Teaching Profession Opinion

Lessons From New York City Teachers’ Paid Parental Leave Win

By John T. McCrann — July 11, 2018 5 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Last month, the United Federation of Teachers struck an agreement with the City of New York to provide parents with paid time to bond with new children who come into their families.

For the first time in history, in a union that is 77 percent women, teachers won recognition that the work we do to care for our own children—in addition to the work we do to care for the children of others—is valuable. In a moment when some seek to tear parents and children apart, we took a stand to keep them together.

I teach math at a public high school in the Manhattan borough of New York City. Four years ago, during my first months as the leader of our school’s UFT chapter, one of our teachers explained the sad state of parental leave to me when she returned from giving birth to her daughter.

She was out of sick days and struggling to make ends meet after having taken six weeks of unpaid leave. I began to work with a group of our members to change the situation. This year, I was fortunate enough to join a task force of teachers, lawyers, and negotiators who were able to shepherd in the agreement.

At the final meeting of our task force, UFT Director of Personnel Michael Sill pulled out a copy of the policy that has governed maternity leave for the city since 1973: “This is what we are about to change,” he told us.

For 45 years, that document had governed a policy that seemed unchanging, like a flat, straight line. While an improvement on the situation from the early 1970s and before—when women could be fired for becoming pregnant—the agreement resulted in a lot of pain for children and families. Birth mothers came to school sick so they could save enough days to cobble together a few weeks to spend with a new infant. Others borrowed days, which took years to pay back. Non-birth parents could use their three “personal days,” with administrative approval, or go on unpaid leave.

The situation got me thinking about a line written by Theodore Parker, a 19th century Unitarian minister, and quoted by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and former President Obama:

“The arc of the moral universe, although long, is bending toward justice.”

Change Requires Collective Action

I thought of this line early a few days ago as I was listening to a student at our school present a math problem she had solved.

“The graph looks like a linear line,” she said about the function she was studying (shown in this graphic created by a co-panelist at the presentation, Nate Dilworth), “but I know it can’t be linear because it has a quadratic equation.”

The student was right and she was able to prove it. (Click the zoom out "-" on the link to see for yourself.) It was a nice reminder that a long arc can look a lot like a straight “linear line” if you are looking at only a small part of it.

When New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced the paid parental leave agreement on June 20, the arc of a long curve was revealed.

Thousands of parents and children suffered under the old system, thousands had complained and worked against it. With the flash of a pen and some triumphant speeches, our city became a more just place for teachers and their children.

I have an appreciation for Parker’s characterization of the length and direction of the moral arc of the universe, but I disagree with part of his famous quote. In this case, and in the case of every fight for justice that I’ve studied, the moral arc is not passively bending. It is bent through organized action.

It is bent by courageous acts of individuals. Emily James, a teacher whose frustration with her own situation spurred her to start a petition to reform maternity leave, was the bending catalyst in our fight. But, more importantly, it is bent when groups of people join together in collective action. For paid parental leave for New York City teachers, the arc was bent by rank and file union members who wrote letters, advocated on social media, held paid parental leave “baby showers” to raise awareness about the issues, and told their stories from the halls of their schools all the way to city hall.

Continuing the Fight in a Post-Janus Landscape

Our union used its power and resources to mobilize members, analyze cost models, and craft language that would become the agreement. This is the work of collective bargaining. It is the work that bends the arc. It is neither easy nor inexpensive, but it pays huge dividends. Sadly, a few days after this victory, public sector unions’ ability to engage in this kind of collective action got a little bit more difficult.

The Supreme Court ruled, in Janus vs. AFSCME, that it is unconstitutional to require workers represented by unions in collective bargaining to pay the cost of that bargaining. Like a restaurant diner who eats a family-style meal with his friends but decides not to chip in for the bill, employees can now get the benefits of their collectively bargained contract without contributing to pay its cost.

The Janus plaintiffs and their billionaire backers hope to hamstring our unions’ ability to influence policy through collective action. Our students, our colleagues, and our communities need us to resist.

How should unions respond to this shifting dynamic? We should pay attention to history’s arc-benders.

