What will the UFT Retired Teachers Chapter look like with Retiree Advocate leadership?

RA Quiling

I learned about quilling at the December 2022 RTC meeting. Quilling is the craft of bending and rolling strands of paper into decorative objects. I wasn't expecting to learn about quilling when I went to that RTC meeting; I was expecting to debate the UFT's plans to move me, and everyone else at the meeting, into a for-profit Medicare Advantage plan. Tom Murphy, Mulgrew's man at the helm of the Retired Teachers Chapter, had other plans. He didn't want to talk about healthcare. He wanted us to learn about the craft of quilling.

At this time, Michael Mulgrew was pushing the NY City Council to change the law that stood in his way of moving us into Medicare Advantage. NYC Administrative Code §12-126 is a law that codifies the city's responsibility to pay for our healthcare. A few months earlier a judge had ruled that NYC retirees were protected by that law, thus denying Mulgrew the ability to charge retirees for remaining on GHI Senior Care if they chose to.

That ruling scuttled the Medicare Advantage deal that Mulgrew had originally negotiated with Emblem Health & Anthem. Now, in December 2022, Mulgrew wanted - desperately wanted - to amend the City Code and sign a new deal with insurance giant, CVS/Aetna. Even though there was no contract on the table, no writing on paper, no nothing. Nothing except some vague assurances from Aetna and some wishful thinking from Mulgrew.

This was of great concern to the several hundred UFT members at the December RTC meeting. But not to Tom Murphy. He didn't want to hear about it. He wanted us to sit through a presentation about quilling.

You may know the history from there: How municipal retirees organized, united, and stopped the City Council from changing the City Code. How the New York State Supreme and Appellate Courts have consistently ruled in favor of preserving our current health benefits. And how Mulgrew, and his man Murphy, still persist in siding with the mayor and the insurance companies, and to this day are working to undermine and privatize our health benefits.

Retiree Advocate/UFT has been fighting Mulgrew's plans since they came to light in 2021. Some of you know that Retiree Advocate has been working with tens of thousands of retirees from all the NYC municipal unions. We want to preserve our current health benefits. You may also know that a UFT chapter election is coming up in May. You may even know that I am running for RTC Chapter Leader, at the top of the Retiree Advocate slate.

It will be an interesting (and I think, wonderful) day when Retiree Advocate wins. Though it will seem strange. Unity has been in control of the chapter since the beginning of the union. Unity is all that most UFT members know. Unity is the familiar name that gets the automatic vote. Many UFT members don't realize that Unity isn't the UFT, just one of several political parties within the UFT. Retiree Advocate is one of those parties.

So, what will the Retired Teachers Chapter look like with Retiree Advocate leadership?

In many ways, the chapter will look much the same as it does now. We will still operate under the established chapter structure, with chapter officers, an executive board, and three hundred delegates to the UFT Delegate Assembly. We will encourage members to participate in non-partisan committees to strengthen and promote the chapter, expand benefits and services, and research topical issues.

Nothing will be torn down. Our beloved institutions - the institutions that we all helped build as union members - will remain intact, and hopefully be improved.

Our wonderful UFT institutions, such as the Si Beagle Learning Program, the Member Assistance Program, the UFT Welfare Fund, SHIP, the Retiree Legal Plan, and the fantastic new Paraprofessional Support Program, aren't going anywhere. They are cherished and will be protected.

And, of course, Retiree Advocate will continue the tradition of providing information to our members about important things like pensions, health benefits, and union campaigns.

We will still canvass and phone-bank for our UFT endorsed candidates. We will still have presentations and guest speakers at RTC meetings. We will still staff phones to answer member questions. We will still arrange retiree luncheons and social events. (And if we can possibly swing it, we'll have much better food at RTC meetings!)

But there will be differences.

The Retiree Advocate slate is filled with people with tons of experience, not only as UFT activists, but also as career-long educators and support professionals. Too many of our Unity colleagues accepted patronage jobs in the union's offices, away from the classrooms, away from the joy and hubbub of children, away from their school communities, and away from the crazy school administrators whom we all dealt with our entire careers. That is a big plus for Retiree Advocate.

We never lost our way. We stayed the course. We know what an effective UFT chapter is supposed to look like. We know what an effective chapter leader is supposed to do. Our highest obligation is to our chapter members - not to Medicare Advantage companies, not to New York City mayors, not to union bureaucracies, not even to union presidents.

So, here's how things will be different. We will bring democracy to our chapter, and regular order back to RTC meetings. We will run meetings according to Robert's Rules of Order, with question periods, motion periods, and resolution periods. With real debate - and real votes - on real issues.

No longer will RTC meetings be hours-long infomercials for insurance companies, or parades of laudatory epithets for union officials. You know how I feel about quilling. I love it. But we're not going to use it to avoid debate on important issues.

The voice of RTC members will take precedence. We will not only take questions but will also take comments and statements from an open mic, much as we see in public meetings around the city.

And most importantly, we will have full-chapter votes on issues of vital importance to RTC members, such as health benefit changes.

I think that the current leadership tends to patronize us. That will end. Tom Murphy doesn't even trust us to hold a microphone in our own hands. He acts as though debate will kill us. I don't believe that. He thinks that when we get angry with him, or with Michael Mulgrew, because they won't stand up for the health benefits we earned, we are being uncivil. That is not my take on it. I value civility, but I think there is no greater incivility than giving away our Medicare benefits.

So that's about it. Retiree Advocate isn't radical, we're normal. We've supported the union through thick and thin. We raised union families and taught our children union values. We're still here for the UFT, paying our dues, coming to the union hall, and trying to make our union stronger and better.

Now we're in the middle of a chapter election; an election that is not unlike the chapter elections going on, right now, across the city's schools. An election where both sides love the union and want to protect it from harm. An election where our differences mustn’t divide us, but they do set us apart. An election where one party, Unity, takes orders from the union president and wants to manage the decline of our health benefits, and one party, Retiree Advocate, that listens to the membership and wants to put a stop to the decline.

When I was a working teacher, I always wanted to elect a chapter leader who would stand for my rights. I wanted a chapter leader who would cooperate with the principal when they could, but would fight like hell when they had to. That's the kind of leadership the Retired Teachers Chapter deserves, and will get, with Retiree Advocate/UFT.