From Contract Rejection to Union Office: School Therapists Keep Up Push for Fair Deal
A group of New York City educators who bucked the union’s ruling caucus to vote down their contract three years ago has now won elected office.
This puts them in the leadership of their small chapter within the United Federation of Teachers—and gives them seats on the union’s bargaining team for 2022.
The seeds of their campaign were sown in 2018, when for the first time in over 20 years, a UFT contract was voted down.
It wasn’t the contract covering the city’s 80,000 teachers, which passed with 86 percent of the vote, or the contract covering 20,000 paraprofessionals, which got 90 percent. But the 2,700 occupational and physical therapists (OTs and PTs) voted theirs down nearly 2 to 1.
This “no” vote was a surprise. The OT/PT chapter leader had urged a yes vote, insisting that a rejection would have “devastating ramifications”; he had the backing of the UFT’s incumbent Unity Caucus.
The contract also covers 600 nurses and a smaller number of nurse and therapist supervisors who are in the same bargaining unit. Among nurses, 95 percent voted to ratify. But they were far outnumbered by the 65 percent of therapists who chose to reject it.
What drove the therapists’ “no” vote was longstanding anger at a pay disparity. Despite being some of the most highly credentialed workers in the Department of Education—their job requires a master’s degree—OTs and PTs worked under a salary scale that maxed out thousands of dollars lower than comparable workers like speech therapists, and at around 60 percent of the top teacher salary. It also fell short of what therapists were paid in other major school systems.
Therapists also faced excessive paperwork and often inadequate workspaces; some reported they were forced to make do with closets or hallways. All this despite working directly with students the city’s Department of Education purports to care about most: those with disabilities.
THERAPISTS FOR A FAIR CONTRACT
After the first no vote—which happened more or less spontaneously—a group of therapists formed OTs and PTs for a Fair Contract. They advocated holding out for a contract that included, above all, pay parity with teachers. Starting from a core of a handful of members, they built an email list of 500 working therapists.
Recruiting members to the listserv was a challenge, because therapists are spread thin across work sites. Many school buildings only have one therapist, and even then, they may only work at that site two or three days per week. So they focused on recruiting where they could reach the members: at union meetings.
“We made sure that several of our members were at each OT/PT chapter meeting that was held, often wearing our red OTs & PTs for a Fair Contract shirts,” said Chris Griffin, one of the core organizers. Therapists attended meetings in each of the five boroughs, and made presentations at the union meetings at their schools, to educate their non-therapist co-workers on the fight. “Most were shocked to hear of the discrepancies,” said Griffin.
The group also organized delegations of a couple dozen therapists and other UFT members to New York City’s Panel for Educational Policy meetings, delivering testimonials directly to the chancellor and the public. They also organized a rally outside of UFT headquarters during a monthly delegate assembly meeting, educating the rest of the membership on the therapists’ fight.
WEAR RED FOR US?
One effective tactic was pushing for a Red for Ed day to be called by the union leadership in support of the therapists’ fight for a better contract.
As the K-12 strike wave rolled on across the country in the spring of 2018, the UFT had held solidarity days with educators striking across the country. When the union called for a Red for Ed day of action in solidarity with the Los Angeles teachers strike in January 2019, asking educators to wear red and take group photos in their schools, OTs and PTs supported it, but sensed some hypocrisy: the union was willing to show support for teachers thousands of miles away, but wasn’t willing to fight for therapists here at home.
Calling out the leadership’s failure to stand with the therapists gave the group some confidence, and eventually the UFT executive board passed a resolution to “stand in solidarity” with the therapists and put out the call to wear red to support them, giving the group a boost.
DECIDING TO RUN
After months of telling therapists that the bargaining team couldn’t do any better, the UFT made good on that promise. In late January 2019, the union announced a ratification vote on a new contract. It didn’t include any of the therapists’ top issues, from pay parity, to substantive action on workspace access or paperwork overload, to better pensions (by switching from the Board of Education to the Teachers Retirement System). The one substantive change it did include was the addition of a Family Medical Leave Act-like benefit. Therapists had lost FMLA benefits a few years earlier.
The vote would be held just two days later, and members would have to vote in-person at one of the union’s five borough offices. The high in New York City the day of the vote was a mere 16 degrees.
For a group of 2,700 therapists scattered across 1,600 worksites, one might expect low turnout. But more than 2,100 cast a ballot. The contract was ratified by less than 100 votes. Some wanted the raise that would come with ratification and didn’t think they could get any better—a message echoed in emails from both the nurses’ and OT/PT chapter leaders. According to occupational therapist Melissa Williams, who works at P.S. 4 in Washington Heights, “People were afraid of not having a secure contract. [UFT leadership was saying,] ‘If you don’t ratify, the city could just refuse to bargain with you and you wouldn’t get a raise.’”
The focus of OTs & PTs for a Fair Contract turned to winning something better in 2022 contract negotiations—and building their strength in the meantime.
This spring, chapter leadership terms were up. The OT/PT chapter elects eight leaders who represent the membership at delegate assemblies, and, more importantly, sit on the contract negotiating committee. The UFT is opaque about its bargaining process, with many decisions handled behind closed doors, even out of the view of the nominal 400-member bargaining committee, but these seats give the therapists a better position from which to agitate for transparency and member input.
OTs & PTs for a Fair Contract members weren’t sure whether to run for these positions or not. On the one hand, it seemed strategic to be directly involved in negotiating the next contract. On the other hand, there were no clear roles and responsibilities or rights for chapter leaders, and winning seats without the power to actually bargain the contract or activate the membership wasn’t the point.
With a small core of lead organizers, all working long hours as K-12 therapists, did they really want to take on the administrative burden of chapter leadership? Would holding formal but poorly-defined positions be more effective than continuing as a pressure group?
The core group of organizers decided they wouldn’t make the decision alone. They called a meeting attended by 60 therapists and weighed the pros and cons. “I think the consensus after that meeting was that we wouldn’t run and we would focus on our grassroots pressure from the outside,” said Williams, who is now Chapter Leader. “But by late April, with the deadline for nomination looming, it was the upcoming contract negotiations that pushed us into running.”
As new Chapter Secretary Rachel Feinsilver put it, “Our next contract is coming up in 2022. It felt like if we didn’t do this now, when would we do it?”
CAMPAIGN ABOUT THE CONTRACT
When they officially filed—on the last possible date, to avoid early campaigning from the incumbents—it kicked off a two-month campaign season.
True to its name, OTs & PTs for a Fair Contract made its campaign about the contract. Since the 2019 settlement had been such a disappointment, the group re-circulated the contract videos and materials it had made in that campaign, with a new title: “We came to finish what we started.”
The slate also asked the UFT to hold a candidates’ forum, which the union refused to do. So the slate held its own forum, reaching out to therapists and hosting a virtual meeting to present the candidates’ vision for the chapter.
The Unity Caucus, which has run the union nearly unchallenged since its founding in the 1960s, opposed the OTs & PTs for a Fair Contract group, flyering and whipping votes against them and sending its own activists to attend their organizing meetings.
But when the votes came in, the challengers had won seven of eight positions.
Pay parity remains the flagship issue. But there’s also a sense that transparency and democracy in the union chapter are inseparable from delivering contract gains—so organizers are keeping the OTs & PTs for a Fair Contract group together. They’ve got their eyes on the 2022 contract, which expires next September.