The Complexities of Contract Negotiations: the UFT v Adams

I was at an annual holiday party run by a lobbyist, many electeds, “decision-makers,” reminiscing over the “political” year, the legislative session, the election and the upcoming session.

Chatting with a legislator, “You guys (meaning the UFT) did a great job; I never saw the class size bill coming.”  The class size reduction bills, in each house, passed in the waning hours and in spite of vigorous opposition by the Mayor signed into law by the Governor.

“For decades, New York City parents and teachers have been fighting for lower class sizes,” Michael Mulgrew, head of the city’s teachers union, said in a statement. “We now have something to celebrate.”

Starting September 2023, the legislation will significantly shrink the maximum number of students allowed in each classroom, see FAQ here

At the same time the union is negotiating: the current collective bargaining agreement expired, as part of the Municipal Labor Committee negotiating health plans for retiree teachers and beginning to improve on Tier 6 of the Teacher Retirement System as well as the day-to-day union-management engagements.

The union has to be deeply engaged with both houses of the state legislature, the governor, the city council and the mayor.

Preparation for negotiations began last spring, the union sent out a membership survey, set up negotiating teams for each membership group (elementary, middle and high school, school secretaries, guidance counselors, etc.,) and each group creating bargaining demands.

The Public Employees Relation Board (“PERB”), a state agency sets the regulations for the thousands of public employees unions and hundreds of thousands of members across the state.

The latest edition of the New York Teacher published a negotiations FAQ, read here.

The negotiating process has begun with a number of the numerous city unions.

A long time ago I served on the negotiating team, the union leadership decided to place a few young union activists on the team.  Lucille Swain was the director of negotiations for the union, a stern woman, a PhD in labor economics, she made it quite clear, keep your mouth shut at the bargaining table, every comment may be part of the arbitration process if the parties fail to agree.

If the parties fail to agree, called impasse, PERB can begin a conciliation process (see here), mediation, fact-finding leading to non-binding arbitration. The arbitration panel files a non-binding, extremely detailed decision with settlement recommendations; the arbitration decision usually is the basis of a settlement.  The process can take months.  Union and management introduce evidence, witnesses testify and are cross-examined, briefs are filed, counter briefs, finally, a decision.

Public employee strikes are prohibited in New York State, any “concerted action,” like a sick-out, is considered a strike. The penalty is loss of salary, an additional day’s pay for each day on strike (2 for 1) and fines and possible loss of dues check-off for the union.

On the salary side of negotiations the key factors are “pattern bargaining,” the increases in salary for other public employee unions and the “ability to pay,” the fiscal situation of the governmental agency, i. e., the City of New York.

Mayor Adams claims the city is in fiscal distress, he dramatically cut the education budget in June, is not filling current employee vacancies and told agencies to cut next year’s budget requests by 5%,

The Citizen’s Budget Commission, a conservative, non-partisan think tank warns,

… the city should use this next round of collective bargaining contracts to further increase productivity, which would generate savings to fund raises and stabilize the budget. Almost all city employees will be working under expired contracts by the end of the year. The tight job market and high inflation may increase municipal unions’ demands. Raises totaling 3% annually would cost about $1.5 billion in the first year, increasing to $4.3 billion in the third year. While a portion of a PEG for Productivity and higher tax revenue could defray some collective bargaining costs, much more will be needed, otherwise raises will be unaffordable.

Comptroller Brad Lander in November opined,

While the City has included a labor reserve to fund contractual wage increases of 1.25 percent per year for the next four years, the results of the current round of collective bargaining remain unknown. Also outstanding is the cost of the mandate to reduce class sizes beginning next year

The NYC Independent Budget Office has a rosier view,

One week after releasing his November Financial Plan, Mayor Adams warned that the city must prepare for an “economic tsunami,” the result of a variety of forces, including weakening of the national and local economies, high inflation, and pension fund losses in financial markets. While IBO forecasts that the city’s very robust recovery from the pandemic-induced recession of 2020 will slow substantially in coming months, we project that the city will avoid another recession. To be sure, IBO’s fiscal outlook is not one of rosy optimism or even one of calm seas. It is, however, somewhat brighter than that put forth by the Adams administration. Despite forecasting slowing growth over the next 12 months, IBO projects that the city will end 2023 with a sizable $2.2 billion surplus.

The economic future of the city is “somewhat brighter than put forth by the Adams administration;” however, still muddled. 

Nobel Prize winner Paul Krugman and CUNY professor sees inflation beginning to wane and predicted a faster national recovery.

Back in the day Laura Page was the UFT budget expert, who dissected the city budget, I’m sure the union is using current experts. 

The non-budgetary side of negotiations is a two-way street, union demands and management demands. Dan Weisberg, the current Deputy Chancellor was the chief labor negotiator for Bloomberg during his first two terms.

I sat at the bargaining table for months and followed Dr Swain’s directive, I kept my mouth shut, in the sub-committees; however, I “exchanged” with Board of Education supernumeraries, we sifted through the demands, from the Board side many “no’s,” not a “mandated subject of collective bargaining,” “no,” it’s a “managerial prerogative,” eventually we pruned the demands down and actually agreed on a list, it was up to Lucille and her counterparts to reduce to contract language: a tedious process.

 Mayor Adams can be recalcitrant, force the negotiations into arbitration, keep the fight on Twitter for months and alienate parents and public school advocates, or jointly craft a settlement. Adams wants a second term, the mayor’s relationship with the governor, the legislature and the city council is tenuous.

Politics have no relation to morals.”

— Niccolò Machiavelli

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