state of the union

New York’s teachers unions say they’re staying strong after Janus case, but there could be a battle ahead

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew (right) and state teachers union chief Andy Pallotta have projected confidence after the Supreme Court decision on Janus.

This summer, New York teachers received a startling message from their state union. In all capital letters, a Facebook post warned: “Fraud alert!”

New York State United Teachers wanted its members to look out for an email from a conservative nonprofit. The email announced that a recent Supreme Court decision now meant members had a right to stop paying into their unions.

NYSUT called the message part of “a campaign to weaken your union and weaken your voice in the workplace.”

“Delete it,” the union told its members.

In June, the Supreme Court ruled that public employees can’t be forced to pay fees to unions — a decision that labor experts say could drain membership and dues by double-digit percentages. But after sounding the alarm, teachers unions in New York are now projecting confidence that their ranks are holding steady.

There are reasons for New York labor leaders to be hopeful, with a friendly legislature on their side, the largest union membership in the country, and teachers who, surveys show, are unusually informed and committed to their unions.

But there is also the potential for trouble ahead, with well-funded conservative groups springing up to inform teachers of their new right to stop paying into union coffers. The timing of the Supreme Court decision left United Federation of Teachers members with only three days to decide whether to keep paying dues. So while things appear steady, the fight could just be gearing up.

“It is the most unionized state and city in the country,” said Stephanie Luce, a labor studies professor at CUNY’s The Graduate Center. “That makes it a bit of a battle ground.”

In the weeks since the Supreme Court decision, teachers union leaders in New York have insisted that members are sticking with them. The UFT estimates that fewer than 20 members have opted out, based on preliminary reports from the city education department. Precise numbers, however, are hard to come by. A union spokeswoman said that teachers would need to contact the city education department to stop paying dues, but a public records request that Chalkbeat sent to the city on July 17 hasn’t been answered.

Andy Pallotta, president of the state teachers union, estimates that only 40 members have dropped out, a figure that’s based on reports from local chapters and phone calls that have come directly to the state union. Still, Pallotta said the numbers they’re seeing so far are tiny, especially compared with the 9,000 members who have recently re-committed to NYSUT.  

“We spent a year and half preparing for this case, and it certainly wasn’t a sucker punch,” Pallotta said.

Before the Janus decision, public employees in New York and about 20 other states had to pay fees to unions regardless of whether they were members. Sometimes called a “fair share” fee, the payments are meant to cover the cost of bargaining contracts, which cover all employees — even those who aren’t union members.

In New York City, only about 2,000 educators opted out the United Federation of Teachers and paid the fee instead. There was little incentive not to be a member, though, since the fee was about the same as paying dues. Now, that’s no longer the case, and members who opt out could save more than $100 a month.

While teachers can drop their membership at anytime, they can only cancel dues deductions during a two-week window every June. The quick turnaround after the Janus decision, which was released on June 27, could have helped keep union numbers strong in the immediate aftermath. But other states provide a cautionary tale for what could be ahead. For example, the Michigan Education Association, among the state’s largest unions, saw a 20 percent drop in dues and fees after right-to-work laws were passed.

To keep up membership, the UFT will have to prove its worth to thousands of new hires every September — while also keeping a close eye on retaining the 100,000 educators who already carry union cards.

Every year, the country’s largest school system hires about 6,000 teachers to fill New York City classrooms. This summer, the union organized a book giveaway just for new members to stock their classroom libraries — and learn more about the UFT from members who were there to spread the word. When a crowd of new teachers filled Kings Theatre for an information session recently, the UFT was there again, handing fliers to potential new members.

“It’s not even about convincing, I think, or winning people over,” said Karen Alford, UFT’s vice president of elementary schools. “Some of these folks may not understand labor unions, so we will have people onsite to answer questions about their benefits or their pay. And all of that is an introduction to a mammoth system.”

The union is also keeping an eye on retaining its current dues-paying members.

