Making his case, Mulgrew says new contract draws battle lines in "war with the reformers"

In a candid speech to teachers on Wednesday, United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew offered a behind-the-scenes account of the recent contract negotiations with the city and argued that the resulting deal was the union’s best chance at winning a “war with the reformers.”

In an hour-long presentation followed by 40 minutes of questions and answers, Mulgrew promoted the terms of the agreement to the union’s Delegate Assembly, a 3,400-member group of elected teacher representatives. Following a short debate period, where one critic of the plan had his microphone shut off, the assembly agreed to send the proposed contract to the UFT’s more than 100,000 members for a ratification vote.

Speaking in blunt terms, Mulgrew also admitted that the union’s position last year on one controversial part of the new teacher evaluation system was designed to “gum up the works” when it was rolled out this year.

The proposed contract contains several changes to the evaluation system, which the state education commissioner imposed last summer after a long city-union clash over the details. Under the new agreement, teachers would be rated on a rubric of just eight items, down from 22.

A teacher pointed out during the question portion that the union lobbied last year for teachers to be rated on all 22 rubric components rather than just a handful, as the city wanted. At the time, many assumed the union opted for more components because it would give teachers more points to contest if they received poor ratings.

Mulgrew acknowledged as much Wednesday, according to a recording of the meeting obtained by Chalkbeat. Members of the press were not allowed into the meeting, which was held in a banquet hall at the Hilton Hotel in Midtown Manhattan.

“It was a strategy decision to gum up the works because we knew what their lawyers were trying to do,” Mulgrew said, referring to city officials. “That’s things I don’t get to say in public when I’m doing them, because we knew they had a plan to use the new evaluation system to go after people.”

Mulgrew said Wednesday that the union began to seek changes to the evaluations as soon as de Blasio took office.

“We had a goal that this year would be the first and only year you would work under the new evaluation system,” he told the teachers.

He also defended a part of the deal that would free some schools from certain contract provisions so they can experiment with different schedules or other changes — a plan some union members have criticized as a way to make traditional schools resemble charter schools. But Mulgrew argued that, in fact, the plan is a way to prove that traditional schools can execute innovative ideas that outmatch those of the education “reformers” who typically back charter schools.

“We are at war with the reformers,” he said. He added later, “Their ideas will absolutely destroy — forget about public education — they will destroy education in our country.”

Earlier in the speech, he singled out former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who had sought to improve the city school system by increasing choice and competition, opening new schools and charter schools, and tying consequences to student test scores. Mulgrew said Bloomberg had falsely suggested the city could not afford to increase teachers’ pay, but that Mayor Bill de Blasio had worked with the union to find a way to afford the raises.

“By working with this mayor,” Mulgrew said, “we have come up with a creative way to one more time wink at Bloomberg and say, ‘Gotcha.'”

Mulgrew made clear that the union’s top priority in the contract negotiations was securing retroactive raises for its members, who have gone nearly five years without a contract and missed pay increases that most other city labor groups received.

“It is our position — it is not our God-given right, but it is our position — that we deserve those wages. And that’s what we were negotiating for first and foremost,” Mulgrew said.

Officials have insisted that the city can afford the nearly 20 percent pay bump that the proposed contract promises teachers by 2018 only because the union agreed to find significant healthcare cost savings.

So far, little has been said about how the reductions would be achieved. But Mulgrew said Wednesday that one strategy will be an audit to root out ex-spouses of union members who remain on their former partners’ health plans even after they are divorced.

He also said the union has agreed to find $1.3 billion in health-cost savings over the next four years. Then he announced a new incentive for teachers: The city has agreed that any cost savings over that target amount, up to $365 million, “would go directly to city workers in a one-time bonus check.”

The proposed contract also addresses educators in the Absent Teacher Reserve pool, who are on the city payroll but lack a permanent school placement. Some teachers expressed concern Wednesday about an expedited termination process for ATRs described in the deal. Mulgrew reiterated that the process would only kick in after two successive principals document an ATR for misconduct. At that point, he said, an expedited hearing makes sense.

“I believe that fast and fair is in the best interest of anyone who has a disciplinary charge against them,” he said.

After Mulgrew spoke and answered questions for most of the meeting, the delegates were given a little less than 15 minutes to debate the proposed contract.

At one point, a teacher who opposed the deal began to argue with Mulgrew, which led to a dispute over speaking time limits. Eventually the teacher called the debate process “absolutely ridiculous and completely undemocratic.”

“Now you’re out of order,” Mulgrew replied, and called for the next speaker to begin talking.

A few minutes later, Mulgrew called a vote to send the contract proposal to the full membership, which he said was “overwhelmingly” approved.

After the meeting, some teachers criticized the union for giving opponents of the deal little time to make their case. Others complained that the union only released a detailed summary of the agreement the day of the meeting, limiting their ability to prepare questions.

“It was almost like a blind vote today,” Michael Kerr, a Brooklyn dance teacher, told Chalkbeat.

Others denounced certain parts of the deal, including the new ATR rules and the way it disburses the retroactive pay in payments spread over several years.

“If the contract expired in 2009, then why should we get the retro pay in 2020?” asked Marie Baker, a Bronx school librarian.

But many teachers said they supported the deal for economic reasons, and because they thought it would make a challenging job more manageable.

“I think it’s an excellent contract,” said Joyce Baldino, a Brooklyn teacher. She said her colleagues also back the deal — especially a provision that allots time during the school day for teachers to collaborate and communicate with parents. “We finally have time to do all the things that we’re already doing as professionals.”

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