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For decades, the United Federation of Teachers, the largest teachers union local in the nation, held New York City in its sway. The UFT’s powerful get-out-the-vote efforts influenced mayoral elections. Its political power kept state legislators on a tight leash. And New York City’s education policies sometimes mirrored the union’s agenda.

But in recent years, that power has been under threat, both locally and nationally.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg joins Joel Klein, New York City Schools Chancellor at the time, to discuss education reform on November 25, 2009. (Photo Credit: Spencer T. Tucker)

Across the country, local teachers unions have been fending off attacks—such as laws that repeal collective bargaining—on basic labor rights, and trying to defeat or water down scores of state-level bills that would tie teacher evaluations to student test scores, establish merit pay, or abolish tenure.

And in New York City, a billionaire mayor with no need for union dollars or endorsement has reshaped the city school system and picked fights with the union over its top priorities, including teacher tenure and job protections based on seniority.

Continuity and change

Together, the attacks have cut into the formidable might that the UFT has wielded since it began representing all city teachers in 1962.

UFT President Michael Mulgrew (Photo courtesy of  GothamSchools)

“The union was for many years seen as the 800-pound gorilla, and recently they have certainly not been the 800-pound gorilla,” said Diane Ravitch, a historian and former U.S. assistant secretary of education who has criticized Bloomberg’s education policies. “The mayor, I don’t know that he’s beaten them, but he’s certainly not afraid of them.”

But as the tides shift nationally and the city prepares to elect a new mayor for the first time since 2001, the UFT remains incredibly powerful. “They have had to give up things they had in the past, but they’re not going away,” added Ravitch. “They’re still a major power player.”

Democratic mayoral candidates, no doubt eager for the union’s endorsement and financial support this year, regularly call UFT President Michael Mulgrew. The union invited each of them, along with the state education commissioner John King, to Cincinnati to view that city’s network of community schools—an idea the union thinks should be replicated in New York. Each of the candidates, along with King, has since called for reforms based on the Cincinnati model. After the mayoral election is held this fall, union influence will most likely grow again.

“They continue to be enormously powerful as an organization when it comes to education policy in New York City and New York state, and that’s no different than it was five years ago, or 10 years ago, or 20 years ago,” said Dan Weisberg, executive vice president for TNTP, an advocacy group and teacher training organization, who served as the chief labor negotiator from 2003 to 2009 for former New York City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein.

“The union has had to adapt,” he added. “But I would say in general, it’s been remarkable, particularly when you put in the national perspective, how little change there’s been.”

The national perspective

Nationally, teachers unions find themselves at a crossroads. Once, it would have been unthinkable for Democrats to defy teachers unions, who have poured donations into campaign coffers and recruited door-knockers to get out the vote. But many Democrats, including President Barack Obama, are now leading the charge to overhaul the teaching profession. Public opinion and membership rates of labor unions are at an all-time low.

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There are some signs of hope for unions. The American Federation of Teachers, the UFT’s parent organization, has kept its membership steady. The UFT has actually gained members, adding to its already considerable resources. The AFT and National Education Association, the nation’s largest teachers union, are rethinking their strategies to adjust to the “new normal” of education policy. They’ve compromised with district officials on new teacher evaluations across the country from Los Angeles to New Haven, Conn., and have overturned some education laws in Idaho and South Dakota.

And unions are still embracing the old ways to flex their political muscles. They lobby heavily at the state level and contribute to political campaigns. Their mobilization efforts remain unmatched by groups like Stand for Children or StudentsFirst, both of which have emerged to serve as a political counterweight to unions and to promote education policies that unions hate.

A 2012 report by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative education think tank, ranked New York ninth in the country in terms of teacher-union strength. The results were unsurprising, though. “New York is where the teachers-union movement began,” said report co-author Dara Zeehandelaar. She noted that New York has near-universal participation in teachers unions and the state itself has traditionally been liberal and pro-labor. At 23.2 percent of its adult workforce, New York has the highest union membership rate in the country.

The state is unique because of the presence of the UFT. It’s rare for a local union to have such a large influence at the state level, Zeehandelaar said, adding that the only possible comparison is the Chicago Teachers Union. With education policy, what happens in New York City often has a direct bearing on the rest of the state. The UFT’s ability to hold on to power and remain a major player in city and state policies is important nationally, too. Its presidents tend to become presidents of the powerful national union, and its booming membership helps to buoy the rest of labor movement.

Yet even if the UFT isn’t fighting for survival, lately it has found itself under attack like never before.

The New York City story

The relationship between the union and the Bloomberg administration was, until recently, a roller-coaster with a mix of highs—like when Joel Klein gave Randi Weingarten, then-president of the UFT, an unexpected kiss on the cheek—and lows—like the times Bloomberg has compared the union to the National Rifle Association.

In his first term, Bloomberg wracked up a series of victories — including mayoral control, an overhaul of the school-system bureaucracy, and the closure of numerous schools that fell short on student achievement measures—with little union opposition. The union walked away with unprecedented wage increases and convinced the mayor to implement merit pay only on a school-wide basis. Frequently, those victories were seen as mutually beneficial.

But now in the mayor’s third term, the relationship has become almost uniformly acrimonious.

The UFT attributes the change to a speech Bloomberg delivered the day before Thanksgiving in 2009, weeks after he won a third term in an election the UFT sat out. In the speech, Bloomberg announced he planned to use student test scores in tenure decisions, push the state to eliminate the cap on the number of charter schools, close the so-called “rubber rooms” for teachers put on administrative leave, and end “last-in, first-out” layoff policies.

“We went to war three years ago, when Bloomberg went to D.C.,” Mulgrew said.

Yet Bloomberg was echoing the ideas of a national movement that put unions everywhere on the defensive. Obama had recently announced the rules for the Race to the Top competition, which encouraged states to overhaul tenure, teacher hiring and firing policies, and evaluations in exchange for federal money.

After New York won in the second round of the competition in 2010, with Mulgrew’s support, the UFT had to adjust. Its current dispute with Bloomberg over new teacher evaluations assumes, as state law now requires, that a significant portion of the ratings will be based on student achievement. The cap on charter schools, whose teachers typically are not represented by a union, was lifted (but not eliminated). Charter schools still educate a small minority of students in the city as a whole, but in Harlem—which would be the size of a full-sized school district anywhere else in the country—charters now have a third of the market share.

But the union has been more successful in New York than elsewhere at blocking some Race to the Top proposals. For example, it prevented the end of the last-in, first out layoff policies. And public opinion of the UFT has escaped the downward pull that other unions have experienced: New Yorkers consistently say they trust the union over Bloomberg.

Toward the future

Still, the UFT’s future is anything but assured.

“They’re in for a tough time in the long run unless they’re able to re-imagine their value absent fixed compensation standards for members,” said David Cantor, former spokesperson for the New York City Department of Education. “Which is really hard.”

How has the UFT maintained its power and influence—and even grown in size—in the face of new attacks, and as unions elsewhere struggle? How has it been forced to change? Where does its influence come from, and how does it cultivate its power? Whom does the union represent, and what do they think of the changes (or lack thereof) happening around them in the union and in their schools?

In a multi-part series, Gotham Schools and The Hechinger Report will take a look at these questions. To better understand the union’s strategies and policy priorities, we’ll look at how it spends its money. We’ll talk to the people who make up the union to learn about their concerns—and whether they align with those of the union as a whole. And we’ll find out from experts, educators and union officials what the future likely holds for the UFT.

Philissa Cramer writes for A version of this story appeared there on March 4, 2013.

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