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Retired New York City Teachers Rise And Run

Above photo: New York City retirees protested proposed health insurance changes in 2023. Jenny Brown.

They’ve really stepped in it. The incumbent Unity Caucus that runs the huge teachers union in New York City is facing a challenge from the Retiree Advocate slate who hope to take leadership of the powerful 70,000-person retiree chapter within the union. Ballots were mailed May 10 and will be counted June 14.

The rallying issue has been the United Federation of Teachers’ collusion with the city to put municipal retirees, including retired teachers, into a for-profit Medicare Advantage plan run by Aetna. The plan would replace their traditional Medicare, which is provided premium-free along with a cost-free wraparound.

Leaders of the UFT and AFSCME’s District Council 37, who dominate the city’s Municipal Labor Committee, tried to railroad the plan through in 2021, crushing objections from 26 smaller unions in the 102-union bargaining bloc. They hoped to fill a $600 million funding gap, but the plan went awry when retirees exposed it.

The fight has mobilized retirees across the city, from firefighters to sanitation workers to teachers. Courts and the city council have refused to approve the change, and for three years the city has appealed court decisions, with the support of the dominant MLC unions. The plan has not been implemented, and appeals continue.

Rubber Stamp?

In the teachers union, these events have caused a sea change. Retirees are full UFT members and can vote in leadership elections. In the past, their substantial vote went to incumbents. “Retired teachers are used as a reliable rubber stamp for Unity Caucus,” said Bennett Fischer, who is running for Chapter Leader of the Retired Teacher Chapter. “Now they have a big worry on their minds.”

The insurgent Retiree Advocate slate is vowing to involve members in decision-making. “The Medicare Advantage deal was done in secret—that would never happen with us running the retiree chapter,” said Bobby Greenberg, who is running for chapter treasurer.

Ninety percent of UFT retirees are members of the chapter, but a third typically vote, around 25,000, said Fischer, a 29-year teacher and former school chapter leader in Brooklyn.

When Retiree Advocate ran in 2021, they heard a rumor about a health care change a few days before the election started. They added a sentence or two to their campaign statement, which was sent with the ballot. They got 30 percent of the vote, double what they had previously received.

In addition to chapter activities, the Retired Teacher Chapter sends 300 delegates to the union’s delegate assembly. Active members can send more than 2,000 (there are 120,000 active members). But Fischer said that since only 800 to 900 delegates attend most meetings, a dedicated corps of 300 delegates, with allies among the active delegates, could have a big impact.

The Retiree Advocate platform overlaps with active member concerns, demanding pension equity, defending public schools against private encroachment, ending mayoral control of the schools, and promoting real debate in the union. They also want the union to support universal health care bills like the New York Health Act, rather than standing in the way.

Retirees also vote in union leadership elections, which will be held next year. In past elections for top officers, retirees have favored the incumbents in Unity more strongly than active members have, Fischer said. But this may turn out to be double-edged sword for incumbents as retirees mobilize against cuts to their health care.

Shouted Down

The retiree chapter is run with little input from members, Retiree Advocate candidates say, and the attempt to shove them into Medicare Advantage has put the problem in high relief as retirees have struggled to get their concerns heard in chapter meetings.

“When someone brings it up, they’re shouted down,” said Sheila Zukowsky, Retiree Advocate candidate for corresponding secretary. “We’re never allowed to have a dialogue.” Instead, the leaders accuse them of spreading lies, she said.

“The UFT, for a showpiece, formed a retired teacher health committee,” Zukowsky said. But it was top-down. “All we did is listen to UFT infomercials about how great this plan is.” Soon that committee stopped meeting.

As retirees flooded monthly chapter meetings to ask questions, the incumbents stopped allowing resolutions, and squeezed time for comments. According to Fischer, chapter leaders “filibuster with somebody’s macramé class, union officers making speeches about how great they are and the union is, and time-killing presentations about pension benefits.”

Unifying Issue

Retiree Advocate started as part of another caucus (there are several reform caucuses among active UFT members). But 15 years ago it became a group open to all retirees, with a basic platform of democracy in the chapter, a more militant union, and support for social justice.

“We felt the narrower approach wasn’t working, so we welcome all retirees of any caucus or no caucus,” said Greenberg. Dues are $20 a year.

“Until this election, we haven’t had a unifying issue that touches every retiree,” said Greenberg. Retiree Advocate’s union democracy platform “never rocked members of the chapter in a broad way,” he said.

Now, after three years of organizing on the Medicare Advantage issue, Fischer said, 70 percent of the people at Retired Teacher Chapter meetings are angry with the union. Greenberg thinks the leadership is running very defensively: “They never sent two mailings [to retirees] before.”

UFT President Michael Mulgrew traveled to Florida to make presentations to retirees there in the winter, but met with hostile audiences. He has been president since 2010, and garnered 66 percent of the vote in the 2022 election, a 20 point drop from 2019. The 2022 challenge came from a coalition of reform caucuses.

The incumbent Retired Teacher Chapter leader, Tom Murphy, has been stressing civility and claiming his opponents are outside agitators. Retiree Advocate candidates are longtime union members, school chapter leaders, delegates, executive board members, and veteran teachers.

“Tom Murphy has consistently demonstrated his commitment to maintaining decorum and fostering constructive dialogue within our chapter meetings,” a recent piece of campaign literature states. “People from outside this union are trying to use this chapter to divide our members and this union.”

“Unity has been portraying us as enemies of the union, crazies, radicals, working with outside forces to destroy the union,” said Fischer. But they never mention who the outside forces are, he said, because in fact they are other municipal retirees in the Cross-Union Retiree Organizing Committee and the Organization of Public Service Retirees, who also don’t want to be shoved into a for-profit health plan.

Rising Tide

“We see our role as part of a massive organized rising tide, all leading to the main [UFT] election next year,” said Greenberg, who has been in the union since 1966. “We have contacts from within Unity Caucus and there is unhappiness with a lot of issues.”

In particular, active members are appalled when they discover how paltry their “Tier 6” pension is. “You can’t retire on Tier 6,” Greenberg said. Tier 6 was added by the New York State Retirement system in 2012, and it applies to most teachers active now, requiring them to work until 63 even if they have 30 years of service.

Unity Caucus’s two mailings to retirees cost an estimated $140,000 in printing and mailing costs. Retiree Advocate doesn’t have the funds to do similar mass mailings, but each slate has submitted a double-sided page making their case to voters, which is included with the ballot.

Since they don’t have access to a list of retiree members, Retiree Advocate activists have been leafleting at chapter meetings and senior centers, and placing ads in local media.

UFT retirees are scattered all over the country, so they’ve been making calls. “Call a friend in Podunk, even if they’re not a UFT member, maybe they know someone,” Zukowsky said. “We believe if we get out the vote, we will win.”

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