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Drama in the Teachers’ Lounge

Photo-Illustration: Curbed; Photos: Getty

Teachers are a cohort used to finding their well-being invoked by other people with their own agendas (see also: “the children”). Still, “people were shaking their heads in the teachers’ lounge” on the afternoon of January 4, says Mike Dowd, a social studies teacher and wrestling coach in Midwood. That was when Dowd and his colleagues, scrolling on their phones during a break, learned that the United Federation of Teachers — their union — had filed a federal lawsuit to stop New York City’s congestion pricing program. “Most people were like, ‘What are they doing? This is embarrassing,’” says Dowd.

From a press conference on Staten Island, UFT president Mike Mulgrew, alongside Staten Island borough president Vito Fonsella, had announced that the union was suing the MTA, as well as the federal, state, and city departments of transportation, to halt the policy, which would impose a base toll of $15 on people driving into lower Manhattan. Mulgrew argued that, rather than improving air quality and traffic, congestion pricing would simply shift the gnarled streets and smog to the outer boroughs, where UFT members and their students live and work. These same essential workers and middle-class New Yorkers would also be the ones “forced to shoulder the burden of the MTA’s latest fundraising gambit” as they commuted into the city, per the lawsuit. Mulgrew told the New York Post the union was “sick of this. We’re sick of people just trying to shove things through.”

Except some members seemed to feel the same way about the lawsuit. “I was shocked,” says B, a special-education teacher and union delegate who commutes from East Harlem to the Bronx by the MTA. B says that at a town hall in December, members were told they would hear “‘something about congestion pricing’ in the New Year,” but that was it. Certainly no one voted on anything. Nothing about the policy was even mentioned in the December delegates meeting, he says. (The union did not respond to requests for clarification about the membership’s involvement.)

Now factions across UFT are openly warring on the topic online. “Teachers should be exempt from this toll during school days!” someone who identified as a member commented on UFT’s announcement on Instagram. “Why must we pay the city to work for the city?” “Take public transit if you don’t want to be charged congestion pricing,” another responded, a back-and-forth that played out all day. One person who described himself to me as a “transportation-alternatives type” said congestion pricing was a “no-brainer.” But B, the teacher in the Bronx, says most of his colleagues reacted positively, if at all, simply because “they drive everywhere,” as opposed to himself and a few “non-car-centric” peers who are in favor of congestion pricing. “Maybe all the white teachers who’ve fled the city and insist on driving in aren’t the ideal candidates for our school system,” someone posted on Facebook. “I don’t think it’s only white teachers,” another replied.

Despite the drama in the comments, it’s hard to know exactly how many of UFT’s members will be as impacted by congestion pricing as the lawsuit implied, and why a union of nearly 200,000 people across the five boroughs is teaming up with Staten Island — and footing the bill for the borough. A special-education teacher I talked to, who doesn’t live or work in the toll zone, said she was worried about the environmental impact on her students, most of whom are medically vulnerable and who live in those outer boroughs that UFT says will bear the brunt of increased traffic and pollution. (The MTA has stated that the agency “did a 4,000-page, four-year review of the traffic impacts and the climate impacts to the entire 28-county region” and has committed to mitigation efforts in impacted areas.) Another teacher I spoke to, who commutes to a school on 17th Street in Manhattan from Queens, simply said that he took the subway to work, as did most of his colleagues. The lawsuit claims that 11,515 members live in Staten Island, with 13,385 in the Bronx and 5,571 in New Jersey, but it doesn’t specify how many of those members work in the toll zone and drive to work; the suit names just eight impacted members, but the union did not respond to requests to interview them. Many of the teachers I texted responded with some version of “Hi! I have no idea what you’re talking about,” displaying another distinct category of reaction: total ambivalence.

Ed Calamia, an English teacher at a Bronx school, says he doesn’t support congestion pricing, but he still doesn’t think the leadership should be filing lawsuits on behalf of its members without consulting them first. The move by Mulgrew, he says, is not the first time UFT top brass has acted unilaterally. “Some people think the rank-and-file membership should be involved with decisions, and some people think once they’ve been elected, it’s a dictatorship,” Calamia told me. Mulgrew is a member of the Unity Caucus, the majority voting bloc that has dominated UFT elections since its inception in 1962; Calamia is a member of New Action, one of the few opposition caucuses, which has only a handful of seats on UFT’s executive board of about a hundred. Mulgrew is still embroiled in controversy over a decision to change city retirees’ medical plans, a negotiation that critics say happened behind closed doors. Many responses to the lawsuit on social media referenced this conflict: “So the union that couldn’t care less about retirees’ health care is concerned about pollution in SI and the Bronx,” one read. “Interesting.”

One person, Calamia noted, who very likely cares about the new congestion pricing policy is Mulgrew himself, who lives on Staten Island and commutes to the UFT offices at 52 Broadway, in the toll zone. As do many of those who work with him as UFT leadership. Using the base amount of $15, each staffer commuting from Staten Island would put an extra $3,900 a year in estimated tolls into the MTA’s pockets if they drove to work every day. Calamia says the members haven’t been told what portion of their dues is now going toward reducing the cost of this trip: “How much are we paying the law firm to do this?”

Drama in the Teachers’ Lounge