In a tribute to union solidarity in the aftermath of a potentially crippling U.S. Supreme Court ruling, fewer than 240 Department of Education employees represented by the United Federation of Teachers are not members of the union, President Michael Mulgrew announced at a spring conference for educators May 18.

“That is the lowest it has ever been in the history of this union, and you made it happen,” he told the cheering crowd of hundreds of Teachers and other education staff.

Stared Into Dues Abyss

Mr. Mulgrew reflected on the strides made by the union over the 11 months since the Supreme Court ruling in Janus v AFSCME ended the rights of public-sector unions to collect agency-fee payments from non-members.

Unions across the country feared that a ruling against them would be financially devastating. In right-to-work states, which have laws that bar union membership and paying dues from being conditions of employment, participation in unions has declined.

Prior to the ruling, the UFT kicked off a door-knocking campaign to educate members about the threat Janus posed. But while that was going on, another major movement was beginning.

“In the middle of preparing for Janus, we had this amazing thing happen last year. Because also a year ago we had a group of members who said ‘we’re sick and tired of it, we want paid parental leave,’ ” Mr. Mulgrew said, referring to the campaign that started when Teachers Emily James and Susan Hibdon started a Change.org petition to draw attention to the fact that the predominantly-female workforce did not have paid maternity leave.

Tapped Grassroots

“I’m happy and thankful to be able to say that after all of that hard grassroots work we were able to achieve paid parental leave. It also made you all sort of frisky, because we’re having a spike of little UFT members all over the tri-state,” he joked.

A week after the union won its fight for the paid-leave benefit last June, the high-court overturned the 1977 decision, Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, which for the succeeding 41 years allowed unions to collect “fair-share” fees for collective bargaining and grievance representation.

At the time, the UFT, which represents 132,534 Teachers, Guidance Counselors and other DOE staff not including retirees, had over 3,000 educators who were not members, and also had 5,000 incoming Teachers who would need to be signed up.

The push to educate members about the ramifications of Janus and the importance of the union worked: as of this month the UFT had just 239 nonmembers, or 0.0018 percent of the union.

Also at the event, educators participated in workshops on topics such as student disability issues and literacy, and heard from elected officials including City Comptroller Scott M. Stringer.

A Call for Candidates

The UFT and its national affiliate, the American Federation of Teachers, has been encouraging members to run for elected office. Early in the day, presidential hopeful U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand spoke of her work helping prospective female candidates get elected and why having more educators gain public office was important.

“We also have to make sure the next generation of Teachers is inspired,” she said. “I talked to Michael about different school systems around the state and around the country, where the pay is so low, that young people aren't willing to go into the teaching profession. That has to change.”

After the workshops, Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza performed with a mariachi band, dedicating one song to Puerto Rico, which was still suffering after Hurricane Maria devastated the island in 2017, resulting in many of its schools being shuttered or underfunded.

Pushes Integration Plan

His focus on better integrating the public school system has sparked controversy among elected officials and advocate groups, particularly a plan to eliminate the admissions test for the specialized high schools, which has predominantly Asian and white students. He credited Teachers for supporting students in struggling schools while education was treated as the “piñata of public policy.”

“Seventy percent of the 1.1 million students in the New York City public schools look like me. And while we’re going to serve all of our students, we’re not going to back away from the fight for equity,” he said. “And the people who have never abandoned those communities are our Teachers, who have been there every year making things out of nothing with no funding, with no support.”


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