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.