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Analysis: Peter Lamphere and Lee Sustar
======== WILL NYC TEACHERS RETREAT OR FIGHT? ==============================
New York City teacher *Peter Lamphere* and SocialistWorker.org journalist
*Lee Sustar* ask whether the United Federation of Teachers is able to resist
a wave of new attacks.
December 17, 2010
WILL TEACHERS in New York City swallow the labor-management "cooperation"
that their union is promoting across the U.S.?
Over the past year, American Federation of Teachers (AFT) President Randi
Weingarten has intervened in negotiations between local school districts and
AFT locals across the U.S., pushing contracts that undermine--if not
abandon--the traditional core of teacher collective bargaining agreements.
In cities like Baltimore, Washington, D.C., New Haven, Pittsburgh and
elsewhere, Weingarten has advocated deals that undermine tenure, impose
unreliable evaluation systems based on student test scores and divide
teachers with merit pay. And if she makes it happen in New York, she'll make
it happen everywhere.
Yet coming to an agreement that Weingarten can sell to her home local, the
United Federation of Teachers (UFT), isn't so easy.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg's choice of a magazine executive, Cathie Black, to
serve as schools chancellor highlights his ongoing campaign to bring
corporate style management to the New York City public schools. Black can be
expected to follow in the footsteps of her predecessor, Joel Klein, who
aggressively pushed nonunion charter schools and worked at every turn to
undermine tenure and other job security provisions.
Bloomberg's main goals include the imposition of teachers' evaluation
schemes, winning the ability to lay off teachers without recourse to
seniority, and to terminate displaced teachers who lose their job at a
particular school, but who continue to draw a paycheck while they look for
employment elsewhere in the system.
Some of those issues have been sticking points for UFT President Michael
Mulgrew, who was succeeded by Weingarten in August 2009. Contract
negotiations have dragged on for months past the October 31, 2009, deadline,
and the deal is currently before a New York state fact-finding board that
oversees public-sector labor talks.
The UFT is holding out for the same pay raise deal that New York City gave to
other public-sector unions--4 percent each year over two years. But Bloomberg
countered months ago that the teachers should instead take a two-year wage
freeze to save jobs. It's become increasingly clear that Bloomberg is
determined that any pay increase be tied to union concessions on job
Adding to the pressure on the UFT is incoming Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who made
attacks on public-sector unions--in particular teachers--a central part of
his campaign. Cuomo is demanding that public-sector unions surrender good
pensions and other benefits to solve New York State's fiscal crisis.
Moreover, Cuomo will be overseeing the enforcement of the state's new
legislation passed to comply with the federal Race to the Top program in
which the White House used $4.3 billion in competitive grants to spur
education "reform." The New York law includes a new evaluation system partly
based on standardized test scores that is already being implemented in
targeted "transformation" schools on a pilot basis.
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FOR TEACHERS unions, this multi-pronged attack should be a signal to rally
their forces and fight back. Instead, AFT President Weingarten is presiding
over a full-scale retreat in the name of "compromise."
Thus, the December 2010/January 2011 issue of the AFT's /American Teacher/
trumpeted Weingarten's participation, along with National Education
Association President Dennis van Roekel, at an October summit with Education
Secretary Arne Duncan in Hillsborough, Fla., to celebrate a recent contract
deal that pushed the timeline for tenure to four years and ties teacher pay
to student performance on standardized tests.
For his part, Duncan--who oversaw the expansion of charter schools and school
closures as CEO of Chicago Public Schools--announced that the unions would
join the Department of Education in 2011 for a conference on labor-management
Now, Weingarten has to figure out how much of this she can sell to the
100,000-member UFT. Her credibility to sell concessions is lessened by the
fact that she rose through the UFT's hierarchy not as a teacher, but as an
attorney and negotiator. In the 1990s, Weingarten worked part-time as a
teacher for a few years to acquire the credentials necessary to become UFT
president in 1998, and has been head of the AFT since 2008.
Weingarten's successor as UFT president, Michael Mulgrew, cuts a different
image, and often takes a confrontational tone. That helped him and his Unity
Caucus slate to an overwhelming victory in the 2010 union elections as
contract negotiations dragged on. Now, however, with contract talks in the
fact-finding phase and Cuomo set to take office, the end game in bargaining
is at hand--and there's no sign that Mulgrew is about to put up a fight.
Indeed, the Cathie Black controversy has shown just how hollow the UFT
leadership has become. With community leaders and politicians across the city
furious that Bloomberg appointed a businesswoman like Black as schools
chancellor with no education credentials, the UFT could have mobilized its
allies to fight for a public hiring process and demand that the schools be
headed by an education professional.
