In our first post on the theme of professional unionism, we talked about the ways in which the UFT, with Unity leadership, had worked to improve the teaching profession and the quality of the education we deliver, and to engage in educational innovation and build collaborative cultures in schools. Today, we will discuss how professional unionism defends us in our teaching work, which starts with our contract.
From the very first contract that the UFT negotiated forty years ago, we have fought to include educational issues in our contract, from class size limits (which we will discuss in the final post in this series) to efforts to build early models of community schools. These efforts have met resistance from the Department of Education and New York City, because management believes that it alone should be able to decide educational issues, without consulting or involving front-line educators. But with Unity leadership, the UFT has persisted.
CONTRACTUAL PROTECTIONS FOR PROFESSIONAL AUTONOMY
Here is what is protected by the professional clauses UFT Unity has negotiated into our contract:
- Freedom to develop, write and use our lesson plans in accordance with our best professional judgment, with a prohibition on the ritualistic collection of lesson plans by supervisors;
- Freedom from micro-management in such areas as bulletin boards and furniture in our classrooms;
- Freedom to choose the educational work we do during our preparation periods;
- Freedom from being assigned to any duties during lunch and from being assigned to “non-teaching chores” – teachers only do non-teaching work such as cafeteria duty when they voluntarily select it as a professional period activity or take a compensatory time position in lieu of a portion of their teaching;
- The right to take sabbaticals for educational studies;
- A professional conciliation process for resolving conflicts between teachers and their supervisors over questions of curriculum, appropriate texts, program offerings, student assessments and pedagogical strategies;
- Processes for reducing and minimizing paperwork which detract from our professional work;
- Protection against retaliation for UFT members who raise issues about school practices in good faith, including educational matters;
- Voice for teachers in the selection, planning and execution of professional development activities in their school;
- Requirement that a supervisor provides a teacher with timely feedback from observations, and notifies a teacher in writing, with an explanation, when changing student grades.
PROVIDING SUPPORT TO TEACHERS
- The first years of teaching are the most challenging, as novice teachers struggle to master all of the skills and knowledge of teaching. With Unity leadership, the UFT negotiated mentoring by trained, experienced teacher colleagues for novice teachers.
- For tenured teachers who are experiencing difficulties in their classroom performance, the UFT negotiated the Peer Intervention program, where trained, experienced would provide support.
DEFENDING ACADEMIC FREEDOM OF TEACHERS
As we witness what is happening to educators in other states, these are frightening times. From the banning of books like Toni Morrison’s Beloved and Art Spiegelman’s Maus to Florida’s “don’t say gay” law that forbids the classroom mention of LGBTQ relationships and history, from the laws prohibiting teaching historical analysis critical of the role of slavery in our nation’s founding to the statutes banning action civics that involves students in advocating for changes in their communities, academic freedom in our nation’s classrooms is under attack. While we do not confront such extreme threats and laws here in New York City, individual teachers can find themselves facing a hostile supervisor or parent, and they need the support and advocacy of their union. And it is crucial that our national union, the AFT, is led by UFT Unity members who are fighting the attacks on academic freedom across the country.
Against this record, what do the opposition caucuses in UFCUFT have to offer?
Let’s start with the contractual clauses. UFCUFT has nothing to say about the professional rights of educators and nurses found in our contracts. It is almost as if they thought that those rights weren’t important.
But a general UFCUFT complaint we have heard during the election campaign is that the UFT’s response to violations of the contract is to work with members to file a grievance; in their book, the UFT should somehow fix violations without having the impacted members grieve.
Now, to be more than a dead letter, a contract has to be enforced and implemented, and the mechanism in union contracts for enforcement is the grievance process. So, it seems beyond odd that a slate who proclaims its support for “a stronger contract” and “rank-and-file empowerment” would not want to involve members in contract enforcement by working with them to file grievances.
Perhaps the UFCUFT slate does not understand the basic union principle of contract enforcement through grievances because so few of them have been elected as Chapter Leaders in their schools and so have actual experience working with members when they experience contractual violations. But it takes the work of enforcement and implementation to make the contract into a living document, and that is as true with protections of the professional rights of members as with clauses protecting our health and safety. UFT Unity didn’t just negotiate these clauses; its Chapter Leaders and District Representatives, and the union’s Grievance Department, work with members to enforce them.
There is a pattern here: UFCUFT has nothing to say about professional programs that help members when they are struggling, such as mentoring for novice teachers and peer intervention for tenured teachers. Yet what can be more important for a stressed novice teacher grappling with just how hard teaching is, and how many different skill and knowledge sets she needs to master, than the assistance of an experienced new colleagues. And when a tenured teacher knows he needs help in the classroom and his supervisor provides none, what can be more valuable than an accomplished teacher colleague who is there not to judge but to provide practical assistance.
And UFCUFT has nothing to say about the chilling attacks on academic freedom we see in the U.S. today, and how they would contribute to the fight against them. Yet for UFT Unity the old union principle that “an injury to one is an injury to all” must be invoked by unionists in New York City when we see what is happening across the U.S. We need to be fully involved in and supportive of the work of our national union, the AFT, in this fight back, through the courts, through collective bargaining, through political action and in the streets.
The only question is why UFCUFT has said nothing about these professional and educational matters. Is it because UFCUFT doesn’t think that professional and educational issues are important? Or is it because UFCUFT doesn’t know what to say?
UFT Unity: the caucus that cares about and fights for the teaching profession and our professional rights. We do the work of professional unionism.