UFT leaders rushed ahead with a backward deal

November 5, 2018

Educators Peter Lamphere, Bill Linville and Will Russell report from New York City on the ratification of a contract for teachers that contains unnecessary concessions.

EDUCATION WORKERS in the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) voted to approve the latest contract with the New York City Department of Education, with 80 to 85 percent of teachers supporting ratification and with slightly higher percentages among other titles.

But occupational and physical therapists rejected their contract out of anger at long-standing unmet demands for pay parity with pedagogues who have similar education levels. The maximum salary for speech therapists, for example, is over $27,000 more than for occupational and physical therapists.

Now it will be up to these members, along with their brothers and sisters in other titles, to press the union to mobilize as they go back to the table for a better deal.

However, for the rest of the membership, this contract — with below-inflation raises, massive givebacks in health care and an inadequate plan for rescuing struggling schools in the Bronx — falls far short of meeting the needs of the educators and students in New York City public schools.

UFT President Michael Mulgrew speaks as Mayor Bill de Blasio looks on
UFT President Michael Mulgrew speaks as Mayor Bill de Blasio looks on (flickr)

While the approval margin seems overwhelming at first glance, it was only achieved by the anti-democratic practices of the UFT leadership.

Led by the autocratic Unity Caucus, the union leadership negotiated the contract during the summer when teachers were away, with a negotiating committee forbidden to discuss the contract with the rank and file. Then the ratification was rammed through over two and a half weeks, months before the current contract expires in February 2019.

In taking this approach, UFT leaders deprived the membership of time to study the details of the contract — and time for a “vote no, stay union” opposition to form. They also deceptively insisted to members that the contract contained no givebacks, that raises kept pace with the rate of inflation, and that the contract was “member made” with input from rank-and-filers.

In reality, among other worrisome concessions, the contract contains over $1 billion in health care givebacks and the implementation of a two-tiered system of health care benefits for the first time. Furthermore, the agreement doesn’t meet the growing needs of students and vulnerable communities in a city with record levels of segregation and student homelessness.

There are a few standout gains in the contract: the reduction of the required minimum number of yearly observations for each teacher from four to two and increased job security for paraprofessionals, the least protected members of the union.

The UFT leadership has brought worse contracts to the membership to be voted on in the past. Nevertheless, this is a concessionary contract at a time when the city is sitting on a large budget surplus and when teachers are making significant gains both for themselves and their students across the country, through radical actions including strikes.

A major shift in strategy is needed in order to both ensure fair conditions for both public school educators and students — one that looks away from alliances with politicians and toward the radical tactics that were on display in the teacher strikes and rebellions this year in states like West Virginia, Arizona and Washington.

Such a strategy will also need to rely on a key lesson of the successful 2012 Chicago teachers’ strike — by creating an alliance between the teachers’ union movement and students and parents.

AT A moment when unions should be looking to involve more members, the leadership’s rush to vote sent the message to members that their voices aren’t important.

On October 11, a deal was announced in a press conference with Mayor Bill de Blasio, Department of Education Chancellor Richard Carranza and UFT President Michael Mulgrew — in which Carranza spoke of Mulgrew as his, “Brother from another mother.”

Many members wondered why the leadership called a special Delegate Assembly for the next day, given that the upcoming monthly DA was already scheduled to take place within the week, on October 17.

Delegates only received short statements from Mulgrew and the chancellor. They didn’t receive the entire 63-page Memorandum of Agreement until just over an hour before the meeting.

At the meeting, the vast majority of the time was spent by Mulgrew making a PowerPoint presentation selling the contract.

The limited period for discussion — in which no member of the UFT’s opposition caucuses were called on — nevertheless included several speakers who had contrary views on the contract. One member called for a delay in the vote so that chapter leaders and delegates could have time to read the proposal for themselves.

The meeting voted to send the contract to members for ratification, but DOE educators were only given until October 31 to complete the voting process.

The contract itself is the result of a long-standing negotiating process for New York City public-sector union contracts called “pattern bargaining” — in which the first city union that negotiates a contract sets the “pattern” on issues such as health care and wages for the rest of the unions on the Municipal Labor Committee (MLC). In this round, AFSCME Local DC 37 ratified its contract at the end of June, which set the pattern.

The UFT leadership argued that aspects of the contract that were part of the original pattern bargaining agreed to by AFSCME were therefore off the table during subsequent UFT negotiations and impossible to reopen.

However, there have been times when unions have attempted to buck this trend — or when the city has. For example, former Mayor Michael Bloomberg held out in granting the UFT the same pattern of raises that other city unions got for the entirety of his 12 years in office.

Astonishingly, in their attempts to sell the contract to the rank and file, UFT leaders even made the deceptive argument to members that the billion-plus dollars in health care givebacks weren’t contained in the contract because they were part of the original pattern bargaining.

IN TERMS of wages and health care, the contract represents a significant step back for New York City educators.

Kit Wainer, a social studies teacher and UFT chapter leader at Leon M. Goldstein High School in Brooklyn, says he voted “no” for two main reasons: “First, the fact that the raises don’t keep pace with inflation. Second, voting to force first-year teachers into an inferior health plan, even if for only a year, violates my sense of basic union solidarity.”