The UFT's weak response--a complaint about the selection process--was a
missed opportunity. The union failed to join other community groups in
opposing the state waiver that allowed Black to take the chancellor's job
despite her lack of education credentials.
The mayor did agree to appoint an education veteran as Black's deputy to
appease critics--but made it clear that it would in no way impinge upon his
drive to reshape the New York public schools in the interests of
Even before a new contract is finalized, the city is imposing new criteria
for granting tenure for teachers. As the /New York Times/ reported ,
>[P]rincipals are directed to base their decisions on an elaborate system
>that measures teachers' success in and outside the classroom, including
>student performance on standardized tests...
>The guidelines ask principals to give new teachers one of four
>ratings--highly effective, effective, developing or ineffective--in each of
>three categories: "instructional practice," "professional contributions" and
>"impact on student learning."
>To be considered for tenure, teachers must receive a rating of effective or
>highly effective for at least two consecutive years in all three categories.
>Teachers who earn "developing" ratings can have their probations extended,
>and those deemed "ineffective" will be denied tenure.
In short, the new criteria give principals more say over who gets tenure. And
there will be pressure from the top to deny tenure more often: The /Times/
report adds that the "new chancellor, Cathleen P. Black, has already signaled
that tenure will remain one of the Education Department's targets."
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THE DEMANDS for concessions from the UFT follow major givebacks by the union
in the last contract. As Marian Swerdlow of the UFT opposition group Teachers
for a Just Contract put it:
>We have not negotiated a contract since 2006, which was earlier than most or
>all of these other national contracts. Since 2006, the UFT leadership has
>allowed the city to change the "facts on the ground" without a new contract.
>For example, it has allowed the Department of Education to designate some
>members as "master teachers," who, for the addition of a modest number of
>duties, receive higher salaries, which is a form of individual merit pay.
>It has in fact made an agreement with the state to allow almost half of a
>teacher's evaluation to be based on student data, and to create a new system
>that reduces the due process rights that comprise tenure. Finally, it has
>gutted tenure by giving up--in the 2005 contract--the right of excessed
>teachers to get positions in other schools, which created the Absent Teacher
>Reserve (ATR) pool. Teachers in the ATR pool have no seniority rights. The
>next contract will further codify and worsen these defeats.
In this round of negotiations, the city's Department of Education (DOE)
opened bargaining by making outlandish demands. These included: giving
principles the ability to "excess" teachers based on their performance,
rather than low enrollment or a change in program; the ability to fire
excessed teachers after four months if they have not been able to secure a
new position; cutting the number of sick days from 10 to 5; and the
elimination of release time for union activity and all sabbaticals, except
for health reasons.
By contrast, the initial UFT demands  were extremely weak . They
include only asking for a substantial salary increase, reforms to the school
budgeting process, and the creation of an apprenticeship program.
Despite the wide gap in the two sides' bargaining positions, matters haven't
come to a head because of the New York state Taylor laws, which ban strikes
by public-sector employees. Under those laws, the old contract is
automatically extended--and the UFT leadership has argued against a strike
because such an action would supposedly abrogate the old contract, which,
they say, would allow the city DOE to impose contract terms.
As a result of the stalemated bargaining, contract talks have moved into
mediation, followed by a fact-finding hearing by the New York Public
Employment Relations Board (PERB). The PERB fact-finders then issue a
statement that is supposed to serve as the basis for a final settlement.
So far, there's been little sign of movement from the fact-finders. But UFT
activists are already organizing against concessions that they expect to be
included in the contract that they expect to be put before the rank and file:
-- *Health care and pensions*: These are usually big contract topics. But
this time, the UFT has made concessions already. In 2009, the UFT joined with
other municipal unions in agreeing to $400 million in health care concessions
 by New York City public employees unions and accepted an inferior pension
scheme for incoming teachers , disguised as a victory by winning after 25
years and 55 years of age (at little cost to the city) for the in-service
-- *Evaluations*: The UFT and New York state agreed--as part of negotiations
around the state's Race to the Top application last May--to an evaluation
scheme that based up to 40 percent of teacher evaluations on test scores,
including 20 percent value added on state tests and 20 percent to be
negotiated by districts, with 60 percent on a rubric based on principal
evaluations and other documentation. This is to be combined with a four-step
evaluation scale. Teachers with two consecutive years on the bottom rung will
face automatic proceedings for firing.
The UFT trumpeted the fact that nothing could move forward on evaluations
until the details were worked out between the district and the union, a
process mandated by state law. However, such a deal could be a major side
agreement to a contract deal, and might not be able to be voted on by the
membership, because the evaluation process is legally required. Given the
union's pathetic response around the city's attempt to publish teacher data
reports--a lawsuit, but no action--the UFT appears prepared to cave on the
test-based evaluation issue.
