The Heart and Mind of a Teacher Unionist

Like many teachers, I did not originally plan on a career in K–12 education. I came from a family of teachers—both of my parents taught in New York City public schools, and four of my five siblings are educators—but my passions were politics and the life of the mind, and as I approached 30, I was working on a doctorate in political philosophy. Early in the 1980s, I needed to find a way to support myself until I could complete my dissertation, and teaching seemed a natural choice. In September 1984, I went to work as a social studies teacher at an inner-city high school in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn.

My plan was to complete my dissertation and find a job in political philosophy at the university level. But somewhere in that first year of teaching, after I had gotten over the shock of just how hard this work was and how much skill it required, I began to fall in love with educating. My students won my heart and gave my life a deeper purpose. I knew the work I was doing was important, for it could better the lives of young people that had been abandoned by the larger society because they were youth of color, mostly poor, and largely recent immigrants. I still worked on my dissertation during summer vacations, finishing it four years later, but by then, the die was cast.

The year I began teaching, the New York City Board of Education began a renovation of my school building. They gave a group of fly-by-night construction companies free run of the place. The construction crew worked through the school day, disrupting classes with drilling and hammering. The school was constantly filled with dust and debris of a then-unknown nature, and there were days it was so thick, I could barely see down the first-floor hallway. Staff and students began to suffer allergic and asthmatic attacks.

By the end of my second year of teaching, everyone who worked in the school, from the principal to the stock man, had had enough. Since I had more political experience and organizing skills than others in the school, I ended up leading efforts to get this problem under control. We reached out to a law firm, and within hours, we had a court order to close the school.

When the court-ordered tests of the school building were done, the results came back positive for high levels of asbestos in a form that could be easily breathed in or ingested. Some combination of the construction companies and the Board's Division of School Buildings had submitted falsified tests (for which some Board officials were eventually jailed). To give you just one example of what that meant for those of us in the school, an entire section of the asbestos-containing ceiling in the cafeteria had been removed while students and teachers sat there eating lunch.

For three months, our school building was closed under court order for a complete asbestos abatement.

The UFT had not anticipated any of this. But once the issue was raised, the union quickly grasped what was at stake. Randi Weingarten, then the UFT's counsel (now its president), negotiated a protocol with the Board of Education to cover the resumption and completion of the renovation work at our school, starting with the novel idea that work should be done when classes were not in session. This protocol became the basis for a set of regulations that govern construction work in any school to this day. The union hired experienced industrial hygienists, and developed a Health and Safety Committee in each borough, with staff trained to respond immediately to a whole series of potential hazards. It negotiated health and safety language into the collective bargaining agreement.

I drew some lessons from this experience that defined my understanding of what it means to be a teacher unionist.

First, our interests as teachers are inextricably linked to the interests of the students we teach. It is hard to imagine a tale of such criminal malfeasance in a school serving well-to-do students. The story of asbestos is only one of many examples that could have been provided here: I tell it because it is my story, and the story of teachers with whom I worked.

Second, this struggle reinforced for me a basic truth: There would be a limit to what one teacher could do alone, especially in a place as vast as New York City. Teachers had to be organized, for the good of our students as much as for our own good, and I needed to be part of that organization. I ran for the union Chapter Leader in my school, and began many years of involvement in the UFT. Teachers must have a voice, and that is what our union provides.

Leo Casey is special representative for high schools for New York City's United Federation of Teachers. Previously, he taught for 14 years in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, where his classes regularly won city and state championships, and placed as high as fourth in the nation in the "We the People" civics competition. Casey was the American Teacher Awards' 1992 Social Studies Teacher of the Year. He holds a doctorate in political philosophy and has published on education, civics, and teacher unionism.


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The Heart and Mind of a Teacher Unionist

American Educator, Summer 2007