NY, Chicago, LA: Power Plays by the Nation’s 3 Largest Teachers Union Locals

UFT, UTLA and CTU are working to increase union influence in their cities, whether through negotiations, strikes and rallies or electoral politics

Side by side photos of Michael Mulgrew, Brandon Johnson and Paul Vallas
Michael Mulgrew, Brandon Johnson and Paul Vallas (Getty Images)

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There is rarely a lull in the activities of big-city teachers unions, but this week the three largest are simultaneously working to improve their standing with city and district administrators. The issues and tactics are different, but the goal is the same: to increase union influence over local government.

The leadership of the United Federation of Teachers in New York City engineered a major shift in retiree health insurance by voting to move its members from traditional Medicare into Medicare Advantage, a parallel system in which private insurers provide coverage.

The Municipal Labor Committee, the umbrella group representing the city’s 102 public-sector unions, approved the change for all retirees in a weighted vote, with UFT’s concurrence crucial to the result. However, 25 unions voted no, 10 abstained and 14 didn’t vote. Opponents have vowed to go to court to block the move.

The city’s unions were bound by a 2018 agreement to find health insurance savings, and so drastic action was required. Some retirees oppose the change because they believe Medicare Advantage is a form of privatization. Others simply feel traditional Medicare provides superior coverage. However, it seems unlikely that the teachers union will effectively go to war with its own retired members without hope of some substantive gain from the city.

This gain will probably not come in the form of large salary increases. The teachers’ contract expired in September, but wage expectations are limited by New York City’s system of pattern bargaining, meaning that one union’s contract establishes a pattern the rest must follow. This year, District Council 37 approved a five-year contract with a total of 15.25% in raises. This means UFT will be hard-pressed to achieve much more than 3% per year.

So in what way will the teachers union improve its lot? UFT President Michael Mulgrew is playing things close to the vest but suggested in an interview that increased funding for teacher recruiting and retention will be a major focus of negotiations. This would make sense under the circumstances. If you can’t get much higher pay for your members, you might as well try to get more members.

Whether this will mollify angry retirees is an open question, but despite organized internal opposition, Mulgrew’s slate has a stranglehold on power within the union, and that’s unlikely to change in the foreseeable future.

On the other coast, United Teachers Los Angeles emerged from a period of relative inactivity to help organize a massive demonstration March 15. Both UTLA and SEIU Local 99, the union representing school support employees, are in the midst of contract negotiations.

SEIU is demanding a 30% raise across the board, while UTLA is calling for 20% over two years. The Los Angeles Times reports the two unions are planning a joint three-day strike later this month.

The teachers union has a long list of demands, which includes class size reduction across all grades and school types, more staff of all types and a freeze on school closures (despite collapsing student enrollment), elimination or dramatic reduction of standardized tests not required by the state or federal governments, systematic inclusion of social-emotional learning in all curricula and stronger limits on and regulations of charter schools.

The union’s demands come in the context of the district holding more than $3 billion in unrestricted surplus funds. However, that money is short-lived, as federal support will end in 2024. The union has a solution for that: It wants the district to “publicly call for and take action to support federal COVID relief monies becoming permanent as of 2024.”

Superintendent Alberto Carvalho dealt with a union in his previous position in Miami, but he has never faced anything like this. Will he take a hard line or assuage the union with imaginary money from the federal government?

Meanwhile, in Chicago, a proxy war over the mayor’s office is underway between the city teachers union and progressives on the one hand, and business interests and mainstream Democrats on the other.

Former Chicago Public Schools CEO Paul Vallas and teachers union organizer Brandon Johnson took to the debate stage last week in their mayoral runoff. According to the Chicago Tribune, Johnson accused Vallas of “wanting to raise property taxes, enacting policies in the 1990s that caused lasting harm to the city and school district’s financial position, and working with Republicans to damage the pension system. Johnson also said Vallas doesn’t want to teach Black history and claimed he does not support women’s abortion rights.”

Vallas, who is ahead in the polls, opted not to respond in kind, saying he left a surplus during his time leading the district and supported reproductive choice, though he was personally opposed to abortion.

Johnson also downplayed his ties to the teachers union. “I have a fiduciary responsibility to the people of the city of Chicago, and once I’m mayor of the city of Chicago, I will no longer be a member of the Chicago Teachers Union,” he said.

Johnson relies highly on union support, having secured the endorsements of SEIU Healthcare and AFSCME Council 31. But Vallas has labor allies as well, with the backing of the Fraternal Order of Police and the plumbers union.

Putting one of its own in the mayor’s chair would be a coup for the Chicago Teachers Union, and perhaps a turning point for its fortunes. A Vallas victory would extend the reign of teachers union adversaries that began with Mayor Richard Daley in 1989.

These three teachers unions are using three different methods to achieve their aims: inside influence in New York City; strikes and rallies in Los Angeles; and electoral politics in Chicago. Which, if any, will succeed remains to be seen, but the results will determine the direction of public education in those cities for the immediate future.

Mike Antonucci’s Union Report appears most Wednesdays; see the full archive.

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