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Not for teachers only

Velma Hill with Abe Beame and Al Shanker 1973

Velma Hill, organizer and first chapter leader of UFT paraprofessionals, with mayoral candidate Abe Beame and UFT President Al Shanker, 1973.

by Susan Amlung

Despite its name, the United Federation of Teachers is a union of 200,000 working people who are committed to improving the lives of New Yorkers in many different ways. Most, but not all, provide education, child care or health services for adults and children in thousands of sites across the city – schools, hospitals, community facilities and even in homes. All want and deserve voice and dignity in their working lives, and they came to our union for the strength, commitment and passion we put into fighting for them. This is the story of one of those groups of courageous and talented people.

Part 1: Classroom paraprofessionals

UFT paraprofessionals are key members of the instructional team who work closely with teachers in classrooms, providing individual attention to the children who need it most.

All poor and mostly women, they first joined the nation’s schools in small numbers in the 1960s through a Great Society antipoverty program. It wasn’t easy at first. Some encountered discrimination and disrespect. They were made to do jobs no one wanted, like taking children home and cleaning up if they got sick. That slowly changed, and it had a lot to do with the leadership of the UFT.

Though it was certainly not a high-paying job at less than $2 an hour, paraprofessionals appreciated the opportunity to help children from their own communities. Besides, in 1968 the city offered them tuition-free college courses — the catch being that there was enough money for only one out of 10. To the city’s surprise, virtually all of the system’s 1,000 paras took an exam to qualify for the tuition, forced to vie against one another for the chance to further their education.

One of the lucky ones was Maria Portalatin, then a 30-year-old single parent who had supported her three children on $2,000 a year by babysitting and crocheting clothing. “The opportunity for me to go to college was an incredible gift,” says Portalatin, who would go on to become the second chapter leader of the UFT’s paraprofessional chapter.

But after only one year the city pulled the rug out from under her and her college-going colleagues by cutting the program. That shabby treatment gave the paras an education they didn’t expect — a crash course in why they needed a union.

Thus, it came to be that in 1969 classroom paraprofessionals chose the UFT to represent them at the bargaining table. To many teachers and to UFT President Albert Shanker it was a brave and gratifying choice. They had just emerged from the bitter, difficult and divisive issues surrounding Oceanhill-Brownsville. Most paras came from the same communities that had opposed the union during several acrimonious strikes, and Al Shanker’s name was still not welcome on the streets where they lived.

If the paras were wary, so were the teachers. But Shanker was determined to demonstrate the union’s commitment to the community and to the working poor. Furthermore, he had a vision that the paraprofessionals would be the city’s future teachers and serve as role models for their students. His vow that he would do for the paras what he’d done for the teachers won the paras’ vote despite their doubts.

But it was not until 1970, during the paras’ first contract struggle, that teachers and paras really forged a solid — and everlasting — bond. Negotiations were going nowhere. It was up to the teachers to show that the paras’ fight was everyone’s fight. From the jail cell where he was serving a sentence for the 1968 strike, Shanker wrote an 8-page letter to the teachers urging their support for their brothers and sisters.

The teachers’ 3-to-1 vote to strike on behalf of their paraprofessional colleagues brought the board to the table posthaste. This demonstration of union solidarity was a breakthrough not only for the paras’ fight for decent wages — which rose from $2,000 a year to $4,600 — but also for the UFT’s efforts to begin to repair relations with communities across the city.

In that first contract, the UFT restored and expanded the lost college program, establishing a career ladder for paras that remains unequaled. To this day the Department of Education gives paras time and tuition to go to college. As they learn and earn more, paras can launch themselves on a path that has led thousands over the years to become teachers.

At first, paraprofessionals worked only in kindergarten and first grade, helping to give the strongest start possible to the city’s poor children. But as they proved their worth, they expanded their responsibilities, moving up through the grades and assisting in remedial math and reading labs and English proficiency classes.

When, in 1976, Congress required public schools to educate all handicapped children, paras saved the day for tens of thousands of children who needed specialized attention and an abundance of sensitivity and compassion. After that, the numbers of paras soared — today there are about 18,000 paraprofessionals in New York City schools — along with the quality of education for disabled youngsters, many of whom had previously been relegated to institutions or hidden at home.

It’s no surprise that when the late Albert Shanker retired as UFT president in 1985 to concentrate on his duties as head of the American Federation of Teachers, he cited the paraprofessionals as his proudest contribution to education. “The paras,” he said, “have strengthened our union and our schools immeasurably.”

Part 2

Classroom paraprofessionals were among the first of a long list of nonteacher educators who became part of the UFT.

In the 40 years since then, the so-called “teachers” union has welcomed New York City public school secretaries, nurses, guidance counselors, social workers and psychologists, occupational and physical therapists, lab specialists and technicians, and many other employees of the New York City public school system. Also not to be forgotten are thousands of retired members, whose continued support and participation are often the backbone of the union’s political action.

