Tension builds within the UFT over reducing class sizes

A new coalition within the union dubbed United for Change won a vote to force a referendum on the issue, signaling a growing divide.

UFT President Michael Mulgrew.

UFT President Michael Mulgrew. a katz/Shutterstock

With a union election around the corner, a pandemic-intensified fight over class size is developing among the rank and file of the United Federation of Teachers.

Earlier this month, a group of opposition caucuses within the UFT announced that they had banded together in a long-shot bid to seize control of the union’s leadership.The rebels have had some initial success.

The same day that the new coalition named United for Change (UFC) announced its policy goals, it notched a symbolic win at a meeting of the union’s delegate assembly. The coalition, which has highlighted reducing class size as a central part of its grievance with the union’s leadership,passed a resolution among the union’s delegates that contains language calling on the union to push the issue in the collective bargaining process and support related state legislation.

“We had a victory tonight,” said Daniel Alicea, the UFC delegate who introduced the amendment at the Nov. 17 meeting. “We saw an amendment that shows that they’re willing to have a full-court press for class size.”

The intra-union tension comes now as the City Council considers a UFT-supported bill that would reduce the cap on class sizes in all public schools over a three-year period.The long-standing fight to reduce overcrowded classroom rosters in the city’s public schools became a central focus of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s effort to return to in-person learning over the past year and a half on the grounds of health. While education advocates and UFC members say they've heard reports that de Blasio is trying to block the bill from a vote until Mayor-elect Eric Adams takes over, the opposition members have called on the union's leadership to go further than just supporting the legislation, and whether the bill passes or not.

The opposition faction’s tenacious stance follows a trend among New York’s unionized essential workers, like the Buffalo nurses who chose to strike ahead of the implementation of a landmark “safe staffing” bill. The left flanks of New York’s unions are increasingly calling to prioritize direct action and contract negotiation over legislative fixes to labor issues. The UFT’s most recent contract, which expires in 2022, contains negotiated limits on class size that have been in place in various forms for decades. Pre-K is capped at 18 students with a teacher and a paraprofessional, kindergarten at 25 students, grades 1-6 at 32 students, middle school at 30-33 students and high school academic classes at 34.

The union’s fight for lower class sizes goes back to the 1960s when it used strike threats to implement its first-ever class size cap in 1963, which has remained relatively constant to the present. Based on the union’s 2018 contract, if a classroom exceeds the class size limits, the school’s chapter leader should file a grievance, which kickstarts a process potentially empowering third-party arbitrators to order the principals to comply with the limits.

Since the process could take months, in its latest contract, the union fought for a way to try and expedite the process. The new contract language gives a principal a 10-day period after school starts to reduce oversize classes to the contractual limits. If they fail to do so, the cases go up to local superintendents, who can intervene to fix the violations. Any oversize classes not reduced by this process will be fast-tracked to arbitration.

The UFC coalition wants the UFT to lower the class size limits further in addition to do more to enforce violations of the existing class size cap in its labor contract including an increase in litigation when necessary.

Alicea believes that one reason the leadership hasn’t lowered the class size caps under de Blasio is they believe asking smaller class sizes can only come as a trade off in salary negotiations. With billions of federal education dollars coming to the city through COVID-19 relief funding, Alicea argues that the time is now to fight over reducing the contractual caps and more.“We're looking for not just contractual caps, but also the contractual loopholes and exceptions and a grievance process that is further expedited,” said Alicea.

Norm Scott, a retired union activist and member of the UFC, cited the contract’s "half-class" loophole as a part of the contract the union should be fighting to amend or get rid of.

Under this exception to contractual class size limits, principals can exceed the size limit until there are enough additional students to make up half a class. So, in classes with 32-student limits, until a school reaches an extra 17 students in a grade level or subject area, the principal can load up other classes with kids past the limit.

“If we file a grievance, we lose,” he said, adding that the situation is much more challenging for smaller schools, with less classes to divy up the extra students.

In response to the demands, a UFT spokesperson cited the union’s “long history of fighting for smaller class sizes — whether giving up a pay increase to set the current classroom limits or negotiating a new streamlined process for dealing with oversized classes in 2018 as part of the UFT contract.”

