Teacher Contract Negotiations in Contentious Times

The UFT (United Federation of Teachers) collective bargaining agreement, aka, “the contract,” expires on September 30th with no threats of strikes, no demonstrations. Last Spring, as the union was gearing up for negotiation I blogged about the negotiation process, and my role lo those many years ago (“Adams versus Mulgrew,” read here), one of my better efforts, worth a read.

A quick guide: In New York State public employee labor is governed by the Public Employees Relations Board, referred to by the acronym, PERB. Established fifty years ago, also called the Taylor Law, Taylor was a University of Pennsylvania college professor who chaired the committee whose report resulted in the law. The law sets forth the procedures for all public employees to he represented by a union of their choosing, there are a few thousand public employee unions in the state, as well as the negotiations/dispute resolution process and defines and prohibits strikes.

As a result of a court decision, now embedded in PERB regulations (“Triborough Doctrine”) expired labor agreements remain in “full force and effect” until the successor agreement is ratified.

The UFT’s relationship with Bloomberg became toxic; Bloomberg tried to change the law and weaken tenure rules and lay off excessed teachers if they weren’t rehired within a specified number of months. The UFT successfully thwarted Bloomberg and decided not to attempt to negotiate with Mike and wait for the next mayor. Under PERB rules the existing contract remained in “full force and effect.” The union subsequently negotiated two contracts with Mayor de Blasio which included retroactive salary and a number of “increasing collaboration” sections, also, in a period of a thriving economy for the City. I believe Bloomberg blames the UFT for the failure of his ill-advised brief run for the presidency.

The City is not recovering as quickly as was hoped from the pandemic.

In April the non-partisan Citizens Budget Commission warned,

Spending a lot more now is seductive, but shortsighted. The city’s leaders should not pretend that the city can have and do it all. Undisciplined management and a spending spree will set the city back, not propel it forward.

Consider this future – the existing $3 billion budget gap, $4 billion or more in employee raises and $2 billion fiscal cliff together are a $9 billion recipe for fiscal disaster by 2026 if nothing is done. Of course, this doesn’t account for another recession, which could produce a three-year revenue shortfall of $17 billion, based on the past.

This isn’t some “sky is falling” worst case scenario. It’s a reasonable portrait of inaction.

The only way to balance the important needs of New Yorkers today and in the future, when the city will face the inevitable next recession or emergency, is to prioritize programs, increase the efficiency and quality of services, and save for a rainy day. Absent these actions, the city will face future massive service cuts or harmful tax increases, and city workers will only get raises at the expense of services and reductions in force.

Unfortunately in the months since the CBC report unemployment remains high, tax revenues lag, return to full in-office work is slow to return, school enrollment is down and the potential economic woes are forcing the City to begin to look for savings as well as shrink the budget.

In September the Budget Commissioner directed city agencies to plan to reduce their budgets (often referred to as “PEG,” Program to Eliminate the Gap),

. Budget Director Jacques Jiha’s PEG letter correctly points to the myriad forces increasing the City’s future budget gaps by billions of dollars, including higher pension contributions, future collective bargaining agreements, and looming fiscal cliffs as federal COVID aid is exhausted. 

This is a timely call that rightly focuses on increasing productivity to reduce recurring costs while preserving services that New Yorkers rely on. The directive to identify savings of 3 percent this year, growing to 4.75 percent in future years, is reasonable and provides agencies runway to restructure programs and operations to achieve the PEG targets. With the City’s current 28,000 vacancies, it should be able to hire critical service-providing positions and still meet this PEG target.  

Importantly, the City is currently negotiating its next round of labor contracts. Changing work rules and other contractual components to increase efficiency and provide PEG savings is the best way for the City to raise employee salaries without creating an unsustainable fiscal burden.”

The NY Times, (“New York City Faces Potential Fiscal Crisis as $10 Billion Deficit Looms,”) paints a somber picture,

New York City, battered by economic headwinds and mired in a stubborn pandemic-driven downturn afflicting employment, tourism and tax revenue, is teetering on the brink of a severe budget crisis.

For the first time in six years, city officials expect that business tax revenue will decline. Personal income and related tax revenue is expected to fall by 7.7 percent, the largest drop in a dozen years.

And Wall Street’s struggles may require the city to fork over billions of dollars to its workers’ pension funds, to meet its obligation to provide guaranteed minimum returns.

As the mayor moves to trim the budget opposition from within city government and the unions grows,

Opposition to the mayor’s cuts is growing.

Adrienne Adams, the speaker of the Council, recently described the administration’s decision to freeze hiring as part of its cost-cutting efforts as “counterproductive.”

Brad Lander, the New York City comptroller, agreed, and on Friday sent a letter to the budget director warning that “imposing a hiring freeze at this time could put at risk critical programs that New Yorkers rely on.”

When Mr. Adams, a former police officer, was running for election last year, he won support from several of the city’s most influential labor unions, which represent many Black and Latino New Yorkers. Mr. Adams is expected to seek their support again in his re-election campaign, for which he is already raising money.

While union leaders could theoretically hold off on contract negotiations until the economy improves and the city is in a better position to award raises, union members may be too restive to wait.

In an email to members on Tuesday, Michael Mulgrew, head of the United Federation of Teachers, indicated as much.

“We plan to move as aggressively as possible to reach a deal given how inflation has raised the cost of living over the past year,” he said.

What happens if the parties cannot come to an agreement?

If the parties are not making progress, called impasse, either party can ask PERB to intervene, from mediation to fact-finding to non-binding arbitration. The union and the Department of Education moved to arbitration in 2002 and 2012, I wrote about the process in 2012 in detail, worth a read here.

PERB assigns an arbitrator, or a panel of three arbitrators, and the process following the rules of the American Arbitration Association. Witnesses testify, are cross-examined, evidence is introduced, and the arbitration panel releases a non-binding opinion.

The panel explores “comparability,” also called “pattern bargaining (what salaries in other locations should the arbitrators use as a guide and the percent in other union settlements in the city) as well as “ability to pay,” (what can the city afford based on tax revenues and anticipated expenses), and “interest and welfare of the public” (a catchall which incorporates everything else).

The process can take months, dozens of witnesses, hundreds of documents and thousands of pages of transcripts.

 Read a fact-finding decision from Rochester here.

PERB decisions are non-binding, although they usually form the basis of the settlement.

Is a teacher strike a possibility?

Never say never; however, the sanctions for a strike are severe; loss of an additional days pay for each day on strike, substantial fines for the union, suspension of dues check off, possible suspension of tenure for strikers.

Can teachers conduct a “sick out”?

“No public employee or employee organization shall engage in a strike, and no public employee or employee organization shall cause, instigate, encourage, or condone a strike.” https://perb.ny.gov/taylor-law/ Courts have ruled sick outs are strikes.

The union has spent years working with community organizations across the city and building credibility and Adams’ public perception is increasingly negative. Will the outcome of the labor negotiations be the first step in the 2025 mayoral election? 

I suspect a lengthy period of negotiations.

Watch Pete Seeger sing:  Union Maid

One response to “Teacher Contract Negotiations in Contentious Times

  1. Pingback: Collaboration and Conflict: Contract Negotiations and Working Together | Ed In The Apple

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