The UFT is a politically powerful organization with millions of dollars at its disposal and sweeping campaigns that aim to make change at the highest levels of education policy. But at the heart of all of the spending and lobbying is the union’s contract with the city.
Clocking in at 165 pages just for classroom teachers, the contract spells out everything teachers must do, and everything they should not. Some of its clauses, such as those specifying what teachers cannot be compelled to do, have drawn fierce criticism for impeding administrator discretion so much that student performance suffers. But the contract is also the only guarantee that teachers are compensated for their time and receive due process rights when they are accused of misconduct.
For all of the conflict the contract elicits, it has meaning on the ground only if someone enforces its terms. That job falls to the small army of “chapter leaders” who represent the union at each school, and who are many teachers’ only contact with their union.
UFT Secretary Michael Mendel calls chapter leaders — who are elected by their colleagues every three years — “the backbone of the union.” But who are the chapter leaders? What do they actually do? What challenges do they face? The answers to those questions, which have long been obscured behind individual schoolhouse doors, are essential to understanding how the UFT serves its members and calls upon them to take action.
The first task of any chapter leader is to help his or her colleagues understand their rights and responsibilities. Teachers and many other city educators automatically begin paying union dues when they are added to the Department of Education’s payroll, but learning what’s in the contract takes longer.
“People don’t understand the contract. Few people, I think, actually read” it, said Arthur Goldstein, chapter leader at Francis Lewis High School in Queens. Goldstein said he was unfamiliar with the contract, too, when he won the position four years ago.
Chapter leaders said what they know about the contract comes from union trainings, monthly meetings with their district representatives, and the many rounds of research they do to respond to individual members’ questions.
“All the benefits we have can be confusing,” said Alice O’Neil, who worked as a chapter leader for seven years at Food and Finance High School in Manhattan and is now in her second year as the union district representative for Manhattan high schools.
Enforcing the contract
Getting teachers to know their rights is only half of the battle chapter leaders face. They must also ensure that the contract’s terms are respected, which can be challenging in a climate where even the most collegial administrators are under pressure to accomplish more with less resources.
In schools where teachers and administrators generally work well together, chapter leaders say they do not always have to be adversarial to get school leaders to respect the contract. Tara Brancato, chapter leader at Knowledge and Power Preparatory Academy in the Bronx, said the work of a savvy chapter leader can “put out a lot of problems before they become big problems.”
When the school year opened with uncertainty about how teachers would be evaluated, “people could have gotten very upset very quickly,” she said. “Instead, they brought it to me, I brought it to the principal, and we had a big school meeting about it.”
But in situations where getting the contract enforced requires a fight, the chapter leader helps teachers use the union’s main tool for enforcement, the grievance. Teachers file grievances when they think their rights have been violated, and chapter leaders can file grievances on behalf of their teachers, for example when class sizes exceed their contractual limits.
Goldstein said the chapter leader stands up against administrative abuses where individual teachers might not have the will or stamina.
“You might be a new teacher, and you might not want to file a grievance because your class size is too big. This way you don’t have to get involved, you don’t have an administrator saying, ‘Gee, why can’t you take 37 students, that’s not so bad,’” Goldstein said. “I just grieve for everyone.”
After a grievance has been filed, chapter leaders facilitate meetings between teachers and their administrators, sometimes brokering compromises early on. Conflicts that aren’t resolved at the school level enter into an onerous hearing process that can last months or years, and chapter leaders are responsible for bringing complaints to union leaders.
“After step one, the grievance is completely in hands of UFT,” said Jamaica High School chapter leader James Eterno.
The chapter leader must support union members who have grievances even if he or she doesn’t think their complaints have merit, a position that several leaders said can be difficult to navigate. But Dana Lawit, the chapter leader at the Kurt Hahn Expeditionary Learning School in Brooklyn, said she resolves the tension by thinking of her role as “protecting the process.”
A political position
In addition to defending individual teachers at the school level, chapter leaders are also expected to support broader efforts to safeguard the profession.
“We sometimes ask them for information, we sometimes ask them to come to meetings, we sometimes ask them to go to rallies,” said Mendel. “We sometimes ask them to do political work.”
In weekly emails, union officials poll chapter leaders about budget cuts and conditions at their schools, such as class size, to fuel high-level appeals against behaviors that the union’s leadership has identified as abusive.
After the union successfully made the case to Department of Education officials in 2011 that some principals were improperly assessing teachers, the UFT newspaper credited chapter leaders with the win. “None of these important matters could have been addressed so well without the attentiveness and commitment of chapter leaders,” an editorial read. “The UFT counts on chapter leaders to be its eyes and ears on the front lines.”
