unions compared to 20.1 percent in 1983 and 35 percent at labor’s height in the mid-1950s.
It’s no surprise that this decline in unionization has been accompanied by a decline in workers’ wages and standard of living. In the private sector, where the percentage of workers in unions has dropped to just 6.7 percent, workers’ average real weekly earnings in 2012 were 14 percent below their 1972 peak.
The answer to this crisis is aggressive organizing to bring the unorganized into unions and rebuild labor’s power. As New York City’s leading union of educators and caregivers, the UFT has an important role to play in this effort.
Today our union is engaged in three different organizing efforts. In health care, the Federation of Nurses/UFT continues to organize new nurses and other health care practitioners at home health care agencies and senior centers into the union. In 2011, we organized 168 nurses at GuildNet, a managed long-term home health care agency, and we are now wrapping up an organizing drive at a senior center that will bring even more members into the union.
In the charter school sector, we have run a major organizing drive to sign up teachers and other school staff as members of the UFT Association of Charter Teachers and Staff since the fall of 2009, with a handful of schools organized even earlier. Today we represent faculty and staff at more than 20 New York City charter schools.
Our organizing in both health care and charters doesn’t just help the new members we bring into the union. Improving the wages and working conditions of non-union nurses and charter school educators by organizing them is critical to preserving our own standards. Otherwise their inferior conditions could soon become our own.
Finally, we are also signing up family child care providers as members of the union as part of an ambitious and long-running campaign to organize these critical early childhood educators and win for them the rights and respect they deserve. Just this past December, they approved their second landmark contract with the state that promises to improve their working conditions and the learning conditions for the children in their care. Our effort to organize the providers will benefit public school educators because these children will eventually enter our classrooms and we want them primed to learn.
We commemorate the history of our union’s founding and its successive waves of growth every year in November at Teacher Union Day. But that organizing work continues to this day. It must if the UFT and the wider labor movement we are a part of is to survive — and thrive.