The rank and file won parental leave

July 4, 2018

New York City teachers Will Russell and Peter Lamphere report on the success of a two-year effort led by the largely female membership of the United Federation of Teachers.

IN AN important victory won through years of rank-and-file organizing, the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) last month announced a deal with New York City that provides members with six weeks of paid parental leave for all represented employees who have a new child enter their home.

Previous leave policies were atrocious, requiring mothers to borrow sick days to cover births as an illness — most came back to work with a negative sick-day balance — and only allowing fathers three days, without covering adoptions or foster parents.

The UFT didn’t win all of our demands, particularly for paid leave to care for sick and elderly family members. Further, the city wants to make us pay for part of these benefits by extending our current contract so they can save money by delaying raises.

Rank-and-file teachers demand paid family leave in New York City
Rank-and-file teachers demand paid family leave in New York City (MORE UFT | Facebook)

These concessions, made in the context of more than a billion dollars of health care concessions just made by city unions despite a municipal budget surplus, set a dangerous precedent for future negotiations.

Paid parental leave is, of course, standard for workers internationally, with the United States, Lesotho and Papua New Guinea being the only countries that do not require it by law. Mexico offers 12 weeks fully paid maternity leave; India offers 26 weeks.

In 2016, the supposedly progressive New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio imposed a paid parental leave policy for nonunion city employees that ended up costing more in raises and givebacks than the benefit was worth. The UFT began negotiations for better terms for the benefit, but the mayor stonewalled for two years.

Last year, Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed legislation that implemented full family leave — including for care for sick family members, not just newly arrived ones — but funded it with employee contributions.

Outrage among the UFT’s 70 percent female membership generated a number of protests and mobilizations to pressure the city, including a fall petition campaign that gathered more than 80,000 signatures in a few short weeks. Pressure continued as school chapters organized color days, political baby showers and “walk-ins” to express the urgency of their demand.

The union was under continuous pressure to arrive at an agreement, looking ahead to the Supreme Court’s Janus ruling — which, as expected, makes it possible for union members to opt out of dues payments — shortly after this benefit was negotiated.

UFT leaders even helped to organize some actions around the demand, doubtlessly hoping that an expansion of benefits on an issue that the rank and file cares so deeply about will help to reduce the number of members who leave the union.

But the union leadership was also looking over its shoulder at its membership, which has been organizing around this issue for some time.

THE CAMPAIGN in New York City began in 2016 when activist educator and soon-to-be-parent Rosie Frascella started a petition for paid parental leave and breast pumps for UFT members that received over 3,000 signatures.

The next year, public school teacher Emily James independently started another petition calling for paid maternity leave for New York City teachers that garnered nearly 85,000 signatures. The outpouring of support from the rank and file for this petition likely played a decisive role in winning the family leave policy that we got.

But UFT leaders were also under pressure from the union’s social justice caucus, the Movement of Rank and File Educators (MORE), which pushed the union to not give up fighting for this right, and also to limit concessions. MORE pushed to expand the policy to cover not only new mothers, but new fathers and adopting families, and it organized for paid leave care for sick or elderly family members.

In January of this year, MORE led a rally from the UFT headquarters to City Hall to demand that the city grant educators a family leave policy encompassing all of these needs. UFT staffers came out with a large banner and placed themselves at the head of the march.

After that, the union leadership changed its language, from just maternity leave to family leave, indicating that the rally helped push the UFT into winning the policy they just announced.

Toward the end of the school year on June 8, MORE carried out a day of action for family leave, demanding that the mayor grant all education and city workers a fair family leave policy.

Utilizing the tactic of the walk-in so successfully deployed to build organizational capacity in advance of the teacher strikes in Arizona and West Virginia, MORE organized walk-ins and other actions in 18 different public schools around the city.

In an inspiring show of solidarity, West Virginia teachers sent a photo in solidarity with the campaign.

MORE played a crucial role in making these walk-ins happen, and the orientation on concrete action for a social justice demand help to re-orient the caucus toward rank-and-file activity.

Socialist teachers played a key role: educators connected to the ISO and DSA and independent socialists organized the majority of the 18 schools where actions were carried out.

This says volumes about the role that socialists can play in their workplaces and demonstrates in practice the potential to organize within the majority of New York City public schools. Likewise, it made a real difference in the success of the red state teachers strikes whether or not organized socialists were in place before their strikes broke out.

