How Unions in the Nation’s Four Largest School Districts are Leveraging School Reopenings

AFT president Randi Weingarten (Getty Images)

The battles over school reopenings have raged for more than a year, but it’s safe to say we have reached the tipping point. Come the fall, the overwhelming majority of schools will provide in-person instruction five days a week, though the form it takes will certainly vary from place to place.

What comes next? Federal and state governments are funneling unprecedented amounts of new money into public education, and the teachers unions have plenty of ideas on how to spend it.

Watch a TV news segment or read an article about school reopenings and you’re bound to hear American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten speak to what she thinks schools need. But she won’t be making those decisions, not even for her members. AFT’s local unions will tailor their stances to their conditions and political realities.

Local unions in the nation’s four largest school districts — New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago and Miami-Dade County — each handled school closings in a different way, and they each will handle post-pandemic relations with school districts in different ways.

Unions in New York and Miami reached agreement on reopening last fall, while Chicago’s union didn’t come to terms until March. The Los Angeles union didn’t come to terms until April, and most LA schools won’t reopen until this fall. Some asked for additional staff to address mental health issues and learning loss, while others went further afield, wanting an end to standardized tests.

Some demands, however, are universal. Each union wants smaller class sizes, which means more teachers, and more support employees to occupy various new programs.

Let’s begin with New York City’s United Federation of Teachers. Some schools reopened in November 2020 after long and difficult negotiations, which included a strike threat. As large teachers unions go, the UFT is considered to be more of a political player than an ideological hard-liner, so it makes some sense that New York schools opened before those in Chicago or Los Angeles.

The UFT touted the protocols they negotiated as being responsible for schools being “the safest public spaces in New York City.” Last March, the union released a series of recommendations for post-pandemic schooling, including spending more than $1 billion to address learning loss.

The UFT wants teams of academic intervention specialists and social workers/psychologists for each of the city’s 1,800 public schools. The average New York City public school would need three to four teams, a total of six to eight professionals, or roughly one team for every 200 students, according to the union.

The union estimates it will cost $1 billion to hire the estimated 10,000 new employees needed for this new program. Additionally, the union wants smaller class sizes in 100 of the neediest schools, requiring the hiring of 1,500 or more teachers, at a cost of $150 million annually.

How the value of these policies will be measured is not mentioned, though the hiring will have one indisputable effect: it will increase the number of potential union members by more than nine percent.

The Chicago Public Schools first reopenings didn’t occur until March of this year, largely because of the highly contentious relationship between the Chicago Teachers Union and Mayor Lori Lightfoot. Even after negotiating the reopening deal, CTU President Jesse Sharkey badmouthed it.

“Let me be clear. This plan is not what any of us deserve. Not us. Not our students. Not their families,” he said.

While the UFT used its deal to trumpet the safety of New York City schools, the Chicago union went in the opposite direction. When the city developed a follow-on plan to reopen high schools, the union balked, claiming “national health experts are raising concerns about the push to reopen schools, bars and other businesses as new variants drive a spike in cases.”

The CTU has its own list of post-pandemic remedies, which include more staff and resources for special needs students, bilingual students and homeless students. The union wants a nurse and librarian in every school, an additional 500 social workers and counselors, and “ending any non-required standardized assessment.”

The CTU also called for class size reduction. It bears mentioning that the city’s schools have been bleeding enrollment for two decades, and they lost 15,000 more students during the pandemic.

The Chicago union has a strong social justice focus, and it is reflected in some of its demands for spending the windfall of federal money, including adopting ethnic studies curricula, hiring restorative justice coordinators, and providing direct housing assistance.

The Miami-Dade County Public Schools had its first reopenings last October. The United Teachers of Dade’s response mirrored that of the Chicago Teachers Union, and its negotiating clout was much smaller, reflecting the realities of a teachers union in a red state.

The UTD’s actions were primarily on the communications front, raising the alarm about infected staff and students, and organizing a letter writing campaign for the school board to hear teachers’ safety concerns.

Schools had been open for months, but UTD wanted to delay reopening after winter break, even though 89 percent of students returned to school on January 4. The union claimed the schools were “in a public health crisis with no end in sight.”

While the UTD warned that the schools were unsafe, it also applauded itself, stating “unionized educators are playing a critical role in clarifying potentially deadly misinformation.”

Fast forward to May, when the union began negotiations with the district over the use of federal funds. Miami also has declining enrollment, so the union wants to use the new money to shore up per-pupil spending and, of course, reduce class sizes while hiring more counselors, psychologists and social workers.

I saved Los Angeles for last, not only because the United Teachers Los Angeles was the first out of the gate with a long list of post-COVID demands last July (which included defunding police and a charter moratorium, among other things). In its latest communication with members, the UTLA also addressed conditions in other large city school districts.

Los Angeles was the slowest to reopen its first schools, getting there only in April 2021. Most students still haven’t returned and won’t until the fall. The UTLA is arguably the most militant of the large teachers union locals, and its rhetoric reflects its slant, with President Cecily Myart-Cruz accusing “reactionary forces” of being responsible for the move to reopen schools.

“Union-negotiated safety protocols have kept their students and families safe,” she told members in a May 28 video update, adding that “UTLA negotiations are responsible for the lowest number of infections among the nation’s largest school districts.”

She asserted that New York City had nearly 26,000 coronavirus cases since reopening in September and Chicago had about 1,700 cases since it reopened in March. But Los Angeles, she said, had fewer than 300 cases since reopening.

The number of schools and students involved in the various reopenings are very different in each of the three cities, but Myart-Cruz did not address that.

In addition to its previous demands, the UTLA mentioned its desires regarding the estimated $2-$4 billion in one-time money heading LA’s way. Its top priority is lowering class size. “The most powerful way we can impact students is to have more caring adults on campus,” she said.

The next priority is salary increases. The union will bargain for “educator recruitment and retention measures,” and in support of that, “rallies and news conferences are in the works.”

Myart-Cruz said it was “time to fight for transformational change,” and that is a common message from many teachers unions. They see this surge in federal funding as a way to lock in their wish lists permanently.

The teachers unions’ resistance to reopening increased animosity among parents to levels rarely, if ever, seen before. These demands could bring them back to the union fold or further alienate them because of the costs. But even if the unions experience a lasting public relations hit to their reputations, they may end up more than adequately compensated in the form of new members and new revenues.

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