Will NYC teachers fight?

December 17, 2010

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.

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.

Incoming New York City School Chancellor Cathie Black
Incoming New York City School Chancellor Cathie Black

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 security.

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.

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 collaboration.

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 corporations.

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."

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 membership.

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 this issue.

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 school budget).

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 could get.

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 closed.

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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