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.

Why Colorado's different

Colorado teachers rallying at the Capitol will need voters’ help to make a big change

When thousands of Colorado teachers rally at the state Capitol Thursday and Friday, it will be an unprecedented show of force that takes two-thirds of the state’s K-12 students out of school for a day.

Red-shirted teachers are calling for more funding for education, better pay for teachers, and secure retirement benefits. But they face a challenge that educators in other states do not. Colorado voters, traditionally resistant to tax increases, hold the keys to significant new revenue for schools. To make any real progress, teachers will need to convince not just lawmakers but the broader public that education deserves more investment. The test will come in November, when a $1.6 billion tax increase could appear on the ballot.

“People are a little bit nervous,” said Hayley Breden, who teaches government at South High School in Denver. “What if there isn’t success? What if it takes a long time? But that feeling is pretty minimal compared to this feeling of inspiration from other states.”

Riding energy from a national wave of teacher activism and long-simmering frustrations with education funding levels, teachers flooded school offices with requests to take off Thursday or Friday. District after district had to cancel classes – and in their letters to parents, many superintendents expressed support for the teachers’ cause even as they lamented the disruption.

They range from Denver Public Schools, the state’s largest district with 92,000 students, to tiny Clear Creek, with 800 students.

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The timing of the rallies coincides with negotiations on an overhaul to the public employees retirement system with major implications for teacher retirement benefits and for school district budgets. The first teacher rally, which saw the suburban Englewood district cancel classes, started as a union lobby day on pension issues.

Now the union’s demand is for the state to restore funding that has been withheld from K-12 education since the Great Recession by 2022. Colorado schools have missed out on more than $6 billion since 2009 due to a budget maneuver known as the negative factor or the budget stabilization factor.

“If that money had been invested in our public schools, it could have made a substantial difference in the education of our students and also the statewide educator shortage,” said Kerrie Dallman, president of the Colorado Education Association.

Many analyses place Colorado in the bottom tier of states for education funding, while others, including one from the National Education Association that includes federal funding, place us closer to the middle of the pack. Per-pupil funding varies widely among districts. Half the state’s school districts operate only four days a week, in order to save money.

In every ranking, though, teacher salaries fall below the national average, and most teachers have lost ground, earning less now than they did 10 years ago once their salaries are adjusted for inflation. A recent study ranked Colorado last for the competitiveness of its teacher salaries.

When Chalkbeat surveyed teachers about what was missing from their schools, the answers ranged from pencils and paper to computers and art supplies. Teachers said they want more mental health services for their students – and the ability to make enough color copies for the whole class.

Those factors might seem to set Colorado up for the next big wave of teacher strikes, following West Virginia, Oklahoma, and now Arizona. But other factors mitigate against it. Salaries and budgets are set by local school boards, not the state. The Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, a provision in the state Constitution, requires tax increases to go to the voters and places a cap on how much government can grow, even when the economy is doing well.  

Republican lawmakers have questioned why teachers are marching now, when the state has just passed a budget that devotes more money to education than in many years – and when lawmakers can’t approve a tax increase or a pay increase.

“How advocacy works in other states doesn’t necessarily work here,” said state Senate Majority Leader Chris Holbert, a Parker Republican.

Even education-friendly Democrats have doubts.

Asked about committing to restoring funding by 2022, state Rep. Brittany Pettersen, the Lakewood Democrat who chairs the House Education Committee, said: “I like that idea, but we have a lot of constraints in Colorado.”

But teachers demand lawmakers pay attention.

“We really don’t want legislators to enter into next session thinking everything is status quo,” Dallman said.

Dallman is careful to be clear: “This is not a strike. This is individuals using their personal leave to speak to our elected representatives.”

The planned rallies and widespread cancellations have already been a success in one way, Dallman said. “The media is far more interested in covering this than when we have 40 of our members show up for a lobby day.”

In an indication of how widespread the discontent is, even teachers in conservative parts of rural Colorado are planning to walk off the job.

At the beginning of the week, state Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg, a Republican leader from northeast Colorado, downplayed the potential for activism in rural districts, where salaries are lowest.

“A lot of teachers out in rural Colorado don’t belong to the union, hence why they’re not out there marching, they’re staying in the classroom teaching kids,” he said.