Just days before the Supreme Court ruling, the union announced a huge win: paid parental leave for teachers who start a family. Beyond bargaining — the union’s contract is up this November — the UFT has also led a grassroots effort to get teachers talking to each other about the benefits of membership, including a door-knocking campaign that reached 11,000 homes.

April Rose, a chapter leader at her Queens elementary school, said the battle for members will be fought school-by-school and teacher-to-teacher. At P.S. 132, Rose said she and her union colleagues have made it a point to meet with every single teacher in the building.

“It’s really grassroots organizing on a different level,” Rose said. “That’s the face of the union: when you go to work on an everyday basis.”

So far, those efforts seem to be paying off. In the lead up to the Janus decision, the teacher advocacy group Educators 4 Excellence released a survey that showed New York City teachers were far more likely than their national peers to know about the case and see the value of their union. Here, 94 percent of teachers said their unions were “essential or important” to their jobs — almost 10 percentage points above the national average.  

Labor has also gotten a boost from state leaders, with recently approved legislation that allows union representatives to meet with new hires. On the same day Janus was decided, Gov. Andrew Cuomo appeared with labor leaders and hastily approved an executive order to shield public workers’ personal data from information requests — so that it’s harder for anti-union groups to track down members and lobby them to stop paying dues.

Time will tell whether all of those efforts are enough to keep the ranks of New York’s teachers unions strong. But there are also reasons for labor leaders to worry.

They are facing headwinds from outside groups, some of which had a hand bringing the Janus case to court. Just hours after the Supreme Court decision, upstate teachers opened their inboxes to find a message with the subject line, “New York Union Members Now Have a Choice in Paying Dues.”

The email shows a smiling woman standing in a classroom with her arms folded. “Whether it’s disagreements about politics, concerns about a lack of local representation, problems with union spending, or something else — you now have a right to stop paying for activities you don’t support,” it reads.  

The message was sent by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, which filed a brief in support of the public employee who served as the face for the Janus case. The conservative nonprofit has received donations from organizations linked to U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, who has made her distaste for teachers unions known.

The message links to a freshly created website for a group called New Choice NY. There, a red button with the words “opt out” in capital letters takes users to an electronic form to stop paying dues, which New Choice promises to pass along to employers.

Bob Bellafiore, a spokesman for the group, said that New Choice isn’t out to thin union ranks — only to inform members of their new rights. The group, which is backed by a conservative organization called Americans for Fair Treatment, has sent emails to about 500,000 union members, he said, and has received more than 20,000 hits on its website.

“If people decide to leave the union, it’s the union’s fault. It’s got nothing to do with New Choice New York, or anybody else,” Bellafiore said. “Our goal is to help people make an informed decision.”

If the key to keeping membership strong depends on grassroots organizing, then the work ahead could be daunting. New York City is home to almost 2,000 schools. The UFT may find that it has strength in numbers, but its size could also mean it’s unwieldy and difficult to connect with individual members.

“The scale here is going to be tough,” said Luce, the CUNY professor.

While the teachers unions have been on high alert, the battle has been quiet so far in New York City. Teachers here haven’t reported receiving the same kinds of emails as their colleagues in places like White Plains. The next window for teachers to opt-out of paying their dues is months away. But the lead-up to the Supreme Court decision gave groups like New Choice a long runway to plan an organized campaign.

“New Choice New York is in this for the long haul,” Bellafiore said. “This isn’t a drop in and out thing.”

voices of the vote

Meet Denver teachers who voted yes to a strike, no to a strike — and just aren’t sure

PHOTO: PHOTO: Andy Cross/The Denver Post
Skinner Middle School math teacher Peter English walks out of the Riverside Baptist Church with his son, Landon, left, and daughter Brooke strapped to his chest after voting on whether to go on strike ()

Throughout the day, the parking lot of Riverside Baptist Church filled up as Denver teachers made their way into a meeting organized by their union, the Denver Classroom Teachers Association.  

