"We pushed the UFT to actually fight" - Interview with Negotiating Committee Member Olivia Swisher

The following interview was conducted with Olivia Swisher, art teacher and Chapter Leader at MS 821 in Sunset Park, about her experiences on the UFT Negotiating Committee for the most recent 2022-2027 contract.


Strike Hot: What were your goals and hopes in volunteering for the negotiating committee? How did the experience differ from your expectations?


Olivia Swisher: My personal goal for participating in the UFT negotiating committee was to learn about the negotiations process firsthand.

I went into the experience like a sponge to observe, absorb, process and learn. I also felt that it was important to have rank and file representation within the negotiations process. With that, another goal that I had for myself was to ask critical questions within negotiations spaces, push the leadership to be more responsive to rank and file needs, and try to raise the expectations of my fellow UFT activists on the 500-person negotiating team. 


Prior to joining the negotiations committee, there were folks in MORE who advised against participating. Some stated that it was a waste of time and others said it was counter to our values as MORE due to the NDA (the non-disclosure agreement that prohibited members from discussing negotiations outside the committee). While I agree that the lack of transparency was counter to our values,  I don’t think it was a waste of time to participate. I learned a lot from the process of how NOT to negotiate, including but not limited to having members sign NDAs in order to participate, siloing negotiating committee members into working groups that do not communicate, and not communicating to UFT members what is transpiring in the negotiation meetings with the city.


I felt that in many ways I was able to achieve the goals that I and others in MORE had set out with. I am really proud of the work that we did in the negotiations meetings to push leadership to actually engage in a contract campaign. I can say for a fact that if we weren’t in there, we would never have had CAT teams in schools. I believe that the CAT teams led to increased engagement and consciousness about our contract, which is why only 75% of members voted yes on the contract. 


SH: How did the NDA affect your work on the negotiating committee and in the contract campaign overall? 


OS: Initially, I believed that the NDA would be the main issue within the negotiations process that would prevent me from communicating with my chapter and fellow MORE caucus members about what was being negotiated. The reality is that, even outside the NDA, the siloing of each subcommittee as well as the existence of the governance committee (made up of top officials that did most of the actual negotiation) made it so I had very little idea of what we were actually negotiating for. So for me, it’s not just the NDA that has impacted our ability to provide transparent information to fellow UFT members about the negotiations process. It’s also the siloing of subcommittees and the closed door negotiations that happen in governance. 


I went into this process knowing theoretically that transparency would lead to a stronger contract but the experience of actually participating in this messy, undemocratic, secretive process really made explicit for me how we must fight for greater transparency in the entire process, not just the NDA. I firmly believe now that greater transparency would have led to a stronger contract. 


A question that has been asked is, “Is it worth signing the NDA?” my response is yes. I think it is more important for us to be in the room rather than outside of the room. 


SH: What were interactions like between members of different caucuses in the negotiating committee?


OS: I was on a subcommittee with a few unaffiliated chapter leaders and mostly Unity caucus members. Everyone from Unity knew I was in MORE. Overall we all worked together very well. As the only opposition caucus member in my subcommittee’s meetings I had to be strategic about how I showed up and engaged in that space. I didn’t take lightly my role of representing the MORE caucus as a serious organization within the labor movement, especially given that the Unity caucus and UFT leadership often use disparaging language and rhetoric to undermine or discredit us. I felt it imperative that I be there to represent rank and file members and also to reflect the seriousness of the MORE caucus. Debbie Poulos, Rich Mantell, and Carl Cambria often asked me to speak and engage the city directly and would defer to me on working conditions issues. Overall, it was actually a pretty good experience. Every rank and file member was polite and respectful and committed to the work. I also think that my engagement in and commitment to the process, including having language that I contributed memorialized into the contract, debunked some of the myths about MORE. 


Beyond my work on the paperwork subcommittee, I found that the meetings including all 500 negotiation committee members were, for the most part, cordial and respectful. Unfortunately, this ended in the last days of negotiations when UFT leadership announced that they had reached a deal with the city. It was clear in those last meetings that the Unity caucus had gotten their members in line to push through a contract and then shame and chastise members who asked questions of the contract. Those last meetings were some of the most hostile and vicious spaces I have been in. 



SH: The UFT contract campaign was punctuated by a series of attempts to mobilize members - color days, teachins, grade ins, leafleting, local rallies. How were these steps determined and how did they fit together into a larger campaign?


OS: The idea of CAT teams and the contract action ideas were generated by the 500 member negotiations team with most of the ideas coming from MORE members. Then a small group of UFT staffers developed the ideas and sent them out to CAT teams. The reality is that the CAT teams should have had a hand in organizing these actions, but the UFT isn’t there yet. A tension throughout was that the UFT would put forth less radical and militant actions. I think it was important for us, as MORE members on the negotiations committee, to understand that whatever action ideas the UFT agreed to would be lacking in terms of militancy and would put less  direct pressure on the city. That said, theyare still a step in the right direction for our union.  


One fun fact is that the grade-in idea was not shared during a 500 member meeting. Rather, the UFT staffers who were responsible for CAT teams had seen that MORE’s Brooklyn Field Team was planning a borough-wide grade-in on MORE’s social media account. During a negotiations meeting, I was pulled aside and asked by a UFT staff member if I thought a citywide grade-in was viable, to which I responded, absolutely!


While I am proud that we were able to push the UFT to actually organize CAT teams, my biggest frustration was that the CAT team timing was cut short. Leadership wanted a deal by the end of the school year and ultimately cut back our power. I really felt like we were just getting started!

SH: The DC37 deal set a sub-inflation pattern for wage increases. How was the work of the NC different before and after this turning point?


OS: One big example of the difference is that, prior to the DC37 agreement, the UFT was asking for a 10% raise each year. That’s where we were at. I was super hopeful. After the pattern was set, there was greater urgency to meet and negotiate. Lesson learned: we should push UFT leadership to be public about the raise we are asking for early in the process as a tool to pressure other unions that are ahead of us in the pattern.  


SH: What is your overall assessment of working in the NC? What advice would you give future activists about it in the next contract round? 


OS: Overall I learned a lot through the process and would encourage other union activists to participate. I think we pushed the UFT to actually fight, we made connections with other union members, and we demonstrated the seriousness and work of the MORE caucus. But, before agreeing to be in the negotiations committee, I would advise union activists to have systems in place to take care of their mental health through the process. The negotiations process is long and it can be difficult to be in spaces where you don’t have any allies, like my subcommittee. It is also really difficult to be in dialogue with the city and the DOE and to see just how little they respect our students and our work as educators. I would be lying if I said I didn’t ride the Bay Ridge ferry home crying in defeat more than once. While it was difficult at times, I believe that it was still important to participate in the process. 


Please check your e-mail for a link to activate your account.
  • Megan Moskop
    commented 2024-01-02 10:54:54 -0500
    Thanks Olivia for alll this thoughtful work, and for sharing your reflection on it. So proud to have been represented by you in these spaces, and hopeful for the work that is to come!