Let’s make a deal

What’s on the table as New York City and the teachers union negotiate a new contract

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew, right, says the union is negotiating with Mayor Bill de Blasio, center, for a paid family leave policy.

The clock is ticking on the city’s contract with the United Federation of Teachers, the largest local union in the country representing more than 100,000 members.

With the deal set to expire in November, negotiations between the city and the UFT have already begun.

But the backdrop this year is much different from 2014, when Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration and the influential union first met. Even though de Blasio and the union still enjoy a friendly relationship, the political and financial realities this time around are very different.

For one thing, the talks come amid national turmoil as teachers strike in some states, including West Virginia and Oklahoma, to demand better pay and benefits. New York City teachers are relatively well compensated, but the current labor climate could embolden the local union to push for more.

In addition, de Blasio is solidly into his second term, and while it’s hard to imagine a mayor more sympathetic to labor unions, the UFT could choose to wait until his replacement takes office to settle on a new contract. There’s little immediate cost if no deal is reached: The current contract will simply remain in place until a new one is negotiated, even if it’s after the expiration date.

Here is a primer on what is likely on the table in New York City, how the fiscal climate may impact negotiations, and what a new city chancellor and pending state changes to the teacher evaluation system could mean.

The backdrop

The first time the union and de Blasio administration came together, de Blasio was fresh off his first election. After years of acrimony and an expired contract under the previous mayor, Michael Bloomberg, the UFT endorsed de Blasio, who made it a priority to bring all of the city’s labor contracts up to date.

At the time, the city was dusting itself off from the economic crash. And after going so long without a contract, there was an eagerness on both sides to make a deal, said Maria Doulis, vice president of the Citizens Budget Commission, a nonprofit watchdog group. The unions agreed to healthcare concessions, she said, which helped pay for salary increases.

Now, some of those contracts have already expired. And unions, including the UFT, may not be so willing to bargain this time around.

“It’s a whole new world,” Doulis said.

Property taxes are once again flowing into city coffers, and the de Blasio administration has dramatically increased the size and spending of local government. There are already signs that labor might not be willing to accept more concessions on healthcare. The Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association has filed for arbitration in its negotiations with the city — a move that could set the tone for the UFT and other unions. Among the sticking points cited by the PBA in a press release: a city proposal to increase health insurance co-pays and deductibles.

“I don’t get the sense that labor is in a give-back kind of mood,” Doulis said.  

The UFT declined multiple requests for comment on negotiations. “Negotiations are confidential and so we don’t comment on them,” union spokesperson Alison Gendar wrote in an email.

The UFT has spent months talking with members to set its contract priorities. In an online survey this winter, teachers were asked for their thoughts on class size, performance evaluations, and school schedule changes that set-aside time for teacher training. Teachers say it was the first time that leadership had asked for input from their rank-and-file before heading to the bargaining table — perhaps because the union is bracing for a looming U.S. Supreme Court decision that could drain members and money from its war chest.

The case — known as Janus, after the Illinois public employee who filed it — could end mandatory dues for non-members. Some states, including New York, allow unions to collect fees from non-members to help cover the cost of bargaining contracts that cover all workers.

“It’s absolutely new and different … which is a great thing,” said John Giambalvo, steering committee member MORE, a dissenting caucus within the UFT. “We’re very happy to see that members are being asked.”

The issues

Some issues, like pay and insurance benefits, are perennial. In the previous contract, the current city administration agreed to retroactively pay UFT members for raises that were given to other municipal unions while the teachers union contract was expired in 2009 and 2010. The city is still doling out much of that backpay.

Another issue that is sure to be on the table: paid parental leave. The union has already begun to push City Hall for the benefit after a high school teacher’s petition calling for paid leave went viral online.

New York City teachers do not have paid leave. Instead they must use saved sick time — and only birth mothers are allowed to use that time, putting a strain on fathers, adoptive parents and same-sex couples. While de Blasio has extended parental leave to City Hall employees, the union could face an uphill battle in convincing the city to treat teachers the same. City workers gave up some benefits to pay for the leave, but the UFT has said it isn’t willing to offer any concessions.