Months of negotiations that failed to produce a deal between top leaders of Denver Public Schools and the union had given way to individual teachers facing a choice: To strike or not?

Along with reporting the news of the day — which you can read about here — Chalkbeat spent time visiting with teachers to get a sense of what was shaping their decision-making.

Most teachers we spoke with, both in depth and in passing, said they voted “yes” to strike. Union officials have said two-thirds of those who vote Saturday and in a second session Tuesday must sign off on a strike for it to proceed, and the prevailing wisdom among teachers we interviewed was that support is strong.

The decision, though, is far from black and white for many teachers, regardless of where they ultimately land.

Here are the stories of three teachers, all at different places:

Krista Skuce, Slavens K-8 school: Yes to strike

At the urging of teachers and parents, Slavens K-8 students turned out early on a few recent mornings to show support for their teachers. They wore red in solidarity and posed for pictures.

They also brought questions. “Why are you doing this?” was one.

Krista Skuce, a physical education teacher and 14-year Denver Public Schools employee, would tell students that she lives 40 minutes from the school because she can’t afford to live in Denver.

Krista Skuce

But there is more to her story. Her spouse, she said, is no longer able to work, beset by medical issues, unable to draw disability benefits, and in need of costly care including massage therapy, chiropractic appointments, neuromuscular therapies, and more.  

At the same time, Skuce said her pay “doesn’t seem to be going anywhere.” So she hustles, earning extra pay by driving across town to coach softball and basketball.

Skuce, like many teachers who stopped to talk about their votes on Saturday, believes the district can do more to boost teachers’ base pay — before bonuses and incentives.  

She said her salary has only increased $4,000 or $5,000 in the past 14 years, even though she has been teaching 27 years, has a master’s degree, and is National Board Certified.

Skuce said she knows that by voting to strike, she could very well end up taking money out of her own bank account. Striking teachers don’t get paychecks.

“I am hoping the district and the DCTA do the right thing and recognize the fact that there are some people here who are on the edge,” she said. “We are on the edge emotionally, financially. We know these are good people. And I think teachers are people who wake up every morning with forgiveness.

“You have to take a stand and say what you are for at some point in time in your life — and this is it,” she said. “I’m willing to do it, scary or not.”  

Jason Clymer, John F. Kennedy High School: No to strike

An English teacher at John F. Kennedy High School, Jason Clymer stands with his fellow union members in the belief teachers aren’t paid enough. He finds fault with what is asked of teachers through LEAP, the district’s growth and performance system for teachers.

“Teachers at my school feel extremely micromanaged and can’t catch a breath,” he said.  

But in the end, after being one of the first teachers in the door Saturday and attending an information session, Clymer said he voted against the strike.

“Going on strike is very hard,” said Clymer, whose wife works in human resources for the district’s central office. “And I think the agreement DPS came to was close enough.”

Clymer questioned focusing energy on what is under negotiation now: ProComp, the pay system that provides teachers one-time bonuses for things like teaching in a high-poverty school, getting strong evaluations, having students who earn high test scores, or teaching in a high-performing school.

He said he’d like to save some political leverage to focus on other issues covered by the district’s main contract with the union.

“It’s really unfortunate these things can’t all be negotiated together,” he said. “If the district came out and said, ‘We want to give you more money, not as much as you like, but we want to devote more to things like mental health services,’ I really think that would be a winning argument.”

In opposing a strike, Clymer said that he did not want to divide his fellow teachers

“Although I voted no, I believe in the union,” he said. “And if the union voted to strike, I will absolutely support the union.”

Paula Zendle, Denver Green School: Undecided about strike

Paula Zendle is dreading the moment that is appearing increasingly likely: standing before her students at the Denver Green School and explaining why she won’t be there to teach them.

“I tell them constantly, ‘Don’t miss school, don’t miss school. Don’t be absent, don’t be absent, don’t be absent,’” said Zendle, her eyes welling up with tears as she waited on a friend. “I have been fighting to avoid a strike. I hate this. It’s utterly and totally agonizing to me.”

