More than 100 teachers and paraprofessionals who are members of the Queens United Federation of Teachers (UFT) rallied outside of Queens Borough Hall in Kew Gardens on Wednesday, May 24, demanding fair contracts from the city’s Department of Education (DOE).
Standing united to bring change for their students, the future and the education system, the union members wore blue T-shirts proudly holding up their colorful signs that read “Honk for Teachers” and “Fair Contract Now” while chanting, “we have the power!”
“We carried the weight of the city on our shoulders through the roughest time we made sure our kids were still learning, supported and felt safe,” said Leah Lin, a Gifted & Talented teacher and union chapter leader at P.S. 85Q in Astoria. “We haven’t been compensated for eight months now. It’s completely unacceptable and I’m infuriated. I’m so happy that the DOE knows we are here and are not going anywhere.”
The United Federation of Teachers, which represents nearly 200,000 members, is the sole bargaining agent for most of the non-supervisory educators who work in the NYC public school system. The union has an office in each borough with a representative and a UFT district representative for each community school district, high school district and District 75.
The UFT educators rallied across the five boroughs on May 24. The union said they have been trying to negotiate a new contract with the DOE since last fall. The previous contract expired in September 2022. According to the union, their members should be fairly compensated for going above and beyond in academics as well as providing a caring and inclusive environment for their students.
During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic when the NYC public school system shifted from in-person instruction to online learning, teachers made sure their students were still learning, receiving support and were kept safe, according to Lin.
“When the pandemic hit, the paras were called on to step up, to step out and to get the job done. And you know what we did? We did it! We got the work done!” said Dr. Renee Freeman, interim acting first vice chairperson for the paraprofessional chapter of the UFT.
Lamar Hughes, a Queens UFT representative for Community School District 25, which includes Flushing, Whitestone, College Point and Bayside, said educators began to advocate for what they believe is fair and acceptable.
“We want to make sure that we have a decent raise, and a lot of folks are inundated with paperwork — making sure we assess children properly, and logistically it makes sense, but it can become excessive. Lastly, time. We have so many assessments that we don’t get enough time to actually teach,” Hughes said.
Last year, the UFT conducted a survey asking members what changes they would like to see. While the union continues to fight for a fair contract, Hughes said there are progressive days, and other days where they feel unheard and unseen by the DOE.
“When I talk to members in those 35 schools in District 25, I tell them activism and negotiations are not a spectator sport. Too many of us think, well what’s the union going to do to get us a contract?” Hughes said. “Our role is to make sure we get them out of that mindset because it’s a collective effort. Everyone has to roll up their sleeves and get elbow deep into the work.”
As the school year is soon coming to an end, Hughes said he feels optimistic and hopeful that the union will win a fair contract before the fall.
“I don’t think either party wants to go into September with this over their heads,” Hughes said. “The rallies are important to show the city that beyond Michael Mulgrew, our union president, and beyond the 500 people on the negotiation committee, that everyone is watching.”
The Queens United Federation of Teachers have received an outpouring of support from local elected officials such as Senator Toby Ann Stavisky, City Council members Julie Won and James Gennaro and Queens Borough President Donovan Richards.
When she came to the United States at the age of 7 and did not speak English, City Councilwoman Sandra Ung noted how a public school teacher taught her how to read during her lunch break.
“This is what our underpaid and overworked public school teachers do on a daily basis, and we need to ensure the new contract has a raise for our teachers that gives them a fair wage,” Ung said. “They work day and night teaching kids and grading their work. Let’s make sure they’re paid for their dedication to our children.”