1. Respond to community-based concerns. Our paid parental leave task force was in direct response to the stories like the one my chapter member shared with me about her difficulties coming back from maternity leave. The key victories in the civil rights movement, like the Montgomery Bus Boycott, started as complaints from the people who suffered the daily indignities. They addressed grass roots concerns, not a political scorecard.

2. Align with a social justice cause that builds solidarity among groups that aren’t directly impacted. We cannot allow the labor movement to be portrayed as self-serving rather than serving society. paid parental leave will certainly impact the lives of members who become parents, but the more important benefit is to those children who come into their lives. In our campaign for paid parental leave we relied on solidarity from all people who understand that young people who are nourished and cared for will do a better job nourishing and caring for our city. We see similar moves to frame an issue to appeal beyond the minority groups directly impacted in the fight for marriage equality and dreamers.

3. Organize in actions that impact and influence structural power. The paid parental leave fight took a turn when it moved from the silos of complaints by aggrieved teachers into the public square. City council members sprang into action when thousands of union members started emailing them. The mayor had to respond to complaints leveled against him by teacher parents in city council hearings and on the steps of City Hall. Frederick Douglass reminds us: “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”

That’s how we bend the arc. That’s how we won paid time for parents to bond with their children. That’s how UFT will continue to fight for justice in our city.

Related Tags:


This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Data Webinar
Drive Instruction With Mastery-Based Assessment
Deliver the right data at the right time—in the right format—and empower better decisions.
Content provided by Instructure
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Teaching Profession Webinar
How Does Educator Well-Being Impact Social-Emotional Awareness in Schools?
Explore how adult well-being is key to promoting healthy social-emotional behaviors for students. Get strategies to reduce teacher stress.
Content provided by International Baccalaureate
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
IT Infrastructure Webinar
A New Era In Connected Learning: Security, Accessibility and Affordability for a Future-Ready Classroom
Learn about Windows 11 SE and Surface Laptop SE. Enable students to unlock learning and develop new skills.
Content provided by Microsoft Surface

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Teaching Profession Q&A 'Brown v. Board' Decimated the Black Educator Pipeline. A Scholar Explains How
A new book digs into a lesser-known and negative consequence of one of the nation's most significant civil rights milestones.
9 min read
As her pupils bend themselves to their books, teacher Marie Donnelly guides them along in their studies at P.S. 77 in the Glendale section of Queens, New York, Sept. 28, 1959. In her 40 years of teaching, never has Donnelly had so many African-American students in a class. The youngsters were bused to the school from Bedford-Stuyvesant area of Brooklyn, a predominantly black neighborhood where schools are overcrowded. P.S. 77, which had an enrollment of 368 all-white students, can handle 1000 children comfortably. Parents in the Queens neighborhoods objected to influx, but the children themselves adjusted to one another without incident.
A white teacher teaches a newly integrated class at P.S. 77 in the Glendale section of Queens, N.Y., in September 1959.
Teaching Profession Opinion Short On Substitute Teachers? Here's Something States Can Do
Student teachers can make good substitutes, but the rules often don't allow them to step in, write two researchers.
Dan Goldhaber & Sydney Payne
4 min read
Conceptual illustration of a new employee fitting into the workplace puzzle
Sergey Tarasov/iStock/Getty
Teaching Profession In Their Own Words 'I'm Afraid to Return to the Classroom': A Gay Teacher of the Year Speaks Out
Willie Carver, Jr., the 2022 Kentucky Teacher of the Year, is questioning his future as a teacher given recent anti-LGBTQ legislative efforts.
8 min read
Montgomery County teacher and Kentucky Teacher of the Year, Willie Carver, in downtown Mt. Sterling, Ky., on May 11, 2022.
Willie Carver is the 2022 Kentucky Teacher of the Year and teaches high school English and French in the Montgomery County, Ky., public schools.
Arden Barnes for Education Week
Teaching Profession Teacher Morale Is at a Low Point. Here's Where Some Are Finding Hope
It’s been a hard few years for teachers. These are the moments with students that are keeping them going.
8 min read
Conceptual Illustration of figure wallpapering blue sky over a dark night
francescoch/iStock via Getty