By the next day, the Valley Re-1 district in Sterling had canceled classes. Teachers said they plan to rally close to home, at the Logan County Courthouse. Also canceling classes: the district in Cañon City, home of Republican Senate President Kevin Grantham.

Melissa Shaw, who teaches seventh grade social studies in Pagosa Springs Middle School in the Archuleta district in southwest Colorado, isn’t making the five-hour trip to Denver or rallying locally. But she is cheering on those who are. Shaw has been collecting data on her colleagues: 83 percent said they work second jobs during the school year and just 11 percent said they could afford to stay in teaching without another income source.

With a master’s degree and six years of experience, Shaw earns $41,000 a year. If she earned a PhD and stayed in her district for 20 years, she could earn $55,600. She takes on additional jobs during the school year and has two more during the summer – taking high school students on international trips and waiting tables.

At the same time, she worries about the quality of education her own child is getting and about the career and college opportunities that aren’t available to some students – and about the future of teaching.

“I think it’s important for the public to understand how hard we work just to stay in our profession,” she said. “I pay to get into the job, I pay to stay in the job, I pay to grow as a teacher, I pay to get my master’s degree. And then I’m working several jobs. That does not sound very appealing for a career for many people.”

Terrenda White, an assistant professor of education policy at the University of Colorado who focuses on teacher turnover and retention, said current protests are more than a simple labor dispute. Rather, they’re the culmination of decades of education policy.

“We’ve really been demanding that schools and teachers be accountable for student performance,” she said. “That did not come with giving teachers more resources or support or more room for autonomy and decision-making. We’ve been hyper-focused on evaluating them, and we dropped the ball on supporting them. Those are the ingredients for a lot of frustration.”

In Colorado, that sense of disillusionment is heightened because the state’s economy is booming, but schools haven’t returned to full funding, White said.

An open question is how the disruption of widespread teacher walkouts will affect political support from parents.

“One reason parents have resisted teacher strikes is pragmatic,” said Jonna Perillo, an associate professor of English education at the University of Texas in El Paso, who has studied teacher strikes. “They need their kids in school.”

This time parent pushback in other states has been muted, in part because low funding for education is also hurting them. Strikes represent a big but temporary disruption, Perillo said, while a four-day school week, “that’s a lifestyle.”

The political churn of the last two years has earned teachers new allies, at least in some communities. Monica Acosta, an organizing director with southwest Denver parent advocacy group Padres & Jóvenes Unidos, said her members have seen teachers at rallies for immigrant rights or out knocking on doors for causes they also support.

“Parents are seeing teachers become more politically active in supporting their kids on social issues, and they’re reciprocating that support back,” she said.

Dave Flaherty, with the Republican-affiliated polling firm Magellan Strategies, said likely voters, including the independents who make up a third of Colorado’s electorate, have started to express concern about education funding and specifically teacher pay – unprompted – in focus groups. It’s on voters’ minds.

But Flaherty said tax increases remain the same tough sell they’ve always been in Colorado.

The Colorado context means teachers are wise to expand their focus well beyond pensions and pay, White said.

“Community support is important,” White said. “If this is seen as teachers having a labor dispute, that really narrows the scope and the support for it and the momentum. If parent and community support were mobilized along with teachers, it would really help these ballot initiatives. In Colorado, you really need to frame it for voters.”

LIVE

Thousands of Colorado teachers are rallying at the Capitol for more funding and higher pay. Follow the protest here.

Jefferson County educators Joel Zigman and Elizabeth Hall march during a teachers rally for more educational funding at the Colorado State Capitol on Thursday, April 26. (Photo by AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post)

Droves of Colorado teachers are expected to protest at the state Capitol on Thursday and Friday, joining a national moment of educator activism.

Their asks: more money for schools, higher pay, protection for retirement benefits.

Teachers from two of the state’s largest school districts — Jeffco Public Schools and the Douglas County School District — are expected to begin gathering at the Capitol at 9 a.m., Thursday. They’ll be joined by teachers from two rural school districts: Lake County and Clear Creek. A rally is scheduled at 1:30 p.m.

On Friday, teachers from more than two dozen school districts — including Denver Public Schools — are expected to converge on Capitol Hill. In light of the number of teachers rallying at the Capitol, school has been canceled for more than 600,000 Colorado students.

Chalkbeat reporters are filing live updates from the Capitol below. You can also follow along on Facebook and Twitter.