New York City teachers deserve a better deal

May 7, 2014

New York City teacher Kevin Prosen analyzes the long-awaited tentative agreement on a new contract that will be presented to the UFT's Delegate Assembly.

AFTER A five-year stalemate with the administration of ex-New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) and new Mayor Bill de Blasio have reached a tentative contract agreement for the more than 90,000 educators in the city's public schools.

The UFT is the first major contract to be negotiated of the 152 agreements with city unions that expired under Bloomberg. The effect of this stonewalling was to impose a wage freeze on public-sector workers in New York during the billionaire mayor's final years in office--and leave a ticking financial time bomb for his successor to defuse, with an estimated $7.8 billion in retroactive pay increases at stake when the city finally started negotiating again.

De Blasio won the mayor's office with a populist campaign against the drastic increase in inequality under Bloomberg, and he had strong support from unions. Now, the UFT's tentative agreement is being hailed as a vindication of that support by pro-labor figures such as Democracy Now! co-host Juan Gonzalez and public education advocate Diane Ravitch.

UFT President Michael Mulgrew (right) with Mayor Bill de Blasio
UFT President Michael Mulgrew (right) with Mayor Bill de Blasio (Rob Bennett | Office of the Mayor)

But the deal has also been hailed by the anti-union New York Daily News. The New York Times praised the agreement for providing "flexibility" in work rules and dismissal practices, as well as for setting a low bar for other unions' economic demands.

The UFT leadership, too, is presenting the agreement as a groundbreaking "Contract for Education," but it has been received with suspicion and disappointment by many rank-and-file members. Details about the deal are still emerging, but there appear to be major concessions on work rules, job security and pay--including many items that have been at the top of the corporate school reform wish list for years.

Teachers' lack of access to the details of the agreement--in contrast to the lavish rhetoric of UFT leaders selling the tentative deal--is a problem in itself. Members of the UFT Delegate Assembly will meet on Wednesday to vote on a Memorandum of Agreement without sufficient time to read and digest its 47 pages, much less discuss it with rank-and-file members.

NEW YORK City's school teachers, paraprofessionals and nurses are owed retroactive pay for the five years they have worked without a raise. While the agreement allows for two 4 percent increases for 2009 and 2010, these retroactive wage hikes are followed by several successive years of pay freezes or increases below the rate of inflation. Teachers won't receive their full retroactive pay until 2020--and if they resign, they won't get this money at all.

This will likely result in a major cost savings in the long run--it amounts to a loan on generous terms from union members to the city.

The chief means of offsetting the retroactive payouts is undisclosed cost-cutting in the city's health care plan for municipal workers--something that will not only impact teachers but other city workers, since the deal with the UFT will set a pattern in bargaining with other unions. If the necessary cuts in health care costs aren't achieved, a special arbitrator will be empowered to impose them--including forcing payments for health care premiums.

There are also major givebacks on due process and job security. These provisions relate to the Absent Teacher Reserve (ATR) pool.

While the media often portrays these teachers as incompetent or conflates them with people in the notorious "rubber room" reassignment centers, in fact, most ATRs are teachers who lost their position due to school closures or budget cuts, and were unable to find a new job. These teachers are usually veterans, on the higher end of the pay scale, and principals are therefore reluctant to hire them. They still collect their full salary and move from school to school as full-time substitutes.

The system is the consequence of the elimination of seniority transfer rights under the 2005 contract negotiated by Bloomberg and former UFT President Randi Weingarten. Protection and placement for ATRs was a "red line" for the UFT throughout the Bloomberg administration and one of the major reasons why there was no contract settlement for so long.

Under the terms of the new proposal, the city's Department of Education (DOE) will facilitate the placement of ATRs in positions in their district. However, if two principals document "unprofessional" behavior, there will be an expedited process in place for dismissal after a one-day hearing within 50 days. In short, ATRs now have different due process rights than other UFT members.

Another item plucked from the education reform wish list is merit pay, which is being sold by the union as a "career ladder" for teachers. These provisions will allow for the creation of three tiers of "master" teachers (who will make $20,000 more per year) and "model" and "ambassador" teachers making $7,500 more per year.

