Retired Teachers Seek Union Shakeup to Dodge Medicare Advantage

In the New York City teachers union, anger over a plan to privatize retiree health care could send a longshot campaign over the edge.

Sam Mellins   ·   February 26, 2024
People gather outside a stone arch with sign that says "Hospital & Emergency Room" displaying letters A, C, D, F, G, H, and an emergency cross.
The entrance to the Bellevue Hospital Administration Building at 27th Street and First Avenue. | Beyond My Ken via Wikimedia Commons

A group of dissident retired public school teachers is seeking to take over part of the New York City teachers union in an upcoming election — and they hope to galvanize opposition over a proposed change to retirees’ health care and turn it into votes this June.

Retirees fear that the proposed change — a shift from public Medicare to private Medicare Advantage plans — could leave them with higher costs and fewer benefits. It’s been a major source of controversy since New York Focus broke the news of the proposal nearly three years ago. Though the plan has been on ice since last year, when a court sided with retirees who sued to block it, it still looms large as the city pursues an appeal.

With fear and anger running high, a group of retired teachers known as Retiree Advocate hopes those feelings will propel its insurgent slate into leadership positions at the retiree chapter of the United Federation of Teachers. The teacher union is one of the foremost backers of the Medicare Advantage switch.

“Our plan for the campaign is about preserving our Medicare and standing up to the union leadership,” said Bennett Fischer, a Retiree Advocate member who is running for retiree chapter leader.

The union, which represents the city’s public school teachers, has been led by the dominant Unity Caucus since 1962. Though it’s been around for decades, Retiree Advocate has never succeeded in challenging the Unity Caucus.

The group hopes to change that this spring, when the UFT will hold elections for 25 leadership positions in its retiree chapter and the 300 seats reserved for retirees in the union’s delegate assembly, a 3,400-seat body that effectively serves as the union’s legislature. Retiree Advocate is running for all 325 positions. The votes are cast by caucus, not by candidate, and whichever party gets a majority of the votes wins all of the slots.

If successful, Retiree Advocate members plan to advocate against the Medicare Advantage switch and for better pensions and health benefits for working teachers, members told New York Focus. They also want to build energy to challenge UFT leadership in the union’s general election next year.

Though that more ambitious goal might be out of reach, winning the upcoming election could still be a sign, according to Joshua Freeman, labor historian and professor emeritus at CUNY.

“A change of leadership of the retiree chapter might make a difference in the battle over Medicare Advantage, since the UFT and [UFT President] Mike Mulgrew have been among the strongest supporters of moving retirees from traditional Medicare to Medicare Advantage,” he said.

“The opposition is across factions and caucuses.”

—Bennett Fischer, Retiree Advocate candidate

Winning 300 of the 3,400 assembly seats wouldn’t necessarily enable Retiree Advocate to make the whole union change its position on Medicare Advantage. But it could send a signal and provide a bully pulpit for advocacy against the health care switch and on other issues, Retiree Advocate members said.

“You would have the people most affected by the change actually organizing in opposition to it,” said Norm Scott, a spokesperson for Retiree Advocate.

The caucus could recruit additional members to oppose the Medicare Advantage switch and pass resolutions opposing it, Fischer said.

The current leadership, meanwhile, has discouraged dissent from the plan. Tom Murphy, a Unity Caucus member who has served as president of the retired teachers chapter since at least 2011, has supported the health care switch and criticized its opponents.

“As a middle child, having grown up in a family that spoke to one another respectfully, I try to foster positive interactions,” Murphy wrote in a column last spring, chiding members for an “outburst” over the switch at a retirees meeting. As teachers, he wrote, “we were on the front lines of setting the tone of good behavior for students entering society, but it’s still important for us to be guardians of civility.”

People stand in front of a New York City newsstand holding a sign that says "Retiree Advocate/UFT Protecting Retirees Supporting Working Members Fighting for Public Education"
Retiree Advocate members rally in New York City on February 16. | Norm Scott

Three years ago, news of the proposed Medicare switch drove Retiree Advocate’s most spirited challenge in years. When the plan became public, just a few weeks before the election for leadership of the retiree caucus, Retiree Advocate started organizing in opposition, stressing what it might mean for retired teachers’ health care.

When the votes were tallied, Unity emerged with a clear victory, but Retiree Advocate won 30 percent of the vote, a high water mark for its recent efforts.

The leaders of Retiree Advocate hope to build on that momentum in the upcoming election. Several signs show that opposition to the potential Medicare change remains a powerful motivating force.

For one, it’s become much easier for Retiree Advocate to recruit candidates. In 2021, Retiree Advocate recruited 130 candidates to run for the chapter’s 300 delegate slots, leaving the rest uncontested.

In the runup to this year’s election, Retiree Advocate got more applications than available slots. According to Michael Shulman, a current Retiree Advocate candidate who has been following the caucus’s activities since the 1980s, that was a new phenomenon.

“We’ve never seen this kind of support for the opposition slate,” he said.

Even in parts of the union where the Unity Caucus dominates, there have been signs of dissent. UFT leadership established a committee of retired members focused on health care issues in 2021. That committee hasn’t met since late 2022, Fischer and Retiree Advocate member Sarah Shapiro told New York Focus, shutting down after intense opposition to the health care switch from a broad array of members.

“The reason we’re not meeting isn’t because me and a couple of other pains in the ass from Retiree Advocate were complaining,” Fischer said. “That committee is shut down because the opposition to this is across factions and caucuses.”

Some dissatisfied Unity caucus members have recently reached out to Retiree Advocate about getting involved with the challenge to union leadership, Shulman said. “I don’t mean tons of them, but we’re getting a good number of people who were once Unity stalwarts,” he said.

Turnout in the retiree chapter elections has generally been fairly low, so boosting participation will prove key to achieving victory. In 2021, only about a third of the 70,000 retired members voted. And Unity Caucus’s control of the UFT’s communications apparatus and email lists gives it a significant advantage for driving turnout.

Though Retiree Advocate has collected several thousand emails through its organizing effort, “we don’t control the mailing list,” Fischer said. “We’re not going to get access to it.”

Retiree Advocate has received support and assistance from other retirees opposed to the switch. They include the New York City Organization of Public Service Retirees, which formed in opposition to the change and has spearheaded the so-far successful legal strategy to block it.

“Retirees have to support retirees, because it seems like nobody else does,” said Marianne Pizzitola, the organization’s president. Her group has helped Retiree Advocate put out communications and broadcast its events, including contacting retired teachers to make them aware of the election.

“I applaud Retiree Advocate for putting up candidates and getting 300-plus people to try to take back their retiree chapter,” Pizzitola said.

If it’s successful in this year’s election, Retiree Advocate has its sights set on a bigger target: the overall UFT elections next year, when the long-serving president, Michael Mulgrew, and the other leadership members will be up for reelection.

“If we won this election, it would give a shot in the arm to the opposition and make people look at next year’s general election as winnable,” said Scott, the Retiree Advocate spokesperson.

Sam Mellins is senior reporter at New York Focus, which he has been a part of since launch day. His reporting has also appeared in The San Francisco Chronicle, The Intercept, THE CITY, and The Nation. 
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