Mayor's Riddle to UFT: What's My Bottom Line?

Chief Leader - December 01, 2009


Mayor's Riddle to UFT: What's My Bottom Line?

Chief Leader 12/4/09

By RICHARD STEIER When word filtered out that the United Federation of Teachers was preparing to seek a declaration of a bargaining impasse in its contract talks with the city, one veteran official from another union pronounced that the fix was in.

As he outlined it, this would pave the way for an arbitrator to recommend giving the union the same eight percent in raises, with no givebacks, as the Bloomberg administration had previously conferred on several other city unions, from the Sergeants Benevolent Association to Teamsters Local 237, for comparable contract periods.

The Mayor, under his scenario, could shrug his shoulders and decry the whims of outside parties while the bloodhounds at the tabloids joined with those at the Citizens Budget Commission and the Manhattan Institute in baying at this giveaway of public money in a time of budget crisis. Kind of like the hue and cry over the transit union arbitration award, except in this case the Mayor would play a dual role as the management figure doing the nodding and winking.

Taking Aim At UFT

That assessment seemed to sail into the mystic Nov. 25 when Mr. Bloomberg delivered a speech in Washington that amounted to a declaration of war against the UFT and its new president, Michael Mulgrew. (Unless, of course, you are cynical enough to believe that Mr. Bloomberg, like the great wrestlers of our era, believes in putting on a really good show before going into the tank.)

With U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan looking on, the Mayor launched an assault on key elements of the UFT contract, from tenure rights to the requirement that layoffs be made in reverse order of seniority. He also made clear his intention of doing away with a provision his administration previously agreed to protecting the jobs of those in the Absent Teacher Reserve who are excessed because of problems within their schools and can't find new positions in the system.

Mr. Bloomberg couched these changes in terms of maximizing the city's chances of qualifying for Federal stimulus funding under criteria laid out by Mr. Duncan. Clearly a big selling point to state legislators would be the large stream of outside revenue that could be provided at a time when the state is having trouble maintaining the current levels of school aid because of its own budget problems.

The likelihood of accomplishing any of this in Albany, however, dropped immensely when Assembly Speaker Shelly Silver, a man known for playing his cards slowly and waiting for a consensus to emerge among his members before taking controversial stands, jumped in with uncharacteristic speed and proclaimed the changes being sought were "all contractual issues that should be dealt with at the bargaining table."

This seemingly bland description amounted to a declaration that the Mayor's plan was Dead on Arrival even before it could reach Albany. Support for this notion was offered by State Sen. Diane Savino, an influential member of the Legislature's upper house, who said that while there is a good probability that the Mayor's request for an increase in the number of charter schools will be approved, changes ending seniority-based layoffs or making it easier to fire Teachers are "not going to happen" through Albany action.

A Tough Man to Steamroll

After their clashes over congestion pricing and a West Side football stadium, which brought him even less success than the Jets have experienced lately, Mr. Bloomberg knows that, unlike so many of those who helped him win a third term, Mr. Silver can neither be bullied nor bribed into rolling over once he takes a position against something.

There are those, of course, who accuse him of routinely doing the UFT's bidding. Popular legend has it that when a potentially serious challenge to Mr. Silver's Assembly leadership emerged a few years ago, it was derailed by a few stern words in his behalf from then-union President Randi Weingarten, leaving him forever beholden.

But arguments can be made on the merits against most if not all of what the Mayor is seeking.

He offered what sounds like a persuasive analogy to make his case for using student test scores as a key factor in decisions on granting Teachers tenure. Keeping that out of consideration, as a bill pushed through by Mr. Silver last year did, the Mayor argued, was "like saying to hospitals, ‘You can evaluate heart surgeons on any criteria you want -just not patient survival rates.' ''

The trouble is, those test scores are far from a definitive way of assessing how well students are being educated. Mr. Bloomberg and Schools Chancellor Joel Klein like the test scores because they offer data that's easy to measure regarding student progress or lack of it, but those who actually have a background in education contend those tests tell little about how well students are learning.

And making them such a crucial factor in determining how schools rate has heightened the teach-to-the-test mentality that already existed, which is antithetical to providing a quality education in which students actually absorb knowledge rather than memorizing facts that will quickly be forgotten.

Mr. Bloomberg's call for layoffs without regard to seniority also has a nice ring to it-"The only thing worse than having to lay off Teachers would be laying off great Teachers instead of failing Teachers," he said-but skates past several complex matters.