And when the union holds rallies or lobbies in Albany, chapter leaders are expected to let their members know, and are asked, but not required, to participate themselves. (Chapter leaders who are not necessarily on board with all elements of the union’s agenda said they do not feel pressure to participate in campaigns they don’t support. “There are chapter leaders involved in that. I choose not to take on that role,” said Patrick Sprinkle, the chapter leader at Bronx Collegiate who is also a member of Educators 4 Excellence, an advocacy group that sometimes opposes the union on education policy issues. “Our teachers can make their own decisions about whether to go to rallies.”)
The union’s political expertise, which it wields heavily in local and state elections, can also be useful to chapter leaders on the ground. When Lawit worked with other chapter leaders on her shared campus to protest the city’s plans to add an additional school to the building, the union helped them write media releases and connect with parents and local advocacy organizations.
The position can be politically fraught inside schools, as well. Several chapter leaders said they have had to ease tension between senior and new teachers, particularly when the prospect of teacher layoffs periodically emerges and teachers with the least experience face losing their positions.
In particular, teachers minted through non-traditional pathways such as through Teach for America, who might not be considering teaching as a long-term career, sometimes have a harder time understanding the seniority rights enshrined in the union contract, said Lawit, who herself entered the classroom through the NYC Teaching Fellows alternative certification program.
“There’s a complicated relationship that teachers who have come in through alternative certification programs have with unions, because they’re conditioned to dislike it — or never really understood how it was a part of their professional life,” she said. New teachers, she added, might get training on how to plan a lesson, but they don’t always “know about the political context [they’re] working in that’s actually really complicated.”
The tough stuff
All of the educating, enforcing, and engaging is supposed to get done in just a few hours each week. At small schools, chapter leaders get about 45 minutes a day off from school responsibilities, such as monitoring the cafeteria or supervising bus pickup and dismissal. At larger schools, they teach one fewer class than their colleagues, giving them a little more time to field questions, juggle grievances, and get political. (The union picks up the tab for the time chapter leaders are not teaching.)
But that’s rarely enough time to get the job done, chapter leaders said. “There’s not really a solid 45 minutes in the day that I can met with all the teachers at the same time, except at the end of the day, but that would require me asking teachers to stay later,” said Elana Eisen-Markowitz, the chapter leader at Bronx Academy of Letters. And asking teachers to stay outside of their contractual hours is, of course, exactly the request that Eisen-Markowitz is supposed to help them avoid.
The task is toughest for chapter leaders who consistently do not see eye to eye with administrators at their school.
“If you’re in a situation where the principal is very adversarial and just looking to get at teachers, the job of chapter leader can be extremely difficult and extremely taxing,” Eterno said.
In some cases, chapter leaders who speak out against problematic administrative practices end up as targets themselves. Retaliation might take the form of being assigned the toughest classes or not being offered overtime work, Eterno said.
“You start speaking up on a school leadership team, and the next thing you know you’re being observed 10 times and you’re getting letters in your file,” said union President Michael Mulgrew. “’Oh, I was great when I worked with you … but now all of a sudden I’m this horrible person because I told you [that] you were wrong about something you wanted to do?’”
Eterno said his relationship with his principal is positive now, but it hasn’t always been that way during his 17 years as a chapter leader. “If I didn’t have tenure, I could not have opened my mouth and spoken as I have over the years, because I would be gone,” he said.
By last year, Mulgrew said, the problem of retaliation against chapter leaders had grown acute, in part driven by a Department of Education policy under which teachers accused of misconduct were removed from their schools while disciplinary proceedings were underway.
“We saw a targeting of chapter leaders who were outspoken,” he said. “Chapter leaders all of a sudden were being brought up on — a lot of them — frivolous charges because they were outspoken or challenging principals.”
In response, the union passed a resolution that “reaffirms its historical commitment to use all legal means at its disposal … to defend its chapter leaders and delegates from illegal attacks by the DOE.”
The purpose of the resolution, Mulgrew said, was to “make it very clear to everyone: Chapter leader does not mean that you’re protected from doing bad things, but it [also] doesn’t mean because you’re doing your job, you should be attacked for it. … It’s basic unionism.”
Department of Education officials said chapter leaders do not face inappropriate discipline in response to their advocacy. A labor board that reviews retaliation complaints frequently rules in the department’s favor, said a spokeswoman, Connie Pankratz.
“Teachers accused of misconduct or charged with incompetence are treated the same regardless of whether or not they are chapter leaders,” she said.
Either way, it is clear that few teachers relish the prospect of putting themselves on the front lines of defending the union’s contract with the city. Many chapter leader elections are uncontested.
“I ran unopposed,” said Tara Pedersen, chapter leader at the Academy for Young Writers in Brooklyn. “At least in my school there really isn’t a huge amount of desire to have this role.”
“You have to be completely crazy and out of your mind to become a chapter leader,” Goldstein said. “It’s a lot of work and there’s not a lot of reward.”