“Love in the Time of Cholera” is a tale told by Gabriel Garcia Marquez in which the lives of individuals are woven together in a society faced with a plague-like health crisis. It touches on the choices people make on a societal level as a backdrop to ordinary people who have to navigate both knowable and unknowable circumstances, all with unforeseen consequences. It is a tribute to the human spirit and perhaps somewhat of a guidepost for us now.
The UFT and other social institutions are making decisions as they navigate both knowable and unknowable circumstances as we all confront the coronavirus. The safety of UFT members, students, their families and all of society is paramount. And we have had to maneuver without strong, rational leadership from Washington, D.C.
Unions like ours and state and local governments were not going to wait for the unscientific, self-serving bravado emanating from the White House to subside as they confronted stark, fact-based reality. Too much was at stake. Given our age and the fact that many have preexisting health conditions, UFT retirees know full well that we are among the most vulnerable to this virus. So, in coordination with the union leadership under Michael Mulgrew, the RTC began making proactive decisions in early March.
While we could not know everything that was to come, we had enough information to take sound precautions. We were the first at the UFT to cancel a major meeting: our March RTC general membership meeting. It was not an easy decision. It was to be our first meeting since December, and we had lots on the agenda. But the cancellation set a tone as the UFT faced other virus-related contingencies.
As in Marquez’s novel, life goes on and personal choices still can be made. As the year advances, we still have work to do. And as we find a way to do some of it, we can still celebrate who we are.
As we mark our 60th anniversary as a union, we look back on the year of our founding in 1960. That year saw the election of John F. Kennedy, followed by the presidency of Lyndon B. Johnson. It was a time of social justice writ large. Great optimism (and hard work) saw civil rights, federal aid to education and health care victories. Based on the passage of Medicare in 1965, the municipal labor unions convinced New York City to offer employer-based health coverage for municipal workers, including for retirees.
We must not only look back; our union can only thrive if we look at the present and to the future. Forces are resurgent today that want to take back the labor movement’s past victories. We attained these social benefits in the 1960s by being a player in the political arena; to maintain and improve them, we must remain a political player.
This spring, the UFT has taken a leading role in encouraging New Yorkers to participate in the 2020 Census to ensure the state gets its fair share of federal aid. Later this year, RTC members will be campaigning in New York and New Jersey to build on the congressional victories of 2018. In Florida, a critical swing state, UFT retirees, together with other New York City unions, NYSUT, the American Federation of Teachers and the Florida Education Association, are coordinating their efforts in a new way. Our UFT sections in Arizona and Nevada are reaching out to fellow retirees in those states as never before. For now, our priority is to reach out to retirees here and across the country to see how they are doing during this ongoing pandemic.
How these political efforts all play out in the time of the coronavirus will depend on our ability to navigate these unprecedented circumstances.
We are ready to do so. It will be our “Love in the Time of Cholera.”