Today in women’s and labor history: Teachers unite in NYC

The United Federation of Teachers (UFT) was formed to represent New York City public school teachers on March 16, 1960.

The UFT is the labor union that represents most teachers in New York City public schools, and is one of the largest unions in the city, with well over 200,000 working teachers, and many thousands more paraprofessional educators and retired members. In October 2007, 28,280 home daycare providers voted to join the union. A majority of its members are women. It is affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers, the AFL-CIO and the Central Labor Council. It is also the largest member of New York State United Teachers, which is affiliated with the National Educational Association and Education International.

Two previous unions of New York school teachers, the Teachers Union, founded in 1916, and the Teachers Guild, formed in 1935, failed to gather widespread enrollment or support. Many of the early leaders were pacifists and socialists who frequently clashed against more right-leaning and red-baiting newspapers and governmental entities of the time. The ethnically and ideologically diverse teachers associations of the city made the creation of a single organized body difficult since each association continued vying for their own priorities irrespective of the others.

The UFT was founded in 1960, largely in response to unfairness in the educational system’s treatment of teachers. Pensions were awarded only to retired teachers over 65 or with 35 years of service. Female teachers faced two years of mandatory unpaid maternity leave after giving birth. Principals could discipline or fire teachers with almost no oversight. The schools, experiencing a massive influx of Baby Boomer students, often were on double or triple session. Despite being college-educated professionals, often holding advanced master’s degrees, teachers drew a salary of only $66 per week.

By 1960 the McCarthy Era expulsion of Communist teachers was coming to an end. And by that time, the heavily Jewish composition of the teaching faculty in New York City schools was beginning to level off with new union members of color who were graduating with teaching degrees. Also, the old thinking was breaking down that as “professionals,” teachers were not suited to unions in the same way as blue collar workers.

Because of its intimate familiarity with conditions in neighborhoods all across the city, the teacher corps was in a position to recognize many social problems at the ground level. Teachers were naturally concerned with pensions, salaries, promotions, and timely raises, as would any union. But the UFT also threw itself into the civil rights struggle, class size – a critical factor in the attention teachers are able to give individual students – and the recent philosophy of “teaching to the test” which diminishes students’ critical thinking abilities.

Teachers have worked with parents of “special needs” students who advocated mainstreaming of children in the public school system, and have asked for increased budgets for specialized training and equipment, as well as teachers’ aides. The teaching profession has generally opposed the corporate-dominated movement to privatize education and splinter the union, and the community, through charter schools, which are notorious for hiring non-union faculty.

The UFT, like other teachers unions around the country, remains a reliable bulwark in the movement to preserve high quality public education as a right to which all who live in America are entitled.

Photo: Wikipedia (CC)


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