Monday, October 10, 2005

What's disgusting? Union busting

I don't blog much about work, mainly because I can find my students' blogs, and they're at least as Internet-literate as I am, so there's nothing stopping them from finding mine. But this post isn't really about the students, so it's ok. And I'm not really worried that anyone from the UFT will identify me from this blog and leave a horse's head in my bed.

Over two years after the previous contract expired, the New York City Department of Education and the United Federation of Teachers have reached an agreement about a new contract.

Ok, a number of things in that sentence require comment before even getting into the details of the contract.

1) For the last two years, the UFT has been saying "we don't have a contract!" While it may be technically true that the old contract expired on May 31, 2003, I didn't notice any difference between working with a contract and working "without a contract". That is to say, every provision in the contract has continued to be observed except for the part that says "expires May 31, 2003." We've been showing up to work every day and getting paid twice a month. The school day has been the length specified in the contract, and class sizes have been limited to 34. And I'm no lawyer, but I don't think everyone was going along with this out of the goodness of their hearts; I'm pretty sure that if the city had decided one day to stop paying the teachers, "We don't have to pay them, since there's no contract" would not have stood up in court. Now it's true that we haven't had a raise since the most recent contract was ratified in 2002, and the new contract will provide a raise. But "we haven't had a raise for 2 years" would have been a more honest complaint (and still a legitimate one) than "we haven't had a contract for 2 years".

2) The UFT's report about the new contract starts off "Resolving a two-and-a-half year battle". I don't think this "battle" frame is healthy. Yes, I'm pro-union in general. But I don't think the labor movement's usual us-against-them rhetoric is appropriate for teachers' unions. In this case, the "them" isn't a robber baron or an evil faceless corporation; it's the taxpayers of the City of New York, and their elected representatives. And sometimes it's the students. They're not the enemy. They're us and our children.

3) Gee, what are the odds that after over 2 years of discussion, this gets resolved right just in time for the mayoral election? Everyone involved has been quite overt about this. The UFT threatened to endorse Ferrer if Bloomberg didn't agree to a contract. Now that he has agreed to a contract, it would be awfully spineless for the UFT to endorse Bloomberg after calling him Satan for the last two years, but it looks like now they won't endorse anyone, which will help Bloomberg (as planned). I'm all in favor of the new contract, but Bloomberg isn't going to buy my vote this way. I'm still voting for Ferrer, though I suppose this contract agreement has made me a little bit more apathetic about this election. Note also that Bloomberg has required that the UFT's ratification vote won't take place until after the election -- he doesn't want any embarrassing surprises.

On to the contract itself:

It goes from June 2003 to October 2007. Though I'm sure we're going to have another "2 years without a contract" after that, with everything resolved to great fanfare just in time for the 2009 election. And that prospect doesn't really bother me.

The most important part is the raise, totalling 15%, in gradual increments over 4 years. This is a lot of money. It also means that those of us who have been in the system since 2003 or before can expect a fat retroactive check. No complaints here (though I recognize that I'm a single person with no dependents, so this salary goes a lot further for me than for those who are trying to put food on their families).

For first-year teachers, the total raise is only 9%. But I think that's fine. It means that teachers have an extra incentive to stick around beyond the first year, because they'll know that they have a 6% jump waiting the following year, so this might help make up their mind to stay. And even if they're feeling defeated after the first year, teaching gets so much easier after that.

Along with the raise, the contract also includes provisions that the union negotiators see as concessions, though I see all of these provisions as either positive or inconsequential, so it's a win-win situation. Clearly the union leadership thinks that, even if these are concessions, they are worth it to get the 15% raise. However, some teachers at my school think that these concessions outweigh the gains, and therefore the contract should be rejected. I think these people are insane.

What are these provisions?

  • The school day will be lengthened by 10 minutes. For multi-session schools like mine, this means the official day will go from 6 hours 40 minutes to 6 hours 50 minutes. But so what? I don't know what that really means until I see the new bell schedule for my school. It's only in elementary schools where the students and teachers are actually in class continuously from the beginning of the day until 6 hours 40 minutes later. In high schools like mine, this probably means that each period will be 1 minute longer. Ok.
  • Two professional development days will be added before Labor Day, and classes will start for real right after Labor Day. My colleague JA says "Labor Day for teachers is like New Year's Eve for alcoholics", meaning that we've just been on vacation for two months, so Labor Day weekend is nothing special. Also, Brooklyn-Queens Day will go from being a day off for Brooklyn and Queens and a regular schoolday for the other boroughs to being a professional development day for the whole city. I don't know what kind of "professional development" we'll be doing in June, but that's not my problem to worry about.
  • Some opportunities for grievances have been eliminated, so it will be slightly easier to fire teachers (which is currently near impossible). Good!
  • Teachers will no longer be able to use seniority transfers to bump other teachers, and all transfers must be approved by the principal. This is also good -- the system is broken if a bitter teacher with 30 years in the system can come in and bump a dynamic yet less experienced teacher, and no one can do a thing about it.
  • This "professional activity" thing. Come on, is 10 minutes of homeroom once a week really such a big deal?
I'm sure that a number of teachers are worried because they would have been fired long ago if the contract didn't make that so difficult, and now their time is coming closer. So it occurred to me that the good teachers and the bad teachers both need the protections in the contract, but for different reasons. The bad teachers need the contract so that they can't get fired. The good teachers need it because the administrators would love to have us teach 10 classes a day if the contract didn't cap this at 5.

Let's hope that the results of this contract are what is best for the students: attracting and retaining competent teachers, and eliminating incompetent teachers.


  1. Brooklyn-Queens day? Is that anything like Massachusetts' Patriots' Day?

  2. Not exactly, because Patriots' Day actually commemorates something.