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Lessons from the UFT Teach-Ins
By Mike Schirtzer - Executive Board representative, contract committee member, and teacher at Leon M. Goldstein High School Brooklyn shares his contract teach-in perspective
Teachers teaching teachers, union workers sharing labor history with other union workers, what’s this all about?
UFT member’s last raise was in May of 2021
Prices are out of control, inflation has run wild, healthcare costs are skyrocketing and we are without a contract. Yes, our last contract is still in effect so we’ll still get our longevity increase, but that’s just not cutting it.
Social security adjusted their raises to about 15% to reflect the increased cost of living. We need a new contract and we need one now.
To make this happen the UFT called on its members to host a teach-in at every chapter to learn about the history and process of contract negotiations and for members to brainstorm collective actions to support our struggle to win a good contract.
An old friend of mine insists that for any union to be effective it must be able to educate, organize, and mobilize its members. We finally saw the union do this during the teach-ins. Once, is obviously not enough, but it’s a start. Our members need to know the rights they have weren’t bestowed upon us from the almighty, rather the ones that came before us had to fight hard and sacrifice for what we have now. Walking into NYC public schools as a teacher, para, or otherwise, and paying your union dues is not enough. Our members learned during the teach-ins what those dues are for. The very being of unions and collective bargaining is what workers from Starbucks to Amazon are fighting for now and we already have it, but we take it for granted.
Amongst my union friends, we often argue: Is it more important to have a union leadership that inspires with vision and leads from the top? Or is it better to have a grassroots movement of workers leading the charge from the bottom up?
I come from a place where I believe it to be both, and the teach-ins proved that.
Our union leaders that organized the teach-ins had a vision, a day of action across the city where our members come together to learn about collective bargaining and brainstorm actions. Any organization needs clear, inspired leadership from the top, you also need members that take the lead on the ground floor. You need both, it’s the chicken and the egg- can’t have one without the other.
The teach-in organizers, like all good teachers, provided a well-planned lesson with objectives, an interactive presentation, and a tool kit with flyers, graphics, pre-planning list. They held turn-key training sessions. That’s what leadership looks like. Then members had the flexibility to make changes to fit the needs of their chapters.
That’s how you empower members.
Too often our union meetings and our classrooms are too top-down. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not Danielson here to tell you that the kids ought to lead the lesson, facilitate, and move their desks during the class. I am not Mr. flipped learning or any of that jazz. I just believe every classroom needs a leader, every lesson needs a point, an objective, yes an aim, but the kids have to take ownership, they have to get involved, it has to be interactive and you want them walking out feeling they had something to do with the learning process. The same thing goes for unionism.
I learned some lessons from the teach-in even though I was involved in leading it at my school.
Solidarity matters, it was great doing a union event that you know others schools were also doing. It felt coordinated, but it wasn’t micromanaged. That’s a good way to help young teachers and union organizers. Give them the tools, give them a menu of options, and let them run with it. You’re providing guidance, but you’re not overbearing. I’ve employed this in my history class and we need to do this more in our union organizing. Every chapter, every school, and every union leader is different: what works for one may not work for the other. Give options and let the folks have at it.
Empowerment matters. As leaders, we tend to replicate the systems and structures we were brought up in and the ones we know. Union meetings and our classrooms too often are driven solely by the person in front of the room. It’s informative, but it’s passive. A good union meeting and a good lesson need to empower. One of my colleagues walked out of the meeting and said to me it was the first time she felt “empowered” and that “my voice mattered”. The teach-in included some small group conversations and activities. Too often we’re guilty of perceiving this as something for little kids, but not adults. There are members from teachers to paras to all roles that don’t feel comfortable sharing their ideas or questions in front of a large group. The teach-in gave them the chance to talk to others members from other departments and titles, but not feel like they had to raise their hands in front of everyone. We need to change the way we run our union meetings from the chapter level, and the district, to the borough, and citywide meetings. We need more voices, more diverse voices, we need new ideas and we need to empower people, that’s the very point of a union to feel empowered, and that’s what the teach-in accomplished.
Leadership and vision matters. When the DOE has to send out a letter about union activism that’s the direct result of the union actually organizing, coordinating, and mobilizing the membership. Then publicizing it on several media outlets made my members feel like they were part of something bigger.
The last lesson is a union-wide one. To win a good contract, and to apply pressure on the city to come to the table in good faith, we need an educated, organized, and mobilized membership. That has to start now.
One member said to me they wish this meeting had happened in September so they knew the history of the union. They felt it was Union 101. This is the way to get our members ready for the contract struggle to come with actions like this.
The workers UNITED will never be defeated.
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