Annual raises for the 43-month life of the contract will be 2 percent, 2.5 percent and 3 percent — which, despite claims to the contrary by the UFT leadership, won’t meet projected rates of inflation.

We also aren’t keeping up with wage increases for workers throughout the New York City area. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, on average, wages had increased for New York City-area workers by 3.0 percent in the year preceding June 2018.

This contract marks the second agreement in a row with significant concessions on health care. In the last round, the MLC agreed to find a total of $3.4 billion in savings, which resulted in steep increases in co-pays — including $150 for ER visits and $50 for urgent care visits, among other cuts.

In this round, the MLC has agreed to $1.1 billion in cuts over the course of the contract, while also agreeing to a second tier in our health care for the first time. New hires will be required join a significantly more restricted HIP-HMO network for one year, after which they will be able to choose the health plan they prefer.

A new program for high-needs schools, especially in the Bronx, will have a pay differential for teachers in those schools. Unfortunately, the differential will be different for different license areas, creating divisions inside the workforce.

Plus, the additional support appears to be a school-based committee that will primarily look at school data to set goals for improvement, and would require the agreement of the school’s UFT chapter leader and principal, though the details are sketchy.

Mulgrew touted this plan as visionary in his DA presentation. But these are clearly retread market-based solutions. A visionary plan would have included drastically reduced class sizes, expansion of sometimes limited academic opportunities, and additional resources to provide extracurricular activities and further academic support.

There are several additional concessions that will leave most members unsatisfied about the key challenges that they face day to day in the schools:

The union agreed to allow a new “psychological evaluation” for incoming teachers — the details of which are completely unclear at this time.

The creation of additional out-of-classroom positions that come with higher pay will create more divisions between teachers and make it harder to lower class sizes.

Pay differentials for additional education will become more difficult to get, as newer teachers will be required to get new “A+” credits for the differentials. Ironically, the UFT itself will be one of the providers of these credits, and so will end up profiting from the change.

The union agreed to allow an additional dean in schools, weakening the power of school chapters that previously had to vote to create the position.

AMONG THE notable gains in the contract, unpaid suspensions of paraprofessionals will now be subject to review by an arbitrator review and will be limited in duration.

Observation minimums have been reduced, bringing New York City more in line with the rest of the state. However, educators with lower ratings still face more observations, so the change brings no relief to those targeted by abusive administrators.

Grievances for oversized classes will be subject to an expedited calendar for informal resolution at a district and citywide level.

But as Kit Wainer points out, in a mid-October settlement of a grievance regarding nine oversized classes, “an arbitrator issued an order requiring the principal to equalize all classes. Under the new procedure, we would not have been able to request an arbitration hearing until at least October 10, which means we would not have gotten a ruling until sometime in November.”

Similarly, safety and consultation issues will have an informal resolution process, which can be eventually taken to arbitration. There is also a strengthening of the anti-retaliation language in the contract to bring harassment under binding arbitration.

Overall, however, with the exception of the drastic concessions on health care, both the gains and givebacks in this contract are relatively minor compared to what is not included.

Class size limits remain at levels that are unacceptably high for education, unchanged for more than 50 years. Also unchanged is a funding system that penalizes more senior employees and has consigned many veteran members from closed schools to circulating without a permanent position.

THE MEAGER salary increases come at a time when educators elsewhere are demanding more — and winning.

For example, educators in Washington state were able to force the state to release funds to increase teacher salaries — and they followed up with a wave of strikes and actions that led to annual salary increases ranging from 10.5 percent in Seattle to 20 percent and more elsewhere in the state.

Meanwhile, New York City is projecting a budget surplus of $4.6 billion for fiscal year 2018, the largest in 10 years. If this is the best that we can do while the economy is doing relatively well and the city’s coffers are flush, what should we expect when the economy takes a downturn?

A “progressive” mayor who campaigned on the slogan of “a tale of two cities” should be forced to do better than making the working class pay for health care concessions.

A great place to start looking for an alternative vision would be the example of educators in the “red state rebellions” — who mobilized rank-and-file members in a series of escalating actions that culminated in walkouts and dragged union leaders behind them.

The entire political landscape around education has changed since last spring’s teachers strikes. Walkouts in red states have spilled over into liberal strongholds like Washington — with strikes in Los Angeles and Oakland possible in the coming months.

One result of the educator rebellion has been that public opinion about teachers and striking has shifted drastically. There is broad public support for these kind of actions: A recent poll found that “78 percent of public school parents (and 73 percent of the public) say they would support teachers in the own communities if they went on strike for higher pay.”

The UFT rank and file can be activated and organized in this way as well — as shown by the successful campaign for paid family leave last spring. It will be up to rank-and-file organizations like the Movement of Rank and File Educators and Teachers Unite to develop and continue this and other campaigns, such as the fight for lower class sizes, ending segregation and building the Black Live Matter in our schools movement.

The votes for ratification of this concessionary deal represent resignation, rather than enthusiasm. Rank-and-file groups can build off existing anger and frustration among the minority that voted “no” by organizing grassroots campaigns around the issues that matter to teachers and families — like lowering class size, opposition to school closings, and improving health care access for union members and all New Yorkers.

Tens of thousands of teachers, therapists and other education workers voted against this contract — and showed there is a base for future organizing.

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