This is in line with anti-union Gov. Andrew Cuomo's plan to increase the pay of teachers deemed "highly effective" under a new, deeply flawed teacher evaluation system based on standardized test scores--and with Education Secretary Arne Duncan's "Teacher Incentive Fund," designed to create merit-based compensation schemes nationally.

The allocation of the master, model or ambassador positions is likely to be highly divisive, and concerns are already circulating among the rank-and-file about favoritism.

Another worrisome provision is the proposal for new "PROSE" schools--which stands for Progressive Redesign Opportunity Schools for Excellence in the awkward bureaucratic lingo of the DOE. The details of the contract language need to be studied, but the PROSE process--under which schools can, with 65 percent approval from its staff, exempt themselves from sections of the union contract and chancellor's regulations, including, it seems, those governing the length of the school day and year--could open the door to groups hoping to impose the school reform agenda.

THE UFT contract is the ideal test case for evaluating the policy of labor-management collaboration dubbed "solution-driven unionism." According to Randi Weingarten, who in 2008 moved from head of the UFT to the presidency of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT):

Solution-driven unionism is rooted in solving problems, not winning arguments. AFT affiliates are pursuing this approach, and we are encouraging many more to follow suit. We know that this tough climate--marked by increasing poverty, continuing budget cuts, and a recession-fueled resurgence in attacks on unions and public services--can't stop us from having a proactive quality education agenda. To the contrary--while we will continue to fight for the resources children need, we must also devise innovative, creative and new approaches to help all children succeed.

These "innovative" approaches include support for the controversial and untested Common Core Standards, tying teachers' evaluations to high-stakes test scores, loosening job security protections if teachers are deemed "incompetent" (a dubious accusation in this anti-teacher climate), embracing merit pay and "thin" contracts, and collaborating with anti-union politicians like Arne Duncan and Rahm Emanuel, as well as corporate reform "philanthropists" like Bill Gates--though Weingarten recently had to terminate this last relationship under pressure from the membership.

If ever Weingarten's approach was going to produce a good contract for teachers, it would be now in New York City--with a new liberal mayor who ran as a friend of labor and appeared on the union-backed Working Families Party ballot line. De Blasio's newly appointed schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña is a lifelong educator--a stark contrast to the parade of corporate boardroom refugees, with no classroom experience, who ran the DOE under Bloomberg--who the UFT praises as somebody it can work with.

Instead of the contract New York teachers and students deserve, however, the tentative agreement contains a series of concessions that Bloomberg would have been happy to sign off on. It appears to have been negotiated out of concern for how to insulate de Blasio from attacks by the right wing, rather than what teachers need now.

De Blasio has carefully positioned himself to appear pro-labor, while implementing the corporate reform program embraced by the mainstream of the Democratic Party--as well as the leaders of the UFT and AFT. What we know about the tentative agreement reflects that barren partnership.

Rather than seeing their role as a bolster for the Democratic Party, unions should be positioning themselves as allies of the wider community. If teachers' unions are to survive, they will have to abandon Weingarten's "solution-driven" model of sidling up to the powerful and commit itself to a program of educational justice, based on the democratic participation of their members.

This model of unionism was responsible for the transformation of the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) when the insurgent Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators (CORE), led by Karen Lewis, swept into office. The CTU electrified the labor movement with its 2012 strike, which activated not only rank-and-file teachers but widespread working-class support to take on a powerful Democratic Party mayor.

Around the country, teachers unions are beginning to win strong contacts precisely by breaking with the standard AFT model. In Oregon, the Portland Association of Teachers won class size reductions and other gains precisely because they were able to mobilize alongside parents and students, and pose a credible strike threat. One key to the St. Paul, Minn., teachers' contract victory was the union's system of "open bargaining," in which representatives of the community were brought to the table, unlike the secretive backdoor negotiations that characterize the UFT.

These are the kind of innovative approaches to unionism that will be necessary to stem the tide of corporate education reform.

In New York, rank-and-file members of the UFT are already beginning to coordinate a "Vote No" campaign to demand a better deal from de Blasio and the city. Rejecting this offer would have a huge impact--in New York, where the other city unions are waiting in line for negotiations, and nationally, inside the AFT. A challenge like this points toward a different model of teacher unionism, one based on the power of members rather than the political elites.

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