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Op-Ed: Occupation and Physical Therapists Continue to Fight for a Fair UFT Contract

United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew won't do what it takes to improve a contract that denies some workers parity pay, writes this union member.

Nick Bacon Jul 20, 2023

On Monday, July 10, when United Federation of Teachers leadership announced that the 2022-2027 contract had passed “overwhelmingly,” the numbers weren’t as unanimous as suggested. Reduced support for the teachers’ contract — at under 75% — meant the highest “No” vote percentage for that particular contract since 2005. But the larger omission from the UFT announcement was that not every bargaining unit’s contract had even passed.  Occupational and physical therapists (OT/PTs) once again voted down the first offer for their functional contract — 1,129 “No” votes to 782 “Yes” votes — along with nurses, audiologists, and supervisors of nurses and therapists, some of whom were inexplicably combined with the OT/PT chapter for the first time.

Why did OT/PTs vote “No”?

OT/PTs have similar and sometimes more extensive higher educational requirements when compared to teachers, despite being paid much less than pedagogues.

OT/PTs appear to have predominantly voted “No” due to their position of economic precarity — a position which is exacerbated by graduate degrees and certifications being a condition of employment. Indeed, OT/PTs have similar and sometimes more extensive higher educational requirements when compared to teachers (including doctorates), despite being paid much less than pedagogues. “By January a therapist with 10 years of experience and a master’s degree would earn $86,131, according to UFT documents, while a teacher with the same years and degree would earn $103,594,” reported Chalkbeat earlier this month. An internal survey conducted by the city-wide OT/PT chapter suggests that about two-thirds of their members must work two to three extra jobs just to pay back student loans and make ends meet.

The City’s line is that OT/PTs are paid at or above the market rate, something UFT officials have suggested puts them at a bargaining disadvantage. The entire industry of occupational and physical therapy needs major pay reforms, just as is the case industry-wide for teaching. However, the job of being an OT/PT in a public-school environment is apples and oranges to what a typical OT/PT job looks like in the private sector. It often requires traveling, creative scheduling, IEP-writing/interpretation, matching therapeutic regimens to educational needs and sifting through various layers of regulatory compliance. For similar and other reasons, titles that technically exist in both the DOE and the private sector rarely match financially. Teachers in the public sector, along with counselors and social workers, tend to make above the “private-sector” rate. Nurses actually make below it, though interestingly don’t appear to be a major factor in why their combined contract with OT/PT got a “No” vote.

OT/PT activists such as Chapter Leader, Melissa Williams, believe that their titles deserve parity with social workers, who are paid at a higher rate that is almost identical with teachers. OT/PTs were offered the option of earning more by working extra sessions, but this was a controversial proposition as it would have required working longer hours only to still make less than similarly educated peers. The option was particularly unpopular because it was negotiated by paid officers/staffers over the heads of rank-and-file members of the OT/PT negotiating committee.

How has UFT leadership responded?

In theory, one would think that the “No” vote of a majority of OT/PTs would nudge union leadership into an energized position of solidarity with their aggrieved workers. However, the response by UFT leadership has been disappointing, generating widespread concern that OT/PTs will be up not just against the City — but against their own union officers as they fight for a fair deal. For instance, immediately following the (non)ratification vote, a UFT vice president sent out an email that bordered on paternalistic, fear-mongering and accusatory, dangling what those members didn’t get because they voted “No” and pointing to a “difficult road ahead” instead of validating that the contract was not good enough for them to vote “Yes.” He also left out the obvious: that pattern bargaining protects members from receiving a worse economic package in the end, even if a stalled contract means those pay increases will come later as “retro.”

The UFT has the dubious distinction of being perhaps the only teachers’ union that has publicly advocated against its own legal right to strike.

A meeting on July 13 with UFT President Michael Mulgrew to discuss this “difficult road ahead” did not go much better, according to attendees. Mulgrew quickly dismissed the financial concerns of members, conveying that pay parity was a negotiating non-starter, and that the problem of OT/PTs having to work second/third jobs was one for “society as a whole” (rather than for him as the union president). He was similarly dismissive of the argument that heavy education requirements as a condition of employment should factor into compensation, suggesting that degrees don’t necessarily mean more money and that “‘we all agreed to work for the public.”

The Road Ahead

The dismissive response by UFT leadership begs the question as to whether they will support the OT/PT bargaining unit at all. Some members fear political motivations. The OT/PT chapter is the only functional group with a chapter leader not elected under the ruling union party, Unity Caucus, which controls the union at large. Is it possible that Mulgrew and his affiliates would use this moment as a political opportunity to sow dissent against non-Unity representation rather than work to achieve contract goals? Is it possible that the Unity-controlled UFT might intentionally disrupt the second negotiations to achieve a result that could serve as a cautionary tale against other members voting “No” in the future?

I hope not. But the fact that President Mulgrew and his officer associates are spending their time explaining why members were wrong to vote “No,” rather than spending a single second suggesting strategies to achieve their goals, does not bode well. In general, UFT leadership has poo-pooed union tactics that tend to work to achieve higher compensation, such as job actions, giving the UFT the dubious distinction of being perhaps the only teachers’ union that has publicly advocated against its own legal right to strike.

To that end, OT/PTs, along with the other groups in their bargaining unit, may be officially on their own if they want to achieve their goals. Opposition union groups are organizing to help support in whatever ways they can. Still, without official support from UFT leadership, i.e. those with any official negotiating authority/power, OT/PTs may be left only with wildcat tactics to achieve their ends. Rank-and-file UFT members, sister unions and community groups are encouraged to do whatever they can in support.

Nick Bacon is a member of the UFT High School Executive Board and a co-chair of the New Action Caucus (NAC/UFT).

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