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UFT connection to rest of organized labor

The UFT has a long history of joining with other unions

The UFT has a long history of joining with other unions in fighting for common causes.

by Tom Murphy

A basic tenet of the UFT has always been that organized labor and progressive elected officials are essential to promoting the interests of its members. Indeed, the backing of the labor movement and political allies was instrumental in the UFT’s founding 50 years ago.

In the 1950s, the Teachers Guild, the UFT precursor that was affiliated with the AFT and the AFL-CIO, was just one of the many teacher organizations and associations competing to represent New York City public school teachers. Following a brief UFT strike to press for collective-bargaining rights in 1960, Robert Wagner, New York City’s labor-friendly mayor, appointed a committee of private-sector labor union presidents to study the situation: David Dubinsky of the International Ladies Garment Workers, Harry Van Arsdale of the New York City Central Labor Council and Jacob Potofsky of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers. Could a more sympathetic committee have been created?

Civil Rights Movement - UFT History 3

UFT President Al Shanker with Bayard Rustin (center) and A. Philip Randolph in May 1966.

The three recommended an election among teachers on whether or not they favored collective bargaining, to be followed by a second vote on which union the teachers wanted to represent them. In that representation election, the UFT’s chief opponent was an affiliate of the National Education Association, which presented itself as a teacher interest group independent from the AFL-CIO and the broader labor movement.

The election was a clash of two competing world views: those in the UFT camp argued that the dignity of labor and the interests of all working people have a certain universality that can be adapted to accommodate the interests of particular groups while those in the NEA camp considered the issues and concerns of teachers to be largely professional and therefore more elevated than those of workers who do manual labor. Prominent progressive leaders such as A. Philip Randolph and Eleanor Roosevelt backed the UFT.

Organized labor also threw its support behind the UFT. The AFT contributed $20,000, collected from scores of small and other impoverished locals around the country. The AFL-CIO, at the urging of labor giant Walter Reuther, the head of the United Auto Workers, gave $40,000. From the city’s Central Labor Council came $5,000, while the ILGWU’s Dubinsky chipped in another $2,000. In the final vote, which was counted on Dec. 16, 1961, the UFT won overwhelmingly.

The UFT’s strong and productive relationship with the rest of organized labor continued over the decades. Under the leadership of Al Shanker, the UFT was among the union groups across New York State that joined in the 1970s to form what would become NYSUT.

This statewide union evolved into a powerhouse that brought together educators of different philosophical stripes from across the state under one umbrella to lobby the governor and the state Legislature on behalf of more funding for education, more school construction aid, Workers’ Compensation reform, smaller class size and funding for teacher centers.

In the 1980s and 1990s, during Sandra Feldman's tenure as UFT president, the old civil rights and labor coalitions that were somewhat fractured in the education battles of the 1960s and 1970s were rebuilt as community groups and labor unions united to fight for a quality education for all children, smaller class sizes, a strong safety net for families and fair funding for public schools. The UFT was a vigorous supporter of the landmark school aid lawsuit filed in 1993 by the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, a coalition of concerned parents and education advocates. The ensuing 13-year legal battle ultimately resulted in a settlement obliging the state to provide at least $2 billion more in annual operating aid to New York City’s public schools.

Another sphere where the UFT’s strong working relationship with organized labor has paid off is the Municipal Labor Committee, the umbrella group for public employee unions that is the bargaining agent for health benefits with the City of New York. With Randi Weingarten as its capable chair for many years, the MLC has been able to maintain core health services and existing premium-free plans for members even as health care costs have soared.

Michael Mulgrew, who as vice president spearheaded broad budget coalitions with community and labor groups, has encouraged the UFT’s continuing participation in labor and progressive coalitions as president. The massive turnout of UFTers for the One Nation rally in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 2 showed that today’s members understand that their destiny is tied to the fortunes of other working families across the nation.

Only with a strong labor movement and elected officials on our side can we hope to push back against the attack on educators and public education.

The author is a former UFT director of legislation and political action, and is the current Retired Teachers Chapter leader.

Originally published in New York Teacher, October 14th, 2010