Unions empower workers to fight for decent pay and benefits and to stand up for the working conditions they need to do their jobs well. For public school educators, that means being able to advocate for better teaching and learning conditions for students.
The basic unit of the UFT is the chapter, which is composed of all UFT members at that school or worksite. UFT members working in public schools are supported and represented at multiple levels — the chapter, the functional chapter (for nonteaching titles), the district, the UFT borough office and union headquarters.
The UFT is a representative democracy, and as with all democracies, it requires participation to work most effectively. At the school level, members take part every three years in electing their chapter leader, who is their local union representative.
The chapter leader is the front-line representative of the union and the first source of information, support and guidance for a chapter. Chapter leaders and delegates from each chapter are also regular participants in the UFT’s monthly Delegate Assembly, the highest decision-making body of the union.
The chapter leader represents both the members of the chapter as a whole and the union. The role of the chapter leader is to listen, encourage and represent all members and to speak knowledgeably in the union’s voice.
But the chapter leader can’t do it alone. Members should regularly attend chapter meetings and join school-based committees in which workplace issues can be discussed and resolved. School-based committees ensure that UFT members have a voice in decision-making at the school level.
Each chapter should have a consultation committee that meets monthly with the principal. The school should have these other important committees as well:
- School leadership team.
- School safety committee.
- Professional development committee.
- Measures of Student Learning committee.
- New teacher induction committee.
Chapter leaders can answer questions and assist members on a range of matters such as working conditions, teacher evaluation, Teacher’s Choice and health and pension benefits. New chapter leaders have the opportunity to attend a series of three weekend training sessions over the course of the first year they hold the post. Chapter leaders receive a weekly online newsletter, the Chapter Leader Update, which provides timely and relevant information.
Chapter leaders are also there to ensure members know their contractual rights and to ensure school administrators are abiding by the contract.
The new Department of Education-UFT contract gives UFT-represented educators more voice at the school level to tackle workplace issues. Chapter leaders are now empowered to raise and address issues of professional development, basic instructional supplies, curriculum, inadequate space, safety and workload without having to file a formal grievance. Chapter leaders can bring complaints to their principals in a one-on-one meeting, a consultation committee gathering or via email when the principal is violating the contract or disregarding the new citywide standards for safety and operational issues.
The chapter leader can escalate an issue of this type to the district level if the principal does not resolve it within five days.
The union is ultimately only as strong as its individual chapters. Each chapter leader is tasked with building a strong and engaged chapter that has meaningful input in school-level decisions and participates in union campaigns to protect public schools and worker rights. Well-run union chapters make an extra effort to involve new members and members from the union’s functional chapters, such as paraprofessionals and school secretaries.
But strong chapters need engaged members. Can we count on you?