A Motherhood Issue for Unions

One is that seniority protections are the bedrock of union contracts. There are several reasons why they matter, one of which is financial. Just as baseball teams often will cut loose a veteran with a significantly higher salary to keep a lower-paid younger player who's slightly less-talented for payroll reasons rather than based on a judgment about which one will be more valuable in the future, Principals faced with a budget crunch are likely to make choices that give them more spending flexibility. It was precisely that concern that led the UFT to insist that the city remove the financial penalties implicit in hiring senior Teachers who were in the Absent Teacher Reserve rather than new instructors who would receive far-lower salaries.

Seniority is also a safeguard against job cuts being based on favoritism. Less-experienced Teachers, especially those who haven't yet received tenure, are not as likely to stand up for their rights as veteran staffers who may have realized from experience that being too compliant undermined their career development. And while it is nice to assume that Principals will always exercise scrupulously fair judgment in deciding whom to lay off, some of them can be as arbitrary and vindictive as other officials-Mr. Klein, for instance- who have been frustrated by the union contract at some point.

And so between Mr. Silver's opposition in Albany and Mr. Mulgrew's need to establish himself politically-both within the union and in the larger municipal universe-by resisting the changes sought by the Mayor, it would seem that the Bloomberg plan could effectively be stymied by UFT resistance.

UFT Contract Leverage Limited

But that doesn't mean Mr. Bloomberg cannot deprive the union of a contract continuing the citywide bargaining pattern he has established during the past 29 months starting with the SBA deal. Even if the union filed for a declaration of impasse and had it granted by the state Public Employment Relations Board, that would not lead to a binding arbitration process unless both sides consented. Instead, the parties typically submit to what is called fact-finding, in which arbitrators hear the two sides' arguments and issue recommendations, but either party has the right to reject them.

Senator Savino said Nov. 27, "I don't think the Mayor wants to go to an arbitration forum." Not when he's got a weapon he might choose to deploy, having done what he could to influence public opinion in his favor with last week's speech and the help of tabloid editorial writers who seem to have a personal stake in bashing the UFT.

As Ms. Savino noted, "The Mayor can pull the trigger on the one weapon at his disposal, which is layoffs." Noting the 2,000-plus city employees- most of them represented by District Council 37-who have either lost their jobs since the spring or are about to, she added, "And in the end, he'll pull the trigger, which the Governor won't."

The Case for Accepting Layoffs

While DC 37's leaders over the past two decades have made significant concessions to avert layoffs, the UFT has not been confronted with a real threat of them since the fiscal crisis of the mid-1970s. Some labor leaders believe accepting layoffs is preferable to making contract givebacks: beyond the political reality that union members who are unhappy about wage or working-condition concessions can vote them out of office while former members can't, there is the worry that they may eventually have to accept layoffs anyway if an economic crisis gets worse despite their sacrifices.

If Mr. Mulgrew shares that sentiment, it could leave Mr. Bloomberg with a tough choice: significant Teacher layoffs might thrill the UFT's enemies, but they could also undermine his education program, which he made his top priority from his first campaign for Mayor eight years ago. It is the same reason it is hard to believe he would risk the blow to morale that would result from forcing Teachers to accept an inferior contract to those already agreed to with other municipal unions.

Until now, he has actually gone in the other direction: boosting Teacher pay more than for other employees in return for work-rule changes, most of which had to do with longer classroom days.

Part of Larger Labor Strategy?

It could be that Mr. Bloomberg is becoming more-confrontational because he doesn't believe his own figures showing marked improvement in overall test scores and graduation rates and thinks more-radical changes are needed. Or, it's possible that he is taking on the city's most-powerful and influential union because the Mayor has concluded that is the way to bring the entire labor movement around to accepting changes in areas like pension and health-benefit costs.

"What he has wanted and has always wanted is ‘legacy' changes," Ms. Savino said.

Making a major difference in the education system would clearly be one. From a budgetary standpoint, getting the unions to consent to having members pay a share of their basic health-care premiums might be equally significant.

State employees already do so, as do transit workers as the result of their 2006 contract. Which is why, Ms. Savino said, notwithstanding the $200 million in health-care savings the Municipal Labor Committee provided under a deal with the administration six months ago, "The MLC is going to find itself without a lot of allies in this fight" if that turns out to be the real bottom line of the Mayor's labor strategy.

Mr. Mulgrew may find out soon enough. For now, it seems likely that the early notion of an orchestrated arbitration award was no more than a provocative fantasy.