But the union’s reach does not end there. Beyond the city’s public schools, the UFT also represents staff in private schools, both for children and adults, and in hospitals and other health provider agencies. Today, the newest union chapter is also one of its largest: the 28,000-member family child care providers chapter.

All of these members, regardless of their employer or title, have contributed immeasurably to the strength and vitality of the now 200,000-strong UFT.

Federation of Nurses/UFT

Federation of Nurses Anne Goldman inset 1980

Federation of Nurses sign their first contract in 1980. Anne Goldman is inset

The story of the Federation of Nurses/UFT illustrates the importance of a growing part of the UFT and AFT community: health professionals.

In 1979, the nurses at Lutheran Medical Center in Brooklyn, frustrated with stalled negotiations and inadequate representation by the New York State Nurses’ Association, sought a better bargaining representative. They elected the UFT, according to the chapter’s founder and leader, Anne Goldman, because of its collective-bargaining expertise and commitment to strong advocacy.

Since then, nurses at the Visiting Nurse Service of New York, the South site of Staten Island University Hospital and the Jewish Home and Hospital have all teamed up with the UFT, bringing the total number of registered and practical nurse members to 4,500.

Despite the difficulties that hospitals and health care providers have been facing, the Federation of Nurses/UFT has consistently obtained on-time contracts for its members.

The two strikes the chapter has mounted — in 1988 and 1994 at Lutheran — were primarily about standards of patient care, always nurses’ first concern. In the best UFT tradition, the nurses demanded and won a voice in the search for solutions to the chronic understaffing and nurse shortages that to this day sometimes impede good nursing care. In conjunction with the UFT’s state affiliate, the union recently won a campaign to abolish mandatory overtime for hospital nurses in New York State, further ensuring adequate patient care.

Family child care providers

Michael Mulgrew and Tammie Miller 2008

Then-UFT Vice President Michael Mulgrew and Family Child Care Providers Chapter Chair Tammie Miller deliver applications for long-delayed market-rate payments to the Administration for Children’s Services at a rally on Sept. 23, 2008.

The campaign to organize the family child care providers presented perhaps the greatest challenges for the UFT. Family child care providers take low-income children into their homes, caring for and educating them at state-determined rates. These dedicated caregivers are our children’s first teachers outside their homes.

Then-UFT Vice President Michael Mulgrew and Family Child Care Providers Chapter Chair Tammie Miller deliver applications for long-delayed market-rate payments to the Administration for Children’s Services at a rally on Sept. 23, 2008.

But their work always has been undervalued. Before unionizing, providers usually worked 10 hours a day without sick days, vacation time or benefits, and earned, on average, below poverty-level wages of about $19,000 annually. And frequently, they had to fight the bureaucracy to collect even that.

One organizing challenge was the result of the providers’ isolation from one another. Working in their own homes, they had to be organized one by one.

For months in 2005, under the leadership of Tammie Miller (now the providers’ chapter chair), UFT members, providers and ACORN community organizers went door to door collecting thousands of union authorization cards from providers across the city.

The canvassers report that unfailingly the providers they spoke to were hugely excited at the prospect of sharing their problems and seeking solutions in solidarity with others in the same boat.

Another challenge arose because family child care providers are technically independent contractors, not city employees. (They collect government-funded vouchers from their clients and are paid by the city.) So they needed a state law to allow them to unionize. The Legislature approved such a law by wide margins, but the celebration was short-lived. Gov. George Pataki vetoed the legislation in 2006.

Still, the providers persisted, and sure enough, just months after Pataki’s veto, the new governor, Eliot Spitzer, issued an order that cleared the way for a representation vote. In October 2007, the providers voted to join the UFT, 8,382 to 96.

Meanwhile, even before the go-ahead for the vote, the UFT and the providers were working for fair treatment in pay practices, regulatory oversight and home inspections. The provider core leadership team was busy helping colleagues navigate a complex bureaucracy. They collected overdue pay, overturned hundreds of violation cases and saved the jobs of 1,000-plus providers over misinterpreted rules.

A longstanding controversy over market rates was settled when the UFT helped the providers document the real costs of doing their jobs and submit new payment applications. Finally, the union fought an epic battle to secure state-mandated prospective and retroactive raises that the city had refused to pay.

All in all, the providers saw immediate benefits totaling millions of dollars because of their partnership with a savvy and powerful union.

Perhaps the biggest fight was for a contract. After five years of perseverance and hard work, a union contract would give the providers a voice in shaping the policies that affect their working lives. In addition, high on their priority list were the training and the materials they needed to help their charges — toddler to teen — learn as they grew.

The state and union finally reached a tentative agreement that the providers ratified in January 2010. The contract, the first of its kind in New York State, phases in health insurance benefits, provides for professional development and grants to improve the learning environment, sets facility inspection and licensing standards and introduces a grievance procedure. Another key provision defines a process for setting the providers’ pay rate.

Most important, the contract promises to providers what the union strives to secure for every one of its members, no matter their title or their employer: livable wages, a strong voice on the job and the respect they deserve.

Originally published in New York Teacher, April 1st, 2010