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30th September
2005

First Published in The New York Sun, September 30, 2005

By Andrew Wolf

When Randi Weingarten, with few options open, allowed the teachers’ contract dispute with the city to move into the “fact-finding” phase, she had every expectation that the report issued would bolster her case for raises for her members, with few contract concessions on their part. It didn’t work out that way.

This has put Ms.Weingarten and her members at a disadvantage, and could result in a continued stalemate. Ms. Weingarten is between a rock and a hard place.After choosing this course and touting the anticipated results, it must have come as a disappointment that the money isn’t what was hoped for and the givebacks more extensive than expected.
Mayor Bloomberg has caught on. He is now promoting the fact-finders report as if it were his own, suggesting that this become the basis for the new contract.

The proposed givebacks are perceived to be so onerous that it might become impossible for Ms. Weingarten to win ratification from her members for a contract based on these recommendations.

The long-awaited non-binding report did suggest that teachers be awarded a modest raise, 11.4% over the 37 months of the contract. This would raise starting salaries of teachers to $43,437 and maximum salaries to $90,473. But these increases still lag behind the suburban levels demanded by the union. And the raises will come at a cost.

Teachers will have to work an additional 10 minutes a day. The arbitrators, crossing the line between labor expert and pedagogue, decreed that this time be used for small-group instruction. A previous increase of 100 minutes a week has led to four different schedules since the extra time was added as part of the last contract settlement. Currently, only half of this time is added to student schedules, an increase in instruction barely noticed.The other half of the added time goes to “professional development,” which is viewed by many teachers as a drag.

If all this time were to be added together and used to benefit students, nearly 5 minutes of instruction could be added to each period of instruction during the school day. Alternatively, an entire additional instructional period could be added each day, to be devoted to subjects that most agree are not getting adequate attention in many schools: music, art, social studies, and science.

On top of the extra 10 minutes is the addition of three days of professional development, two days prior to the start of the school year with another day, during the school year, to be mutually agreed upon.

None of this would be popular with the teachers, but it probably would be palatable. Less acceptable are other aspects of the factfinders plan.

Teachers in middle and high schools will be required to provide an additional 10 periods of “coverages” for absent colleagues each school year, up to 12 from the previous two. Now teachers are paid the “per session” rate for this, which in effect translates to a $400 pay cut for those who volunteer for such duty.

Since middle and high school teachers are usually the most radical and demanding of the United Federation of Teachers members, this will surely go over like a lead balloon, making ratification more difficult.

The elimination of seniority transfers is another element of this plan that will be hard for teachers to swallow. Despite the public perception, fed by the editorial pages, few such transfers occur. But it is reassuring to teachers unhappy in their present assignments that there is the possibility of escape.

The idea that teachers could be involuntarily transferred, the touchstone for the most vocal critics of the union contract, is not even a part of this plan.

Discipline and grievances would be streamlined by having grievances move directly from the school level to final arbitration with no intermediate step.

Letters of rebuke placed in teacher files by principals could not, under the fact-finders plan, be the subject of grievances, an idea guaranteed not to sit well with the rank and file. But teachers would be able to attach responses to these letters, and if the letters do not result in charges, they would be removed after three years. If charges are brought, then the contents of the letters would be the subject of the hearing. This would eliminate thousands of time-consuming grievances.

None of this is popular with the union membership. The mindset of those teachers I have randomly spoken to leads me to believe that a contract based on this report would be rejected.

In reality, this plan doesn’t come close to gutting UFT contractual rights. While the money could be better, it is far more generous than the pattern raises won by other municipal unions.

It could be that the union leadership will agree, putting the final decision in the hands of the membership which, in December, 1995, rejected a contract negotiated by the late Sandra Feldman and Mayor Giuliani.This could embarrass the mayor on the eve of the election.

Or negotiations could proceed, finally resumed after nearly a year of inactivity. Could a contract be concluded before Election Day? Will the UFT continue its diplomatic neutrality in the election? Can the Department of Education deal with an increasingly restive work force? After the election, it may not matter.These are the dilemmas faced by Ms. Weingarten.

© 2005 The New York Sun, One, SL, LLC. All rights reserved.

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