New York Teachers Fear for Working Conditions as Union Leader Offers Preemptive Concessions

Though contract negotiations between New York City’s United Federation of Teachers and the city are just getting started, UFT President Randi Weingarten publicly declared six months ago that she’ll consider massive concessions on working conditions for teachers and staff in the New York’s public schools.

What’s at stake are the work rules negotiated into UFT’s contract with the city; these rules regulate everything from length of workday to seniority to class preparation time.

In an interview with The New York Times last September, Weingarten suggested that, “Except for things like salaries, pensions, medical, safety, due process and things covered by law, maybe virtually everything else should be negotiable.”

PILOT PROGRAM

Weingarten proposed that the city start a pilot program of roughly 100 schools where many work rules would be eliminated. Principals at these schools would negotiate work agreements for their individual campus which would have to be approved by the school’s teachers.

According to Weingarten, this type of arrangement would give teachers more say in their school’s operations.

Teachers for a Just Contract, a reform group within the UFT, released a statement attacking Weingarten’s proposal, arguing that “an isolated chapter is practically powerless, with virtually no leverage against its adminstration. So in reality, there would be less, not greater, teacher say in how schools are run.”

Michael Fiorillo, an English teacher at Newcomers High School in Queens, agrees, noting that “this process would play out with principals alternately hoodwinking, browbeating, intimidating, and bribing teachers in the affected schools.”

Some of the work rules that teachers seem most concerned about losing are: limits on class size; limits on consecutive classes taught; and rights to books and classroom supplies.

According to Fiorillo, “the loss of these work rule protections, even in a limited number of schools would lead to [increased] pressure upon teachers systemwide. That is precisely why management has praised Randi for this…”

In fact, New York Schools Chancellor Joel Klein jumped on Weingarten’s offer immediately, saying that instead of a pilot program, the proposal should be implemented city-wide.

UNION TO GIVE MEMBERS THE AXE

Weingarten has also proposed simplifying the process by which principals can fire teachers they deem to be performing poorly. Under this proposal, union leadership would work with school administrators to expedite the evaluation and, when necessary, firing of teachers.

Weingarten is quoted in a January Times article, “Failing City Teachers Face a Faster Axe,” saying, “I want to do in every way possible what I can to extend my hand in partnership, and my members’ hands…”

Fiorillo calls this proposal “appalling,” noting that “the union has an unambiguous legal requirement to represent and fight for the members when management seeks to remove them.”

Fiorillo continues, “Randi’s proposal [would] set the union up as a third party between the member and management, putting the union in the position of ‘suggesting another line of work.’”

UFT member John Lawhead agrees, noting that “the emphasis on weeding out the bad teachers provides [the city] with a way to sow fear…and control everyone better.

“It also serves Weingarten,” he adds, “because she uses the ‘teacher quality’ issue to demand higher salaries.” Lawhead, who teaches English as a Second Language at Bushwick High School in Brooklyn, believes that Weingarten has focused on salary increases as a “ticket to popularity,” rather than dealing with more complex workplace issues.

BUILDING AN OPPOSITION

Due to widespread concerns about union leadership, the UFT reform movement has grown dramatically in the past few months. Both Fiorillo and Lawhead work with a recently-founded reform group called the Independent Community of Educators (ICE).

Norm Scott, an ICE member and longtime UFT activist, says ICE plans to run candidates in the UFT’s upcoming elections (scheduled to begin mid-March). While he doubts that Weingarten can be defeated, Scott believes that ICE could win some seats on the UFT’s executive board.

Most important to Scott is that the group holds together. “We’re using this election to build a base,” he explains. “Everyone in ICE is an independent…we’ve got a whole range of political views…but somehow it’s kept together so far.”

Fiorillo says he was attracted to ICE because it’s “largely made up of people with an independent, non-dogmatic spirit.”

Scott hopes that this non-dogmatic approach will allow ICE to work with other reform groups, including Teachers for a Just Contract.

Marian Swerdlow, one of TJC’s founders and a social studies teacher at Franklin Delano Roosevelt High School in Brooklyn, hopes that these elections will give reformers a vehicle to express what they believe is the key problem with the UFT, “that the union leadership will not lead a democratic, militant struggle against the employer.”

She adds, “I hope that our strong message….will provide a powerful springboard for a contract campaign to follow this spring.”

Swerdlow says that TJC, which has existed since 1992, has never run candidates before. “We would have been viewed as ‘spoilers,’” she explains, “for running against New Action, the largest opposition group.”

This year however, New Action cut a deal with Weingarten’s Unity caucus, agreeing not to run against Weingarten. In return, Unity caucus will not run against New Action’s six High School Executive Board candidates.

Scott believes that these six E-board seats are where smaller reform groups like ICE and TJC have the best chance of winning office.

James Eterno, an Executive Board member since 1997, recently left New Action because of their “corrupt bargain” with Unity caucus. In an article written for Education Notes, an independent newsletter published by Scott and other rank-and-file UFT members, Eterno asserts that “Unity and New Action are now virtually interchangeable.”

NO MORE BACK ROOM

The UFT is the largest teacher union local in the country, with more than 140,000 members. It has often been considered the most powerful union in New York.

So, as Scott puts it, “why is Randi sucking up?”

According to Scott, for many years the UFT leadership has negotiated deals with the city behind closed doors, failing to involve or mobilize members at contract time.

Scott believes that Chancellor Klein and Mayor Michael Bloomberg have effectively “defanged” the UFT by excluding Weingarten from school-related decision-making processes. This was facilitated by New York’s decision to abolish the city’s Board of Education, giving complete control of public schools to the mayor’s office.

“They killed her opportunity to make backroom deals,” Scott explains. “She has no other method to do anything.”

Swerdlow agrees, saying that Weingarten “is offering all these concessions…[because] she is not willing to lead a militant struggle.”

Scott and Swerdlow’s assertions are supported by last February’s New York Times article, “Teachers’ Chief is Outsider in Schools Shake-Up.” The article cites one city official who said Weingarten being “iced out” by Klein and Bloomberg, and describes Weingarten as “working furiously to regain her status as a player.”

A LACK OF EXPERIENCE

Weingarten first got involved with the UFT when she was hired as legal counsel to former local (and current AFT International) president Sandra Feldman. An article from the Spring 2003 issue of Education Notes states that:

“When Feldman decided that Weingarten should be groomed to be her heir…she recognized that…she had to make [Weingarten] a teacher to establish her legitimacy…

“[Weingarten] was set up with an unadvertised part-time position at Clara Barton High School, ten minutes from her home. She began this part-time gig in Fall of 1992.”

The article continues to say that in 1995, after only six months of full-time teaching, “Weingarten was elevated to an officer’s position as the UFT Assistant Secretary.”

Fiorillo believes that Weingarten’s lack of teaching experience is one reason why “she is so quick to sell off parts of the contract.”

SERIOUS RAMIFICATIONS

ICE’s platform, published in Education Notes, states that UFT members are being asked to “accept Randi Weingarten’s rationale that in these times of trouble we must stick together” and support Unity Caucus, which has controlled the UFT since its founding.

“The needs of our students are infinite, and teachers’ sense of responsibility and idealism is frequently manipulated,” Fiorillo explains.

ICE’s platform asserts that the UFT leadership “has been a contributor to the current crisis for [UFT] membership through its support for mayoral control (of the schools)…

“While we are all united as members of the union against the attacks (from the city),” the document concludes, “the leadership’s 40-year record of stifling voices of dissent has weakened our union.”