By: Summer Brennan
Fifty years ago, teachers in New York City’s public schools didn’t have the kind of support and respect they have today. Before the creation of the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) in March 1960, the system’s structure and support were haphazard at best, and concepts such as class-size limits and career ladders were only pipe dreams. A patchwork of more than 100 different and often competing organizations were available for educators to join, but there was no one true voice and advocate for students and teachers.
That all changed, thanks to the grit and determination of a small group of visionaries who believed that educators and their students were being shortchanged and did something about it. Together, they created the UFT.
The following 50 years of triumphs and advocacy have strengthened the education profession and New York City public schools. The UFT now represents approximately 200,000 people, and is the sole bargaining agent for most of the non-supervisory educators who work in the New York City public schools. It represents approximately 87,000 teachers and 19,000 classroom paraprofessionals, along with school secretaries, attendance teachers, guidance counselors, psychologists, social workers, education evaluators, nurses, laboratory technicians, adult education teachers and 53,000 retired members.
“From the beginning, UFT members have been making positive contributions to this city,” said UFT President Michael Mulgrew. “We’ve moved the system forward during good times and bad. The profession has come so far in 50 years, and it’s important for people to know about that journey.”
To celebrate the golden jubilee of the union, more than 3,000 members of the UFT “family” gathered at the New York Hilton on March 25th for a gala event.
President Bill Clinton, who worked closely with AFT Presidents Al Shanker and Sandra Feldman during his presidency, was on hand to accept a check for $100,000 in UFT member donations to support his foundation’s work in Haiti.
“There’s not a person alive today who’s ever made anything of herself or himself that cannot point to somewhere between one and a dozen teachers without whom they would not have been made,” Clinton said.
In his opening remarks, Mulgrew reminded the audience of some of the UFT’s signal achievements: organizing paraprofessionals 40 years ago, saving the city from bankruptcy during the 1970s fiscal crisis, fighting for smaller class sizes, helping to create more effective programs such as the Chancellor’s District, founding the Dial-a-Teacher homework help line that responds to 1,000 calls for help a day, and battling the disinvestment in public education.
“We do it for the children,” he said. “Never let them forget it.”