state of the union

UFT grapples with change while staying a political powerhouse

stateoftheunionlogoFor decades, the United Federation of Teachers, the largest teachers union local in the nation, held the city in its sway. The UFT’s powerful get-out-the-vote efforts influenced mayoral elections. Its political power kept Albany legislators on a tight leash. And the city’s education policies sometimes mirrored the union’s agenda.

But in recent years, that power has been under threat, both locally and nationally.

Across the country, local teachers unions have been fending off attacks against basic labor rights, such as laws that repeal collective bargaining, and trying to defeat or water down scores of state-level bills that would tie teacher evaluations to student test scores, establish merit pay, or abolish tenure.

And in New York City, a billionaire mayor with no need for union dollars or endorsement has reshaped the city school system and picked fights with the union over its top priorities, including teacher tenure and job protections based on seniority.

Continuity and change

Together, the attacks have cut into the formidable might the UFT has wielded since it began representing all city teachers in 1962.

“The union was for many years seen as the 800-pound gorilla, and recently they have certainly not been the 800-pound gorilla,” said Diane Ravitch, a historian and former U.S. assistant secretary of education who has criticized Bloomberg’s education policies. “The mayor, I don’t know that he’s beaten them, but he’s certainly not afraid of them.”

But as the tides shift nationally and the city prepares to elect a new mayor for the first time since 2001, the UFT remains incredibly powerful. “They have had to give up things they had in the past, but they’re not going away,” added Ravitch. “They’re still a major power player.”

Democratic mayoral candidates, no doubt eager for the union’s endorsement and financial support this year, regularly call the president, Michael Mulgrew. The union invited each of them, along with the state education commissioner, John King, to Cincinnati to view that city’s network of community schools—an idea the union thinks should be replicated in New York. Each of the candidates, along with King, has since called for reforms based on the Cincinnati model. After the mayoral election is held this fall, union influence will most likely grow again.

“They continue to be enormously powerful as an organization when it comes to education policy in New York City and New York state, and that’s no different than it was 5 years ago, or 10 years ago, or 20 years ago,” said Dan Weisberg, executive vice president for TNTP, an advocacy group and teacher training organization, who served as the chief labor negotiator from 2003 to 2009 for former chancellor Joel Klein.

“The union has had to adapt,” he added. “But I would say in general, it’s been remarkable, particularly when you put in the national perspective, how little change there’s been.”

The national perspective

Nationally, teachers unions find themselves at a crossroads. Once, it would have been unthinkable for Democrats to defy teachers unions, who have poured donations into campaign coffers and recruited doorknockers to get out the vote. But many Democrats, including President Obama, are now leading the charge to overhaul the teaching profession. Public opinion and membership rates of labor unions are at an all-time low.

There are some signs of hope for unions. The American Federation of Teachers, the UFT’s parent organization, has kept its membership steady. The UFT has actually gained members, adding to their already considerable resources. The AFT and National Education Association are rethinking their strategies to adjust to the new normal of education policy. They’ve compromised with district officials on new teacher evaluations across the country from Los Angeles to New Haven, Conn., and have overturned some education laws in Idaho and South Dakota.

And unions are still embracing the old ways to flex their political muscles. They lobby heavily at the state level and contribute in political campaigns. Their mobilization efforts remain unmatched by groups like Stand for Children or StudentsFirst, both of which have emerged to serve as a political counterweight to unions and to promote education policies that unions hate.

A 2012 report by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative education think tank, ranked New York ninth in the country in terms of teachers union strength. The results were unsurprising, though. “New York is where the teachers union movement began,” said report co-author Dara Zeehandelaar. She noted that New York has near universal participation in teachers unions and the state itself has traditionally been liberal and pro-labor. At 23.2 percent, New York has the highest union membership rate in the country.

The state is unique because of the presence of the UFT. It’s rare for a local union to have such a large influence at the state level, Zeehandelaar said, adding that the only possible comparison is the Chicago Teachers Union. With education policy, what happens in New York City often has a direct bearing on the rest of the state. The UFT’s ability to hold on to power and remain a major player in city and state policies is important nationally, too. Its presidents tend to become presidents of the powerful national union, and its booming membership helps to buoy the rest of labor movement.

Yet even if the UFT isn’t fighting for survival, lately it has found itself under attack like never before.

The New York City story

The relationship between the union and the Bloomberg administration was, until recently, a roller coaster with a mix of highs—like when Joel Klein gave Randi Weingarten an unexpected kiss on the cheek—and lows—like the times Bloomberg has compared the union to the National Rifle Association.

