The Last Yard: The Art of Finessing Differences to Reach a Settlement

Labor disputes end with labor, management and the electeds standing together on the stage agreeing that the settlement is good for children, good for teachers and good for the city, unless the goal is not to reach a settlement.

Unions must convince their membership to vote for the agreement, school boards and electeds must convince the media and eventually the public that the agreement benefits the “people.”

In 1995 the teacher union in New York City, the mayor and the board of education were negotiating for months. The rumors hinted at an increase of three or four percent. In the waning days of August an agreement was announced, a five year contract with no increase in the first two years, referred to as the “double zero” contract. The membership voted down the contract. (Months later they approved the same contract)

The union, inadvertently raised expectations. Any contract less than three percent would have been perceived as a defeat.

In 2005 and 2007 Randi Weingarten and Mayor Bloomberg negotiated contracts that increased salary by 42% – with an extension in the school day. The mayor conducted a vigorous campaign explaining the benefits of a longer school day and how the increases would retain and attract teachers, “selling” the contract in the public arena.

During Al Shanker’s presidency the union submitted many hundreds of bargaining demands. The Delegate Assembly voted to approve the demands and a teacher came to the microphone.

“Al, how much would it cost if we got everything?”

Al smiled, started counting on his fingers and replied,

“A gold ball the size of the Earth.”

In a single response Al made it clear – the demands were more symbolic than real.

Currently the union conducts a membership survey, uses a 300-member negotiating committee and comes to the Delegate Assembly with a thoroughly vetted set of demands.

In Chicago, on the verge of the beginning of what will be a contentious negotiation a video is released in which the narrator, Juan Williams, claims, the union is “radically politicized” and is “repeatedly providing terrible examples for Chicago’s schoolchildren.” (Read article here)  The mayor is setting the tone in the battle for the support of the Chicago citizenry.

Ultimately the contract, the dispute, is settled at the negotiating table; however, all sides set the tone in the media, before microphones, buying TV time, well-placed leaks, all besmirching the “other guys” and trying to gain an advantage and influence the outcome.

A baseball trade, player A for player B will include a “player to be named.” Months later on a slow news day the name is released. The “player to be named” was needed to clinch the deal, neither side wanted to be the subject of criticism from the media or the fans.

It was a contentious arbitration case with a substantial amount of money at stake. If we argued the case to a conclusion we would either win or lose – a high “risk/reward” situation. In settlement talks the department attorney was prohibited from going beyond a certain amount that was not acceptable to the union. Finally we settled for the sum the department offered but in a side agreement the department agreed to put additional days in the teacher’s Cumulative Absence Reserve – the equivalent of dollars. We figured out how to get past the last yard.

All this assumes that the parties want to reach a decision; sometimes it’s the struggle not the resolution that’s the goal.

In the 80’s the major issue year after year in the State legislature was the death penalty. Each year the republicans introduced a bill and attracted more and more democrats. Eventually the bill passed both houses and Governor Cuomo pere vetoed the bill, the legislature overrode the veto.

A crusty republican operative bemoaned,

“It was a dumb thing to do – we ran for office year after year on the death penalty issue – passing the law took away our best campaign issue.”

Cuomo fils, remains aloof, not getting his proverbial hands dirty, threatening the unions and the school districts and basking in popularity. (See Siena Research Institute poll here)

In the city a poll finds the mayor’s popularity continues to fall, his overall handing of the schools, mayoral control, is quite unpopular.

only 24 percent said they considered mayoral control of the schools — something Mr. Bloomberg considers a defining achievement — a success, while 57 percent said it was a failure. Those marks were among the lowest in the mayor’s tenure, and a far cry from 2008, when voters said, by 56 to 24 percent, that mayoral control had succeeded.

Interestingly the public supports bonus pay and opposes LIFO. “Voters like the message; they just don’t like the messenger,” said Maurice Carroll, director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute.

The unions are vulnerable and willing to make some concessions, but have enormous strength within their membership.

The mayor is obdurate, he loves the combat and sees no reason to “give up,” i.e., to resolve any issues, at least not unless he’s pushed by his advisors or the governor

The governor has remained above the fray, well, sort of. Actually forcing a resolution through the budget process or punishing school districts by slashing recalcitrant school district budgets which could begin to reverse his amazing run of public popularity.

For the governor getting past the education reform wars is essential: the reapportionment battle, the budget, the convention center, casino gambling, all await.

It will be fascinating to see how the governor plays the last yard, with finesse, with brute force, or, will he get bogged down in the morass of the combat.

Remember the aphorism: When you toss a stone into a pond of feces you never know who gets splashed.


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