The coalition’s delegate assembly win is purely advisory, but the vote suggests that the rank and file may want to see Unity Caucus, the group that has consolidated power in the union for most of its existence, take a more activist stance.

Members of the UFC say that it's a landmark for their members to get any resolution passed in a delegate meeting.

Using Zoom to provide video telephony at delegate meetings has recently helped break the Unity Caucus's vice grip on the UFT since the technology allows members to vote anonymously over the technology, whereas delegates had to be physically present to vote pre-pandemic. 

State of the Union

In addition to pushing the union further left on class size, the UFC will run an up-hill battle electoral slate to challenge UFT President Michael Mulgrew and other union leaders in the union’s spring elections.

The history of the UFT is that of one-party rule. Since its founding in 1962, the Unity Caucus has commanded the union and held nearly all of its 12 union-wide leadership positions in spite of the emergence of an increasing number of opposition groups that go back to the ’1980s. The one deviation in Unity’s electoral grip on this administrative committee came in 1985 when an opposition caucus called New Action successfully ran a candidate for the union’s high school vice president role. After that defeat, the union changed the constitution and broadened which groups of members could vote for certain divisional positions — high school vice president included — which increased Unity’s chances of winning the high school seat back.

In recent electoral cycles, opposition groups, including Movement of Rank-and-File Educators (MORE), UFT Solidarity, New Action-UFT, the Independent Community of Educators, Educators of NYC, and Retiree Advocate-UFT, tried joining together in different combinations of alliances and fared better when they had a unified slate. That however, did not happen in the last election in 2019, and as a result the opposition groups lost seven positions their members had held on the 102-member Executive Board, which plays a policymaking role.

“One of the key factors in UFT elections has been the retiree vote, which generally has gone very high for Unity,” said Scott, who for decades has chronicled union politics on his blog, Ed Notes.

UFC is hoping to make in-roads with this demographic by protesting the union’s support for shifting health benefits for about 250,000 retired city workers to a new plan under Medicare Advantage. While a Supreme Court judge stopped the cost-cutting measure from going into effect in October, it resulted in swift backlash among many of the city’s retired employees. Hundreds reportedly marched against the new insurance package in July.

“Everybody, including me, thinks that class size is the overriding, bigger issue, but as far as getting votes, the thing is this has a lot of retirees pissed off,” said UFC member Bennett Fischer.

The Adams Angle

The UFC’s bid to push the union in a more activist direction would present challenges to Eric Adams as he takes over the city’s school system.

Though the UFT backed Adams for mayor in the general election, it also reportedly spent $3.75 million supporting New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer in the Democratic mayoral primary, leaving in question what kind of relationship Adams and the UFT will ultimately have.

Whether or not the Council bill – introduced by Council Member Mark Treyger – gets passed, class size will continue to be a rallying cry for the rank and file. The bill, which has the support of a 40-member Council supermajority, did not make it on the Council’s Nov. 23 stated meeting, leaving only two more opportunities for the body to bring it to a vote in December before it turns over in the new year.

“I’m very distressed at the fact that this mayor [de Blasio] who ran for office promising to lower class size and never followed through on his promises is now trying to block this golden opportunity for kids,” said Leonie Haimson, a class size advocate.

After the UFT spent time and effort lobbying for this legislative fix, it would be a blow to the union leadership if it gets blocked, and could feasibly increase pressure to find other ways to address the issue.

Opposition members are gearing up for a fight with an Adams mayoralty. One of UFC’s most progressive caucuses, MORE, wrote in an August blog post about its skepticism that the Mayor-elect would enforce the Council bill’s limitations, which revolve around changing the city’s occupancy codes, if it is passed.

“Here's the thing about occupancy and health codes. Many times they're not enforced right. It depends on the mayor, it depends on the city agencies, whether they will enforce,” said Alicea.

If the bill does not make it to the floor by the end of the year, Adams’ tenure could begin under UFT pressure to pass it. Not only would this outcome be likely to strain the relationship between the mayor-elect and the city’s teachers union, it could strain the relationship between the union and its most ardent rank and file as well.

Correction: A previous version of this story misstated the result of the UFT’s recent delegate vote. The UFC successfully amended a resolution that calls on the UFT leadership to prioritize class size in contract negotiations and support related state legislation.

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