In his first term, a cozy relationship allowed the mayor to wrack up a series of victories — including mayoral control, an overhaul of the school system bureaucracy, and the closure of numerous schools that fell short on student achievement measures — with little union opposition. The union walked away with unprecedented wage increases and convinced the mayor to implement merit pay only on a school-wide basis. Frequently, those victories were seen as mutually beneficial.

But in the mayor’s third term, the relationship has become almost uniformly acrimonious.

The UFT attributes the change to a speech Bloomberg delivered the day before Thanksgiving in 2009, weeks after he won a third term in an election the UFT sat out. In the speech, Bloomberg announced he planned to use student test scores in tenure decisions, push the state to eliminate the cap on the number of charter schools, close the so-called rubber rooms for teachers put on administrative leave, and end “last-in, first-out” layoff policies.

“We went to war three years ago, when Bloomberg went to D.C.,” Mulgrew said.

Yet Bloomberg was echoing the ideas of a national movement that has put unions everywhere on the defensive. Obama had recently announced the rules for the Race to the Top competition, which encouraged states to overhaul tenure, teacher hiring and firing policies, and evaluations in exchange for federal money.

After New York won in the second round of the competition in 2010, with Mulgrew’s support, the UFT had to adjust. Its current dispute with Bloomberg over new teacher evaluations assumes, as state law now requires, that a significant portion of the ratings will be based on student achievement. The cap on charter schools, whose teachers typically are not represented by a union, was lifted (but not eliminated). Charter schools still educate a small minority of students in the city as a whole, but in Harlem—which would be the size of a full-sized school district anywhere else in the country—charters now have a third of the market share.

But the union has been more successful in New York than elsewhere at blocking some Race to the Top proposals. For example, it prevented the end of the last-in, first out layoff policies. And public opinion of the UFT has escaped the downward pull that other unions have experienced: New Yorkers consistently say they trust the union over Bloomberg.

Toward the future

Still, the UFT’s future is anything but assured.

“They’re in for a tough time in the long run unless they’re able to re-imagine their value absent fixed compensation standards for members,” said David Cantor, former spokesman for the Department of Education. “Which is really hard.”

How has the UFT maintained its power and influence—and even grown in size—in the face of new attacks and as unions elsewhere struggle? How has it been forced to change? Where does its influence come from and how does it cultivate its power? Who does the union represent, and what do they think of the changes (or lack thereof) happening around them in the union and in their schools?

In a multi-part series, Gotham Schools and The Hechinger Report will take a look at these questions. We’ll look at how the union spends its money to help understand its strategies and policy priorities. We’ll talk to the people who make up the union to learn about their concerns—and whether they match with those of the union as a whole. And we’ll find out from experts, educators and union officials what the future likely holds for the UFT.

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”

moving forward

After Confederate flag dispute at Colorado football game, schools pledge to bring students together

PHOTO: Marc Piscotty
Manual High students.

Acknowledging “we may never have a conclusive picture of what happened,” two Colorado school districts sought to move past a controversy over whether a Confederate flag was displayed at a football game and open a conversation between the two school communities.

The principal of Manual High, Nick Dawkins, wrote in a community letter over the weekend that the visiting Weld Central High School team “displayed a Confederate flag during the first quarter of the (Friday night) game, offending many members of the Manual community.”

Officials from Denver Public Schools and Weld County School District Re-3J released a joint letter Tuesday saying that based “on what we have learned to date, however, the Weld Central team did not display the Confederate flag.” At the same time, it said, multiple Manual eyewitnesses “reported seeing spectators who attempted to bring a Confederate flag into the game and clothing with flag images.”

Going forward, students from the two schools — one rural and one urban — will participate in a student leadership exchange that has student leaders visit each other’s schools and communities to “share ideas and perspectives,” the letter says.

“At a time in our country when so many are divided, we want our students instead to come together, share ideas and learn together,” says the letter, which is signed by the principals of both schools and the superintendents of both school districts.

The alleged incident took place at a time when issues of race, social injustice, politics and sports are colliding in the United States, making for tough conversations, including in classrooms.

Weld Central’s mascot is a Rebel. Manual, whose mascot is the Thunderbolts, is located in one of Denver’s historically African-American neighborhoods.

Dawkins in his initial community letter also said “the tension created by the flag led to conflict on and off the playing field,” and that three Manual players were injured, including one who went to the hospital with a leg injury. He also said some Manual players reported that Weld Central players “taunted them with racial slurs.”

Weld Central officials vehemently denied that their team displayed the flag. In addition, they said in their own community letter they had “no evidence at this point that any of our student athletes displayed racially motivated inappropriate behavior.”

They said district officials “do not condone any form of racism,” including the Confederate flag.

Weld Central fans told the Greeley Tribune that they didn’t see any Confederate flag.

Read the full text below.