However, MORE is not a socialist teachers’ caucus, and instead a broadly based group of rank and file educators that looks to rebuild a militant, social justice-minded base within the UFT.

While socialists have a crucial role to play in reform caucuses like MORE and should be proud of what we accomplished in this campaign, our lack of success in spreading these actions into schools where leftists aren’t already means there is much work to do within the caucus.

The mobilization around parental leave was much broader than the reach of the caucus, and included independent rank-and-file activists and those connected to the leadership. In the coming school year, one of the key tasks of MORE will be to expand its reach among the union rank and file, while maintaining its commitment to our core social justice values.

WHEN THE UFT does negotiate the next contract with the city in the start of the new year, union activists should be on the lookout for signs that the city is demanding concessions in exchange for this family leave policy.

In a city with a Democratic mayor and governor who both say that paid family leave is a basic right of workers, we can’t let them get away with making us pay for it, and must demand that they tax the 1 Percent for the revenue necessary to pay for it.

These costs are a drop in the bucket for a city with an $8 billion surplus. Activists have been demanding full family leave without givebacks as part of expanding the basic benefits guaranteed as a human right for all workers in the city.

And while it’s great that New York City educators finally have a paid family leave policy, the fight remains to broaden the policy to win the right to take care of sick and elderly family members, which the current policy does not contain.

Further, UFT members are currently only granted a total of four days off to mourn the death of a close family member, one of those days including the day of the death.

While the UFT leadership negotiated the current deal in secret in advance of negotiations for the contract set to end in the coming school year, those negotiations will present us with the opportunity to push the city to grant us fuller benefits.

It’s also worth noting that the new parental leave policy does come with a cost: a two-and-half month delay in the expiration of the upcoming UFT contract.

While many union members may not feel this as a major pinch on their paychecks, it does delay any new raises that will be negotiated with the new contract. The cost to teachers is estimated at a 0.29 percent pay raise, or $31 million. Union officials reported the estimated cost of the benefit to the city at $50 million.

MORE’S CAMPAIGN for a fair paid family leave policy harkens back to the militant tactics that built the UFT in the first place.

In 1958, the Teachers Guild (TG) — which would eventually become the UFT, but at the time only counted a small minority of New York City teachers as members — grew in large numbers out of a campaign to win teachers the right to duty-free lunches. After the threat of a strike, the city granted their demand, after which teachers began joining the union in the thousands.

The TG, and by extension the UFT, has a problematic legacy — starting with its collaboration with government attacks on leftist teachers during the Red Scare that broke the back of the more radical Teachers Union — but it understood the need to engage in militant action around demands that were widely shared by educators.

While the UFT leadership lost its willingness and ability to employ these sorts of tactics decades ago, these are the types of campaigns and actions that it will take to keep the union strong and on the front foot in the post-Janus era.

There is more that we can do, for example, in making the connection to the #MeToo movement against the impunity of men who abuse women. A strong union that is capable of fighting for its members is often the first line of defense for women who are harassed in the workplace.

In the light of the crisis caused by the Trump administration’s horrendous policy of separating the families of immigrants detained at the border, educators also have a responsibility to fight for these families, who are often part of the very same communities that we teach.

AFT President Randi Weingarten deserves credit for speaking out at the UN against this inhumane policy, but there is more that the union can be doing to demand that the government protect the families of the immigrant students who are already in our schools.

For instance, the advocacy group Teach Dream successfully had a resolution passed at the UFT Delegate Assembly in 2016 calling for the city to place a trained Immigrant Rights Liaison position in every school, to provide or connect immigrant students and their families with resources and support services.

However, there appears to have been little movement from the UFT to pressure the city to establish this position in every school and provide the immigrant student population with these vital resources.

All the educators in New York City who signed the petitions and took part in actions for family leave deserve credit for winning the policy that we got. It should be counted as a victory and is a tangible improvement in the lives of the education workers that they can take advantage of these benefits.

However, if there’s anything that the red state rebellion of educators teaches us, it’s that we should be emboldened to fight for more.

With the UFT contract expiring during the coming school year, the opportunity is there for us to wage campaigns around demands that resonate widely among both public school workers and broader communities we work within that can make waves across New York City schools and communities.

Further Reading

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