Why was UFT left behind on parental leave?

February 22, 2016

Emily Giles, a New York City teacher and member of the Movement of Rank and File Educators in the teachers' union, reports on a campaign brewing among the base.

ON DECEMBER 22, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio granted paid parental leave to approximately 20,000 non-unionized city workers. The mayor's executive order covers six weeks of paid leave at 100 percent salary for parents who have or adopt a child or take one into foster care.

This left members of the United Federation of Teachers (UFT)--the majority of whom are women--wondering why they don't have the same.

De Blasio's six weeks of paid leave for new parents is a step forward, though it is still paltry and illustrates the dismal state of what's on offer for working-class people in the U.S. But even this qualified victory did not cover the vast number of unionized city workers—transit, teachers, maintenance, postal workers and more.

The mayor made clear that the city is ready to re-open contracts and negotiate paid leave for unionized workers, leaving the ball in the court of unions.

In the case of the UFT, what the union leadership has done since exemplifies its approach to unionism. Rather than take advantage of a clear opening, organize the union’s base and push for parental leave for all UFT members, UFT leaders have taken a wait-and-see approach, cautioning members that any new benefits would inevitably mean concessions.

Members of a New York City teachers' union rank-and-file caucus rally against testing
Members of a New York City teachers' union rank-and-file caucus rally against testing (Movement of Rank and File Educators)

Activists on the ground have a different strategy. Rosie Frascella, a UFT member and soon-to-be parent, started a Change.org petition calling for the same rights granted to non-unionized workers to be extended to unionized workers. And, says the petition, parental rights should be granted with no givebacks and no concessions.

THE CALL for parental leave immediately resonated with UFT members because the current benefit, if it can even be called that, is so deplorable. Within two weeks, the petition had almost 2,000 signatures.

UFT members do not have paid maternity leave—they have the right to take their own sick days. Birth mothers can take six to eight weeks of post-partum leave depending on whether the birth is vaginal or by cesarean section. Those weeks of leave are only paid, though, if the mother has enough stored sick days. If she doesn't, she has to borrow from upcoming years.

Borrowing days means that new mothers often return to work in the negative for sick time. For most union members, it takes years to accrue 30 or more saved sick days. UFT members in their first years of work are certain to need to borrow time against the future or take time off unpaid. And the many pregnant women who require time off before the birth of their child have to dip into their paid sick days before time with their baby even begins.

The UFT considers pregnancy, birth and post-partum recovery and bonding time as a sickness or medical emergency. This "benefit" of being allowed to take one's own sick days is extended only to birth mothers—fathers, partners, adoptive and foster parents are not included.

To add insult to injury, and despite a requirement in the Affordable Care Act for employers to cover breast pumps for new mothers, UFT members' insurance coverage does not include breast pumps or lactation consultation. Not only are new mothers sent back to work after only six weeks of bonding time with their newborns, they are not granted the simple benefit of a breast pump.

In a workforce that is overwhelmingly female and dedicated to caring for children by definition, these maternity "rights" are shameful and don't deserve the name.

The U.S. is one of only four nations in the world that fails to guarantee the right to paid maternity leave.

Private-sector companies like Google, Netflix and even New York's infamous Goldman Sachs bank have caught on and now offer employees parental leave almost on par with countries like Sweden. But sadly, the lack of parental rights for the vast majority of public-sector workers nationwide means that workers who need the benefit the most don't have it. New parents are put in a position of choosing between paying for basic life costs and taking time off to build essential bonds with their child.

New York City does have a recent example of a public-sector union that won parental rights. The Professional Staff Congress (PSC) represents professors, adjuncts, lecturers and other staff at CUNY schools. Under leadership of the New Caucus, the PSC won eight weeks of paid parental leave for all full-time instructional staff in their 2007 contract.

LIKE THOSE in the PSC, activists in the UFT see parental leave as a right that should be fought for. Frascella's online petition was the first step in what has become an organizing campaign for the Movement of Rank and File Educators (MORE), a caucus within the UFT. MORE sees the campaign as an opportunity to organize the rank and file, and build a fight for parental rights with no concessions or givebacks.

This is in contrast to UFT President Michael Mulgrew's approach to negotiation, summed up in his statement, "We have been trying for years to interest various city administrations in expanding parental leave, and finally we have a willing partner on an issue that is very important to us. We look forward to negotiating with the administration for an appropriate way to extend and expand parental benefits for our members."

The quote makes clear that Mulgrew bases the power of the union on the status of his partnership with de Blasio's administration, rather than on the ability to mobilize the rank and file. The priority of the union leadership, then, is to maintain that relationship at all costs, even when it means jeopardizing the interests of the membership.

While it is certainly true that the UFT leadership has tried for years to interest the city in expanding parental benefits, it hasn’t lifted a finger to actually organize a fight for those benefits. In fact, in recent member updates, Mulgrew has done the opposite--strategically lowering member expectations by laying out the number of givebacks that city workers accepted in exchange for their parental leave.

The UFT may have dodged a bullet with the recent death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, which likely headed off a conservative decision in the Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association case that would have stripped public-sector unions of their legal ability to charge representation for non-members. In the long run, however, the service approach to unionism and backroom negotiation strategies will harm the UFT the most.

This strategy of bureaucratic unionism laid the groundwork for the Friedrichs case. Friedrichs is a threat only because an anti-labor ruling would lead to massive numbers of New York City teachers choosing not to pay dues to the UFT--the result of decades of a union model that has taught members that all the union does is provide services and negotiate contracts, and it doesn't do that very well.

The fact that a union that is majority female doesn't even have a semblance of maternity leave rights only serves to illustrate why the membership may not see the value of their union dues.

To stand a fighting chance, the UFT must rebuild its base and our power, one campaign at a time. The fight for paid parental leave represents the type of social justice demand that can do just that—helping to organize the rank and file around a right that affects our membership and the membership of all public-sector unions and our communities.

The hope of real change lies not with the UFT leadership, but with the ability of the rank and file to organize and push for change from the bottom up.

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