Marley’s Ghost and Visions of a Bleak Future, How Will the Union Respond?


“The cold within him froze his old features, nipped his pointed nose, made his eyes red, his thin lips blue, and he spoke out shrewdly in his grating voice … Bah! Humbug!” 
A Christmas Carol, 1843.
In the spring of 1975 I was elected by the UFT Executive Board to serve on the fifteen member negotiating team.  It was intimidating, sitting around the bargaining table with Al Shanker and the other founders of the union … since I didn’t know any better I argued with them … a little. Teachers were anxious to make up for the cap on salaries in 1972 as a result of the Nixon imposed wage-price freeze. In those days demands came from individual schools, divisional committees as well as the floor of the Delegate Assembly – we had hundreds of demands.

Someone asked Al Shanker, “How much would it cost for all the demands?”

Al hesitated, and replied, “A gold ball the size of earth.”

The negotiations dragged on into the summer, with continuing rumors of dire fiscal problems for the city. I thought it was simply a negotiating ploy.

We negotiated with Board of Education apparachniks, increasingly Central Board members sat in, representatives of the community school boards were being consulted by the central board, and the mayor, invisible at negotiations, ultimately, had to approve the dollars. It was a cumbersome system, with no clear accountability on the management side.

At that time the union had a “no contract, no work” policy. As we approached the Labor Day weekend we heard that layoff letters were going out to teachers. Was it a tactic? After a vituperative negotiating committee meeting, by a close vote, we recommended to extend the contract for a month to assess the situation.

When we got to the Delegate Assembly we heard story after story of total chaos at schools with masses of layoffs – we withdrew our contract extension position and the strike was on …

The city seemed to welcome the strike – the lost wages and 2:1 Taylor penalties were a boon, and, Herman Badillo was arguing for a city default, so that city labor contracts and pensions laws could be rewritten.

The strike ended after five days, and, in October the union agreed to bail out the city by having the Teachers Retirement System buy city bonds.

Shanker, shrewdly, ended the strike quickly, without any core losses in the contract, and bailed out the city.
A few days ago I read a local blogger musing about the next contract and the “pattern” set by the DC 37 agreement.
Guys, the problem is not the next contract. The problem is the failing economy.
Tax revenues are falling every month in both the city and the state. The mayor has already instructed city agencies to plan a 5% cut for the next fiscal year, then an additional 7%. The state is looking to cut 15 billion dollars from a 147 billion dollar budget.
Cries for a statewide property tax cap, for a new pension tier with lower benefits, for retirees to pay part of health plans, and, the abandonment of additional fiscal equity law suit dollars are widespread
Bob Herbert, in an excellent op ed piece in the NY Times  says this is not the time to “punish” teachers.
These are perilous times with a very uncertain future. No one can dispute the seriousness of our economic problems. On the eve of the layoffs in 1975 teachers did not believe that the city was on the edge of default. Teachers today do not see the seriousness of the current morass. After all, no one has been laid off, each crisis has been resolved. Each assault by the mayor or chancellor has been repulsed, the union suffers from too much success. A “don’t worry, Randi will solve it,” attitude, and, on the other hand, “what has she done for us lately?”
The recession/depression will run it’s course, a few years, or, perhaps, longer. For many this is an opportunity to pry away contractual benefits, to restructure pensions and health plans, an opportunity to take advantage of weakness and restructure school management and school funding.
Creating a “cheaper” school system will impact achievement in classrooms, it is an assault on the children we teach.
The management theory types, the Educational Equality Project folks, the voucher crowd, will all say dollars don’t matter; proper management and teachers matter. In a disastrous economy the line for teaching jobs will be endless. They will argue we no longer need high salary and benefit packages to attract teachers.
Can Randi “fix it?”
Is this an opportunity for the union to refocus and work as real partners with school systems, or, will unions battle to retain core member benefits alone?
I’ve heard senior teachers say, “I don’t care about layoffs, young teachers don’t stay, I want raises and job protection,” and, younger teachers proffer, “senior teachers only care about themselves and don’t care about the kids.”
Ebenezer Scrooge  was taken into the future by Marley’s ghost … he saw a bleak landscape, and was “scared straight.” 
How will the union respond?

2 responses to “Marley’s Ghost and Visions of a Bleak Future, How Will the Union Respond?

  1. Indeed there is a disconnect to the dire reality of what is shaping up to be a global implosion.

    Tweed also needs to understand though that the embarrassing executive salaries it has been feeding the administrative end must by necessity see reductions. 150K for a small school principal? $160+ for Tweed wonks with dubious value added? It is not just the teachers who need to think rescaling. It must be a unilateral reduction. And depending on how much air goes out of the balloon, it is just a matter of time before comfortable TRS retirees see their monthly checks shrinking also. It will no longer be a matter of choice. It will be a matter of destiny.


  2. We have no choice but to offer incentives for higher paid teachers to leave in order to make room for lower salaried employees; otherwise our students will suffer immeasurably. School budgets must be trimmed, and if principals have to budget for higher paid teachers then all the extracurricular programs will disappear because of lack of funds. Let’s not pit newer teachers against seasoned staff, let’s provide options so all may benefit. In this recession/depression we need an incentive package that will entice veteran teachers to retire in order to save hundreds of millions of dollars and prevent costly layoffs. Let’s save our schools and help our students through this unprecedented economic crisis.


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