New York, NY – United Federation of Teachers [UFT] President Michael Mulgrew’s drive to help move New York City municipal retirees out of traditional Medicare, along with his controversial role in returning school kids to in-person learning this fall, has ignited a firestorm within the union, galvanizing opposition caucuses in a united effort to seriously challenge entrenched power when election time rolls around in less than a year.
“We’ve basically been doing our own thing for many years and we decided given what’s happening with Covid and our schools and our communities — and our healthcare now under attack — we decided to let those issues lie down. We’re going to bury those issues and we’re going to come together to fight for what is right,” Solidarity UFT Caucus co-founder Lydia Howrilka told LaborPress outside the UFT Delegate Assembly at 52 Broadway on Wednesday, Oct. 13.
As UFT delegates filed into the building for the assembly, Howrilka’s Solidarity caucus joined members of the Movement Of Rank And File Educators [MORE], Retiree Advocates, New Action UFT, Independent Community Educators, UFT and others for a sidewalk rally blasting Mulgrew and his establishment Unity Caucus.
“I’m here to support our retirees who are fighting for their lives — for their benefits that they’ve rightfully earned working decades in the school buildings,” Brooklyn special education teacher and MORE member Annie Tan told LaborPress. “I very much worry that many of them won’t be able to pay for healthcare and other benefits if the UFT continues this plan of privatizing [healthcare] plans for our retirees — and then that will eventually lead the way to privatizing healthcare plans for us active members.”
Lawyers for the New York City Organization of Public Service Retirees have filed an Article 78 suit in court hoping to get an injunction against the city’s plan to push some 250,000 retired city workers out of traditional Medicare and into what many see as a disastrous privatized Medicare Advantage program set to go into effect January 1.
“I don’t even call it Medicare because it isn’t Medicare — it is an Emblem Health/Empire for-profit, money making insurance plan that [Mayor Bill] de Blasio and Mulgrew have decided is good enough for a quarter million municipal retirees,” Retiree Advocate’s Sarah Shapiro said. “We’re not gonna take it.”
Mulgrew’s Unity Caucus insists that what’s been dubbed the NYC Medicare Advantage Plus program is “designed to maintain — and in some instances to increase — the benefits retirees now receive, while using federal funds not previously available to subsidize the cost of retiree health care.”
“The new plan provides access to all doctors nationwide that accept Medicare coverage,” a UFT spokesperson told LaborPress via email. “Whether those doctors are in-network or not, they will all be compensated at the rates established by CMS. Also, under traditional Medicare, a doctor needs to submit claims under both Medicare and the gap filling supplemental plan. With this new plan, it only gets submitted to the one entity. It streamlines the process.”
Unity Caucus opponents and their allies call that bunk.
“If you think that now they’re going to move your insurance to one where there is an advantage — I am here to inform you that you have been misled. You have been tricked, and you are about to be robbed,” Dr. Donald Moore, a member of Physicians for a National Health Program [PNHP] — a national advocacy group agitating for universal, single-payer healthcare — told rally-goers.
“Why is Michael Mulgrew Ignoring Us?”
The Retired Teachers Chapter of the UFT passed a resolution to stop the privatization of Medicare in the form of profit-making Medicare Advantage plans way back in 2007. Later in 2015, the UFT Delegate Assembly passed another resolution backing passage of the New York Health Act — a measure poised to establish single-payer healthcare in the Empire State, which the Municipal Labor Committee, along with Mulgrew’s UFT, successfully managed to sink during the last legislative session.
“What gives our union leaders the right to defy resolutions passed by its own delegate assembly,” Retiree Advocate member Bennett Fischer said. “Why do the leaders of this union feel they can spend our political action dollars…in opposition to resolutions adopted by its own decision-making body? Is it simple arrogance? Is it because our current leadership feels totally immune from any accountability to its membership? Do they feel that they will never have to pay any consequences?”
Dr. Kaliris Salas, president of the Community Education Council, District 4 and a member of Parents for Responsive, Equitable, Safe Schools — an advocacy group that emerged in response to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic — took aim at Mulgrew’s response to the virus, while expressing her support for opposition caucuses battling against the shift to a for-profit Medicare Advantage program.
“What’s really frustrating is that Mulgrew has had a seat at the table this whole time and just recently — meaning a week ago — he decided that he was going to get so angry at the Department of Health and the Department of Education for taking away all of these mitigation guidelines that they had and loosening what they consider to be the CDC’s recommendation,” she told LaborPress. “It’s like, bro — you had all summer. You knew this was happening. We knew that there were at least two schools closed over the summer due to a Covid outbreak —we were looking at the statistics. We only had 200,000 children in school buildings and about 80,000 staff members — what do you think is going to happen when you have five-times the people in the school buildings?”
Dr. Salas further lambasted Mulgrew as a cynical politician “in bed” with the outgoing mayor.
“We could have prepared, we could have planned, we could have pushed for a remote option,” she said. “We could have pushed for a culturally responsive way to engage in the conversation around vaccines, and we could have pushed for our communities of color to have better access to health care and to Covid testing. [Mulgrew] didn’t do any of that.”
Tan has been teaching for the last 10 years, but she doesn’t feel safe teaching the 4th and 5th graders at her Sunset Park school.
“I’m working in a windowless classroom, which is absolutely ridiculous,” she said. “We had to close our door today because of a behavior issue, and that’s not safe. All I’m relying on are the filters in our room, which we know are ineffective. We keep asking for more and more and [the DOE and UFT leadership] keep giving us less and less. I’m just waiting for the shoes to drop when people do inevitably get sick.”
The New York City Organization of Public Sector Retirees will have their day in court on October 20. A judge is expected to rule on the sought after Article 78 injunction against the NYC Medicare Advantage Plus plan soon after. Private health insurance giant Aetna is also seeking to stop implementation of the $34 billion contract through a separate lawsuit.
“I spent many years of my career pushing back against the hedge fund billionaires and the charter school profiteers who wanted to kill my union and privatize public education,” Fischer added. “That was the right thing to do. Why is public healthcare different than public education? Why would a public employee union ever get in bed with the insurance company billionaires — those profiteering sharks who want to devour our public Medicare system? UFT members are smart. We’ve seen the dangers to our Medicare system for quite awhile and the rank & file of this union have gone on record in support of Medicare — and in support of single-payer healthcare.”
Opponents of the shift to for-profit privatized healthcare maintain that the entire effort is a scheme that was hatched in secret. The UFT leadership, meanwhile says, “Individual unions provided a variety of information to their members on the process.”
“We didn’t find out about this secret plan until around May,” Shapiro charged this week. “Mulgrew and his cronies in the Municipal Labor Committee were sitting behind closed doors for three years planning and plotting this after Mulgrew emptied our stabilization fund of over $3 billion. That fund was earmarked for healthcare for city workers. That’s why we’re in this predicament.”
The Unity Caucus has been ruling the UFT’s roost for decades. Mulgrew has held the office of president since 2009. Opposition caucuses aren’t saying their actions will completely topple the regime now, but they are intent on shaking things up.
“We’re going to do the best we can,” Howrilka said. “We’re obviously going to set our standards very high. I truly believe that we need to stand together. We need to fight together for schools all our kids deserve and need, and we need to ally with parents.”