A bad contract, but an important fight in the UFT

February 14, 2019

Hannah Fleury, an occupational therapist in the New York City schools, reports on the contract settlement forced on her chapter of the city’s teachers union.

LEADERS OF the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) are celebrating the start of a new contract with the New York City Department of Education (DOE) that was approved by the broad membership after a truncated discussion period and a rushed vote.

But the UFT’s self-congratulatory victory parade has been marred by defiance and organized opposition from the union’s chapter of occupational therapists (OTs) and physical therapists (PTs). Long-standing anger about low pay and a lack of respect led to OTs and PTs to vote down the initial tentative agreement by a two-to-one margin in October.

Following the “no” vote, OTs and PTs were scolded by UFT leadership, but received no direction or action plan to work towards the widely shared demands of pay parity with teachers and eligibility for Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) benefits.

Occupational and physical therapists in New York City schools want a equitable contract
Occupational and physical therapists in New York City schools want a equitable contract (MORE UFT | Facebook)

Through a pre-existing Facebook group and the formation of OTs and PTs for a Fair Contract, therapists sought to organize the chapter to pressure the city to return to negotiations. OTs and PTs organized to raise awareness of their cause with fellow union members at the UFT’s delegate assembly in December. Through persistent and energetic work, some mainstream press covered the contract fight.

Activities escalated with a mobilization called for by OTs and PTs for a Fair Contract at the January 30 meeting of the Panel for Educational Policy (PEP), the body tasked with advising DOE Chancellor Richard Carranza.

Over 40 therapists and supporters turned out to the meeting — staying out late on a frigid evening to testify to Carranza and PEP about their working conditions, their passion for their students and professions, and the persistent disrespect they feel at work, where they are denied proper resources and workspaces, and their clinical judgment is often ignored in favor of budgetary concerns.

In fact, there was a parent group attending that same PEP meeting to protest a colocation that would displace their children’s therapy room into a windowless basement.

In the face of this engagement and activism from rank-and-file therapists, the leadership of the chapter and the UFT stubbornly refused to listen to members or make plans to mobilize.

It wasn’t until December that the UFT even passed a resolution of formal support for its OT/PT chapter. Once the resolution was passed, the most fight that union leaders could muster up was to ask therapists to circulate the resolution to teachers and staff at their respective schools.

Therapists were furious when the UFT texted and put on its official Facebook page that UFT members should wear red to support LA teachers on their strike, when no such attention had been given to one of their own chapters. This led to calls to initiate a Red for Ed day for therapists, which wound up getting cut off by the new contract.

UFT LEADERS never abandoned their strategy of relying on backroom deals and telling the membership as little as possible. At one chapter meeting, therapists learned that negotiations had resumed — this time with a smaller bargaining committee.

At these and other chapter meetings, members’ frustrations grew as they couldn’t get clear answers to even basic questions about what the union was presenting in negotiations.

On January 29 — the night before the PEP meeting, some members received a text message announcing a new tentative agreement. The text also announced that voting would take place that Thursday — just 36 hours away.

Over the course of the next day, more information was intermittently released about the contract, as well as news of a 90-minute release to allow therapists and nurses to make it to one of the five UFT borough offices to cast their vote the following day (incidentally, this was during the polar vortex, with temperatures on voting day reaching a high of 16 degrees).

The details of the contract changed, but the city didn’t give more money to the chapter. Rather than the increases to longevity (raises based on years of experience) in the initial contract, the new agreement offered a $664 increase to the Master’s Differential (extra annual salary for a master’s degree) and $2,200 more to the maximum salary at the 22-year mark.

However, this money came from slowing down the salary increases in the early years. For new hires, senior status (which comes with increased salary) will now take six years to achieve, as opposed to the previous two.

For the approximately 25 percent of chapter members who have a bachelor’s degree — due to changes in OT and PT graduate degrees — who typically have over 15 years of clinical experience, this new contract will pay them less than the initial agreement from October.

One of the key demands of therapists was to restore their FMLA benefits, which the DOE started cutting two years ago on the grounds that therapists who don’t work the summer session are short of the hours required to qualify.

Two different e-mails from the OT PT chapter leader suggested that either the new agreement had succeeded in regaining FMLA for the chapter or that the city was “committed” to getting us back their FMLA.

However, when the Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) was finally released — less than 24 hours before voting began — the promises of FMLA proved to be no more than smoke and mirrors.

Instead of a clear commitment to approve FMLA applications or create a similar leave, the MOA only commits the city to form a labor-management committee made up of DOE and UFT representatives tasked with creating a family leave policy to be effective September 1, 2019 (seven months after the contract goes into effect), with some language about how to escalate if no agreement can be reached.

The revised contract also has a major concession that has largely gone under the radar, but sets a potentially dangerous precedent for future contracts: the first-ever language mandating time limits to complete session notes in the electronic SESIS system that the DOE uses to bill Medicaid for therapy services.

THE RUSHED nature of the vote highlights the democracy problem in the OT PT chapter and the entire UFT.

Members were left frantically contacting each other, debating on the Facebook group, and looking for details about what the tentative agreement did and did not guarantee — all while scrambling to rearrange their family responsibilities and second jobs to make it to a borough office to vote the following day.

OTs and PTs for a Fair Contract released a statement encouraging a “no” vote. But the fearmongering and bullying from chapter and UFT leaders — who promised a grim future of binding arbitration and years of instability with no negotiations or contract — had its impact.

Ultimately, the contract was ratified by 59 percent of the total bargaining unit (which includes nurses and OT/PT supervisors) and a narrow 52 percent in the OT/PT chapter — a margin of fewer than 100 votes. With an increased turnout of 73 percent, the No vote in the OT/PT chapter actually increased numerically.

While the results were disappointing to chapter members and supporters, especially coming off the inspiring high of the PEP action, the mood continues to be combative. Even those who voted yes did so with the intention of building their strength to wage a stronger contract campaign in the 2022.

OTs and PTs for a Fair Contract is continuing to organize and build the chapter’s rank-and-file strength. The main issues remain — lack of clarity around FMLA and leave eligibility, a $25,000 difference in maximum salary between therapists and teachers at the top pay grade and an overwhelming rejection of the disrespect so many therapists feel on a regular basis at work.

Part of the language around the labor-management committee has an opening to continue to pressure the city over issues such as overtime, unserved students and, of course, ensuring FMLA does indeed get restored to all therapists.

There are still many challenges to be faced: how to democratize the union, how to organize the 2,700 members of the chapter who are dispersed among the 1,700 public schools, and how to build relationships and alliances with the parents and communities therapists serve.

But it’s important to recognize the advances: OTs and PTs for a Fair Contract helped mobilize and initiate a series of rank-and-file actions that challenged the UFT’s narrative and strategy.

Because of the pressure brought to bear by the therapists, all UFT members learned that the threats from UFT leaders about the possible consequences of a “no” vote are exaggerated. And it was clear to OTs and PTs that without the rank-and-file activism at the Delegate Assembly, chapter meetings and the PEP meeting, and the press coverage members were able to receive through that work, the outcome could have been far worse.

The UFT has been a notoriously difficult organization for rank-and-file members to democratize or even influence. OTs and PTs have made a small but important step forward in the fight to transform the UFT into a militant union capable of fighting for its staff and the students they work with.

Further Reading

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