-- *Seniority*: The city made a large public campaign last spring of trying
to get rid of state laws requiring that teachers be laid off in order of
seniority. The legislative effort was defeated, but served a useful PR
purpose in the fight over potential layoffs.
But even the elimination of excessing by seniority (excessed teachers have to
find a position in another school, but are not laid off) would quickly
destroy any remaining shreds of shop-floor organization left in the UFT, as a
principal could simply remove an active union member from the school on any
pretext. Worryingly, the UFT has not made any promises to hold the line on
-- *Job security* The centerpiece demand by the city has been the right to
lay off excessed personnel (numbering 1,800 at last count) after four months
outside of a job at a school. Such a concession would dramatically accelerate
the school-closing onslaught and give principals an incentive to trim costs
by excessing teachers (currently, teachers who are excessed stay on the
The union has vehemently and consistently said that it would not cave on this
particular issue. But given the AFT's retreat on this issue in other cities,
a concession is quite possible.
-- *Wages* The union's demands are for 4 percent raises for each of two
consecutive years, which is exactly the pattern awarded to the biggest
municipal union, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal
Employees District Council 37 (DC 37), in a deal negotiated before the
financial crisis hit, in exchange for DC 37's quiescence and an endorsement
of Bloomberg in the last mayoral election.
Since then, Mayor Bloomberg has scaled back the money allocated for raises
from 4 parcent to 2 percent to 0 percent--supposedly to compensate for
canceling layoffs in November 2009 and June 2010. However, the $200 million
in federal education jobs money allocated to New York City could be used to
pay for these raises. Getting that money will take a fight, however. More
state budget cuts are guaranteed when Andrew Cuomo takes office.
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
WHAT KIND of deal for the UFT might emerge in this environment?
There is potential for an agreement in which Bloomberg comes up with cash to
pay a substantial raise--say 3-4 percent--in exchange for some of the major
concessions that the city is after. The UFT would dress this up as a victory
(as they did with the evaluation deal), and say that it is the best that they
There are some signs that such an agreement might be possible. First, there
was a deal around closing schools over the summer of 2010, which allowed the
state to begin implementing the modified evaluation proposal in 11
"transformation" schools that were no longer slated to be closed. The DOE
also opened small schools inside existing schools that are still slated to be
Incidentally, many of the schools on the closure list have union chapters led
by prominent oppositionists--including James Eterno, the opposition candidate
for UFT president in the 2010 union elections.
"Mayor Bloomberg knows full well that he can't break the UFT through
collective bargaining, so he is probably going to launch a PR offensive to
try to get seniority laws changed by the legislature in Albany," Eterno said.
"School closings fit in because it will result in thousands of ATRs, and we
will be demonized for sure on the data reports, too. The overall purpose is
to change seniority law and fire senior people like me."
Whether or not there is a new round of anti-teacher legislation, the UFT and
the city apparently prefer to have the outlines of a contract imposed by the
fact-finding panel. For the union, it would allow UFT President Mulgrew to
present a concessionary contract as the best available. For Bloomberg, it
would blunt criticism from the section of the establishment that wants an
all-out confrontation with the UFT now in order to break its power for good.
Nevertheless, there is a possibility of a backroom deal before the
fact-finding recommendations are released, or a deal to limit what both sides
argue at the fact-finding panel in order to arrive at an agreed-upon outcome.
Whether the deal can be easily sold to the UFT rank and file is another
question. The membership is in an angry, if pessimistic, mood after enduring
a year of steady teacher-bashing from the national media.
The emergence of a spate of nascent fights around school closings, as well as
the outcry against the anti-union documentary /Waiting for "Superman"/,
points the way forward for potential resistance. The victory of the reform
slate in the 2010 Chicago Teachers Union elections is also clearly an
inspiration for opposition activists across the UFT.
However, the left inside the union is fractured across a wide spectrum of
organizations. The debate on the next contract, depending on what is
conceded, could play a key role in unifying disparate forces around a common
struggle. Struggles now tend to be localized around particular issues--such
as school closures, the publication of teacher data reports, budget cuts,
charter co-locations and the Cathie Black controversy. These, however, can be
the basis for the bigger struggles to come in the spring.
The important tasks for the left in the union is integrating angry new
activists (of which there are plenty) into organized activity (of which there
is not enough), as well as strengthening shop floor organization where
possible. Demands need to be broad-based, and organizations must have open
doors and guard against an internal orientation, while retaining a commitment
to a rank-and-file strategy. Groups should be open to working together, which
could be the first step to a broader coalition. The debate on the new
contract is an excellent place to begin.
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