Take a moment and pause with me. Reflect back on what these past three years have meant to be a public school teacher in New York City. The endless hours of planning and last-minute adjustments. Scrambling to show up and support our students in an unprecedented global pandemic. Being forced to take on a dozen different roles we never signed up for. Skyrocketing rents and living expenses that are driving so many of us out of the city or farther away from where we work. Crushing student debt that, for new teachers, is drowning us. Surviving administrators with unchecked power that harass, belittle, and bully teachers into submission—with no accountability. The untold time and energy we have sacrificed for a job that gives so little in return. It infuriates me every time I hear another co-worker talk about having to take on a second and third job just to keep up with the costs of living in one of the most expensive cities in the world; sacrificing precious time with their own kids because they’ve been bullied into doing more unpaid work; trying to pay off student debt as the dream of a better future that we were all sold falls apart.
Three years ago, we were essential frontline workers, heroes that kept this city running. Now we are barely worth 3 percent. But our value is so much more than what this contract offers. Yes, there are some decent things. The city knew they couldn’t get away with giving us nothing, so they sprinkle in a few concessions to make it appear like they care—a sign-on bonus, a reduction in time it takes to move up in pay scale. These victories matter and we deserve them. We also need to be sober and honest with ourselves that sub-inflation 3 percent annual raises, even with bonuses, utterly pale in comparison to what teachers desperately need and deserve in today’s economic landscape, and essentially amount to a pay cut from previous years. Meaningful annual raises mean matching or exceeding inflation and go far beyond the effects of temporary bonuses that can be wiped away in future contracts.
There is another way. Voting NO isn’t just a symbolic statement. This isn’t about complaining and asking someone else to fix it for us. This is about saying that a fundamentally different kind of unionism is possible and necessary. I want you take a moment and imagine with me. Imagine what it would look like if our union leadership threw out the non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) and chose the path of open and transparent bargaining, allowing each and every member to be fully aware from the very beginning what this process has looked like, rather than being kept in the dark while decisions were made at the top behind closed doors. Imagine if our union leadership had actually listened to the overwhelming sentiment from members that increased pay was their top priority and from the beginning, made clear to the city that raises that match inflation were our bottom line.
What if, instead of immediately throwing in the towel and conceding to “pattern bargaining”— a B.S., manufactured “norm” invented by the city to control and restrain the demands of organized labor, our union said: We are going to break this trend. Imagine what that would have done to activate our membership and make us feel like our voice, our involvement, actually mattered in the outcome of this campaign. Maybe then, more rank and file members would have felt like this is a real struggle worth fighting for, rather than a tightly controlled and orchestrated media spectacle designed to create the illusion of change rather than meaningful grassroots, involvement.
But the outcome isn’t finalized; we still have an opportunity to write the next chapter of this struggle. Voting NO means sending a message to the city, and just as importantly, our union leadership, that we know our worth and are willing to fight for it. Take a moment to expand our lens and look beyond the boundaries of Mayor Adams’ fiefdom. We owe it to ourselves, our kids, their families, to learn what teachers have done in Chicago and Los Angeles. They’ve had the courage and tenacity to challenge entrenched bureaucratic, leaderships, take back their unions, and turn them into fighting, grassroots machines that unapologetically organize for teachers and the communities we serve. They’ve defied conventional wisdom, broken unjust laws, challenged vilification on all fronts, cultivated unshakable bounds of solidarity between educators, students, and parents, and built a rank and file movement of teachers, allied with communities, gone on strike (multiple times!)—and in doing so, transformed the national political landscape of public education and teacher unionism. UTLA and the CTU show us that another model of unionism is possible and that it can work.
Voting NO means a willingness to commit ourselves to this fight—and it will be a fight. In order for future negotiations to have any leverage, we have to demonstrate, in word and deed, that we are willing to utilize the one weapon that we hold as organized workers—our ability to shut down the school system by withholding our labor power, yes; the ability to strike. Now is the time for direct, and honest conversations. There is absolutely no way we will radically improve our working conditions as teachers and the learning conditions of our students without going on strike. The ability to strike and withhold our labor is the number one most effective tool used by workers to generate any sort of political or social change; the eight hour day, the formation of unions, child labor laws, health care benefits, class size caps, all of these were won by organized labor’s willingness to strike.
Unjust laws will need to be broken. There is, frankly, no way around that. No social movement in the history of this country has ever achieved political change without defying unjust laws. Often, it is only through an organized movement to break those laws on a massive and coordinated scale that public opinion shifts and the policies are thrown into the dust bin of history where they belong. The Taylor Law has been broken before—our union was formed through illegal strikes that defied the Taylor Law—and it can be done again.
Struggles cannot be won without sacrifice. Frederick Douglass teaches us, “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never has, and it never will.” It is our willingness to struggle and sacrifice that determines the horizons of our victories. The idea that we can passively sit around while our union advocates on our behalf, or that if we hold off and just keep waiting for better financial times that something ideal will come, is a myth, a delusion, and a fantasy kept alive by existing systems of power that want to keep our schools underfunded and our unions weak.
Voting NO means declaring to our union leadership that the time to begin preparations for the possibility of a strike is now. That means borough-based and citywide public organizing meetings where members can meaningfully participate and contribute to discussion about strategy and vote democratically on next steps, not tightly controlled events where information is handed from the top down. It means tossing the NDAs and having an open and transparent bargaining process. It means taking the summer to organize town halls with parents, students, and community members to begin building solidarity and a shared plan of action. It means organizing for pickets, walkouts, sick-ins, and rallies at every school in the fall so we can hit the ground mobilized and ready to turn up the pressure. And yes, it means organizing strike funds now so that members can be supported financially if in fact we do go on strike. It means UFT President Michael Mulgrew publicly stating that he is willing to face the consequences of defying the Taylor Law, up to and including jail time if that’s what’s needed, to win the demands of our strike.
For more than two decades, our union leadership has capitulated to the corporate assault on public education, agreeing to concessionary contracts that have weakened our power in the workplace, and in turn, our leverage. Now is our opportunity to say: enough. This is our time to tell the mayor, the chancellor, the Department of Education, and every overbearing administrator that’s become accustomed to walking all over teachers, that those days are officially over. This is about our dignity and respect as educators. The words of Martin Luther King, who was shot and killed while supporting striking Black sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee, ring as true today as they did sixty years ago:
Change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability, but comes through continuous struggle. And so we must straighten our backs and work for our freedom. A man can’t ride you unless your back is bent.
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Keegan O’Brien is a New York City public school teacher and a member of MORE-UFT.