Paula Zendle

Zendle said she left a career in the corporate world for the classroom and has been teaching eight years. She teaches English language acquisition and Spanish at the Green School, a popular and highly-rated middle school option in a district that celebrates choice.

 Zendle said she has done her research and written to the district’s chief financial officer. What bothers her is a system she believes rewards younger teachers and underpays teachers in terms of the cost of living.  

The average Denver teacher currently earns about $51,000 in base pay and $57,000 with incentives, according to data from the state education department and the district. That’s less than teachers in districts like Boulder Valley, Cherry Creek, and Littleton.

District officials have agreed to put $20 million more into teacher compensation and defended their most recent offer on Saturday as “compelling.”

For Zendle, the prospect of facing her students — and that she works in a supportive school environment — is contributing to her struggle in deciding whether to vote “yes” to strike.

So if the moment does come, what will she tell her students?

“We have the right to protest unfair taxpayer spending,” she said. “This is not only unfair, it’s unconscionable. Their priorities have been wrong for 10 years.”

Then she paused and made clear that her decision had not been made. She considers herself a person of principle, and that will guide her in making a decision.

lesson plan

Denver hopes to keep its schools open in a strike — and the union wants you to send your kids

PHOTO: Kathryn Scott Osler/The Denver Post
Students eat lunch in the cafeteria at Dora Moore K-8 School in Denver.

Superintendent Susana Cordova says she is committed to keeping Denver schools open and continuing to educate students in the event of a strike.

In Los Angeles, where a teacher strike is entering its second week, many students are watching movies and playing games. Cordova said she plans to do more for the 71,000 students in district-run schools if teachers vote to strike and state intervention does not lead to a deal. The 21,000 students who attend charter schools will not be affected.

“We want to assure parents school will stay open,” she said. “We know it is critically important that we focus on the education of our kids. Sixty percent of our kids qualify for free and reduced-price lunch. We know they depend on school not just for their meals but for their access to opportunity.”

Negotiations broke down Friday between the district and the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, the union that represents teachers and special service providers such as nurses, school psychologists, and counselors. A strike vote is taking place in two sessions, one Saturday and another Tuesday. The earliest a strike could start is Jan. 28.

This would be the first strike in 25 years in the state’s largest school district. In 1994, the district used more than 1,000 substitutes to keep schools open, though many parents kept their children at home, something union leaders encouraged.

It’s not clear yet how high teacher participation in a strike would be. During the final week of bargaining, some teachers reported near universal support in their buildings, while others said some of their colleagues were uncertain. Some teachers have said they disagree with the union position in the negotiations and won’t participate as a matter of principle.

Teachers who strike do not get paid while they are not at work.

Cordova said the district is “in the process of building out our sub pool” and offering higher pay to those willing to work during a strike. But she declined to say how many substitutes the district could call on, and some teachers say they already have a hard time finding subs for routine absences.

Substitutes who work during a strike will earn $200 a day, double the normal rate, and “super subs” who work more than a certain number of days a year will get $250.

Many central office staff who have past teaching experience will be sent to schools to work with students. Cordova said the district is working on pre-packaged lesson plans for every grade and subject area so that learning can still take place, and officials will prioritize placing qualified staff members with special education and preschool students, those she deemed most vulnerable.

Students who get free or reduced-price lunch will still be able to eat in school cafeterias.

For its part, the union is encouraging parents to send their children to school, but with a different purpose.

“One major goal of a strike is for school buildings to be shut down as a demonstration of the essential labor performed by educators,” the union wrote in an FAQ document. “To this end, we encourage parents to send their students to school if their school building remains open. Student safety is paramount for all district schools, therefore the district will be obliged to close schools if safety becomes an issue due to limited staffing.”

Union officials said they were working to establish alternative daytime care with community partners like churches and Boys and Girls Clubs should schools close.