Social studies teacher and wrestling coach, Mike Dowd, says he and his Midwood, NY colleagues found out during a lunch break, while scrolling through their phones, that their union, the United Federation of Teachers (UFT), had filed a federal lawsuit to stop New York City’s congestion pricing program.
Dowd shared his and his colleagues’ initial reaction to hearing the news in an interview with Curbed. “Most people were like, ‘What are they doing? This is embarrassing,’” Dowd told Curbed News.
According to delegates within the UFT, members were told they would hear “something about congestion pricing in the New Year”. However, the December delegate meeting came and went without mention or a vote ahead of the lawsuit filing.
Mike Mulgrew, UFT President, enjoined the union into a lawsuit against the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) on January 4. In addition, the UFT has filed suit against the federal, state, and city departments of transportation to halt a “congestion pricing” policy, which would impose a base toll of $15 on people driving into lower Manhattan.
Mulgrew told the New York Post that the union was “sick of this. We’re sick of people just trying to shove things through.”
“Fewer cars in the [Manhattan Central Business District] (CBD) will reduce emissions and help New York achieve its ambitious climate goals. Less traffic will also be safer for pedestrians and bicyclists. Drivers who enter the CBD will spend less time sitting in traffic and other vehicles including buses, paratransit vehicles, and emergency vehicles will move faster. The program will also raise revenue to fund $15 billion for critical capital projects to modernize and improve the transit system, such as upgrades to the subway signal system; new buses, trains, and subway cars; and accessibility improvements.”
Mulgrew, however, has argued that congestion pricing would shift traffic and congestion to “gnarled streets” and smog to the outer boroughs, where UFT members live.
According to the lawsuit, UFT members would also be “forced to shoulder the burden of the MTA’s latest fundraising gambit.”
While the lawsuit alleges that 11,515 members live in Staten Island, with 13,385 in the Bronx and 5,571 in New Jersey, it doesn’t specify how many of those members work in the toll zone and drive to work. The lawsuit names only eight impacted members.
According to Curbed, one explanation for the lawsuit might be that the UFT offices are within the toll zone. With Mulgrew living in Staten Island, he and many others within leadership would be personally impacted on their commute to UFT offices, located at 52nd and Broadway.
The lawsuit appears to be opening fresh frustrations over so-called union democracy. Nick Bacon, a member of the UFT Executive Board, personally disapproves of the congenstion pricing plan. However, as Co-Chair of the New Action Caucus, the the oldest opposition caucus to the union’s majority voting block, he shares:
“I’m just the teeniest bit concerned that our union leadership was able to miraculously come to this decision without a single ounce of membership input. I’m even more concerned to see that they filed a lawsuit in our name, paying the legal costs with our dues, without first checking with the UFT Delegate Assembly or Executive Board.”
This is not the first time that the union has made unilateral decisions outside of membership input. In March of 2023, Mulgrew faced significant membership backlash over a controversial switch to a privately run Medicare Advantage plan for retirees, now managed by Aetna. Mulgrew played a key role in negotiating the health plan change, which members challenged by circulating a petition, demanding a membership-wide vote prior to “significant changes to active and/or retired members’ healthcare.”
“We call for a membership-wide vote for any significant changes to active and/or retired members’ healthcare. These include any significant changes of our healthcare carriers, limits to our choice of healthcare carriers, or institutions of or raises to premiums, deductibles or copayments, etc.,” read the petition by UFT activist group Educators of NYC.
It’s currently unclear what amount of membership dues have been committed to the lawsuit.
Are you a public employee union member, working towards direct democracy within your union’s leadership structure? We would love to hear from you about your efforts. Email your story, and experience to Breeauna@afft.org.