New York Pre-K Workers Fight for Their Jobs, In Spite of Their Union
Just days before school started last fall, 400 early childhood education workers in New York City were told they were being “excessed,” leaving their students in limbo.
The workers sprang into action, and in January they won a short-term reinstatement. But they’re still fighting for long-term job stability as the administration of Mayor Eric Adams slowly dismantles his predecessor Bill De Blasio’s signature program, universal pre-kindergarten.
And not only are they fighting the city—they’ve also had to fight their union, the United Federation of Teachers.
With 180,000 members, the UFT is the largest teachers union in the country and a powerful force in city politics. But members can tell you the union is a slumbering giant where activism is suppressed.
The workers on the chopping block were instructional coordinators, who support teachers with developmentally appropriate curriculum, and social workers, who assist students with specific behavior needs and collaborate with families. Many of these workers support 10 or more school sites.
The city tried to cut all instructional coordinators and social workers across public, charter, and private schools that receive public funding, all without offering any support to replace them.
Excessing is an on-ramp to firing—workers lose their positions, forcing them to apply to other positions, wait in the reserve system to be assigned each day to any site, or leave the school system altogether.
Frustrated with unanswered pleas to the union and the city, the excessed workers started organizing themselves. They found support from a rank-and-file caucus, the Movement of Rank-and-File Educators (MORE).
They met by the hundreds each day at noon on Zoom, trying to figure out how to stop the slow-walk firings.
The workers decided on a multi-pronged approach. They reached out to allies—500 early childhood site directors, principals, educators, and community members signed on to a letter of support detailing how critical their work is. They held multiple town halls explaining the situation to the public. They rallied.
After a rally, the Department of Education sent them an email telling them to return to their sites “until further notice”—so they were back on the job, but it was impossible to do long-term planning, since they never knew if they’d still have their jobs the next day.
The workers continued to reach out to their union, the UFT, which refused to meet with them. They blasted elected officials with emails and phone calls to inform them of this crisis. And they teamed up with leaders of early childhood sites that had not been paid since the Adams administration came to power in January 2022.
Claiming it had inherited a messy system, the administration had left sites waiting months for payments owed. Many site leaders had to take out personal loans to continue their work.
These actions are the city’s way of defunding and dismantling early childhood education for New York—making it impossible for sites to function, so that many have shuttered or are close to insolvency. Meanwhile the city is bolstering the police budget by $5.5 billion while cutting library and K-12 school budgets significantly.
Reacting to the organizing, the city council called a hearing that put Early Childhood Education Deputy Chancellor Dr. Kara Ahmed and her team under fire. Workers, site directors, and members of the MORE caucus gave powerful testimony. The next day Dr. Ahmed’s top financial person left the department.
That same month, instructional coordinators and social workers wrote an open letter to the UFT and the American Federation of Teachers, the national teachers union, about their union’s complete failure to support them. AFT President Randi Weingarten responded in a private email. It was only after this pressure that the UFT finally hopped on board.
TEPID UNION SUPPORT
The workers were planning to hold a rally in November, inviting media and elected officials. The UFT offered to have President Michael Mulgrew speak—and the workers said yes, because where Mulgrew goes, the media goes.
Instructional coordinators and social workers had been asking the UFT to conduct a union-wide vote of no confidence in Dr. Ahmed, and the union obliged. The workers put in long hours drafting the language of the vote with the UFT, and it went out to the entire union.
Workers got speakers together and prepared them, though they continued to face tension with the union over who would control the rally. Mulgrew ended up not showing, but other UFT leaders were present, and overall workers felt the rally was impactful because of the turnout and media coverage.
In January, the workers scored a big win: they got notice that their positions would be secured for the rest of the 2022-2023 school year. Also, the Department of Education would have “Learning Walks” where Dr. Ahmed and other leaders would tour school sites with early childhood workers and learn about their work. These felt like concrete next steps to long-term stability.
The workers wanted to debrief with DOE leadership after the Learning Walks, but the UFT restricted the meeting to union leaders only. “DOE officials are now telling us how much they also value you,” they assured members in a letter afterwards.
The result of the vote of no confidence was also never publicized. After many asks, the UFT blamed members, saying not enough people had voted—and refused to release the numbers to anyone.
NEW YEAR, SAME LIMBO
Now schools are beginning to plan for next year; instructional coordinators and social workers have no clue what to expect.
In another open letter sent to UFT leaders this week, signed by 89, they are demanding to be at the negotiating table for their jobs—or at least to know what the union is doing on their behalf. Workers went to union headquarters on April 3 for an executive board meeting to present their demands. The UFT claimed it has a meeting scheduled with the DOE after spring break, but refused to allow workers into that meeting.
Their own union is keeping these workers at arm’s length from decisions that affect them most. “It’s one thing to fight your boss—it’s another to fight your union,” one said. The energy that should be going to supporting school sites is instead spent doing the work that union leaders are already paid to do.
Though it’s been exhausting, their organizing has led to unprecedented events. Never before has a bloc of workers excessed en masse stayed in their positions this long. UFT leaders often claim that new management can manage how they want—but workers are saying they will decide what their fates are. They know their work is essential, they know they have community support, and they’re ready to keep fighting.
Noelle Mapes is a member of the MORE caucus and urban education student at The Graduate Center, City University of New York.