Within the union, different caucuses are also pushing for their own priorities to make it to the bargaining table, including more protections to enforce class-size limits and solutions for educators who are in the Absent Teacher Reserve — an expensive pool of employees who don’t have permanent positions and often act as short-term substitutes.

Open questions

At the state level, teacher evaluations are once again under discussion. A moratorium on using state tests in performance reviews is set to expire, and education leaders in Albany recently laid out a plan to retool evaluations by next year. Once they do, it is up to every school district to create its own plan within the state framework. But the livewire issue probably won’t get decided by the time the UFT and the city strike a deal, so the two sides could settle the issue of evaluations with an agreement that is separate from the contract.

The new chancellor, Richard Carranza, may also want to leave his mark on the contract. His predecessor, Carmen Fariña, had a hand in negotiating a change in the school day to give teachers more time for job training — a move that has been met with mixed reviews. Just like Fariña, Carranza already seems eager to help boost teacher morale. But it may be too early to expect Carranza to get involved: He only started last week and has no previous experience in New York City schools.

Top teacher

Franklin educator is Tennessee’s 2018-19 Teacher of the Year

Melissa Miller leads her students in a learning game at Franklin Elementary School in Franklin Special School District in Williamson County. Miller is Tennessee's 2018-19 Teacher of the Year.

A first-grade teacher in Franklin is Tennessee’s Teacher of the Year.

Melissa Miller

Melissa Miller, who works at Franklin Elementary School, received the 2018-19 honor for excellence in the classroom Thursday evening during a banquet in Nashville.

A teacher for 19 years, she is National Board Certified, serves as a team leader and mentor at her school, and trains her colleagues on curriculum and technology in Franklin’s city school district in Williamson County, just south of Nashville. She will represent Tennessee in national competition and serve on several working groups with the state education department.

Miller was one of nine finalists statewide for the award, which has been presented to a Tennessee public school teacher most every year since 1960 as a way to promote respect and appreciation for the profession. The finalists were chosen based on scoring from a panel of educators; three regional winners were narrowed down following interviews.

In addition to Miller, who also won in Middle Tennessee, the state recognized Lori Farley, a media specialist at North City Elementary School in Athens City Schools, in East Tennessee. Michael Robinson, a high school social studies teacher at Houston High School in Germantown Municipal School District, was this year’s top teacher in West Tennessee.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen praised the finalists for leading their students to impressive academic gains and growth. She noted that “teachers are the single most important factor in improving students’ achievement.”

Last year’s statewide winner was Cicely Woodard, an eighth-grade math teacher in Nashville who has since moved to a middle school in the same Franklin district as Miller.

You can learn more about Tennessee’s Teacher of the Year program here.


Have you thought about teaching? Colorado teachers union sells the profession in new videos

PHOTO: Colorado Education Association

There are a lot of factors contributing to a shortage of teachers in Colorado and around the nation. One of them — with potentially long-term consequences — is that far fewer people are enrolling in or graduating from teacher preparation programs. A recent poll found that more than half of respondents, citing low pay and lack of respect, would not want their children to become teachers.

Earlier this year, one middle school teacher told Chalkbeat the state should invest in public service announcements to promote the profession.

“We could use some resources in Colorado to highlight how attractive teaching is, for the intangibles,” said Mary Hulac, who teaches English in the Greeley-Evans district. “I tell my students every day, this is the best job.

“You learn every day as a teacher. I’m a language arts teacher. When we talk about themes, and I hear a story through another student’s perspective, it’s always exciting and new.”

The Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, has brought some resources to help get that message out with a series of videos aimed at “up-and-coming professionals deciding on a career.” A spokesman declined to say how much the union was putting into the ad buy.

The theme of the ads is: “Change a life. Change the world.”

“Nowhere but in the education profession can a person have such a profound impact on the lives of students,” association President Amie Baca-Oehlert said in a press release. “We want to show that teaching is a wonderful and noble profession.”

As the union notes, “Opportunities to teach in Colorado are abundant.”

One of the ads features 2018 Colorado Teacher of the Year Christina Randle.

“Are you ready to be a positive role model for kids and have a direct impact on the future?” Randle asks.

Another features an education student who was inspired by her own teachers and a 20-year veteran talking about how much she loves her job.

How would you sell the teaching profession to someone considering their career options? Let us know at co.tips@chalkbeat.org.