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Contract Sport

With his plan to reinvent the teachers’ contract, Mike Bloomberg touched off Round Two in the fight for the soul of the city’s schools.

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One of the biggest white lies in Mike Bloomberg’s City Hall is, We don’t negotiate in the press. Right. But what they say is nothing compared to what they do.

This month, for instance, the mayor did something no other mayor has done in the 42-year history of civil combat with the United Federation of Teachers over the union’s famously exhaustive, well-armored contract. After five months of silence at the negotiation table, he tossed out the current 204-page version (plus 800 pages of side agreements) and proposed one that was sweated down to 8. And in those eight pages, he left out hard-won provision after provision that he knew—he must have known—would make Randi Weingarten, the UFT president, howl in agony. “A kick in the teeth” were the words she used—and then reused, in ads and interviews.

Now, why would he do that if he knew the teachers union’s 80,000 members—and all those outer-borough parents who vote—were watching? Bloomberg might call it a bold stroke—a gesture a CEO might make to coax a little change. Weingarten calls it scapegoating—a way to distract shareholders from poor performance. “There’s no teacher in New York City that would work under the proposal that they put on the table,” she says, adding that she felt “totally sandbagged” by “a no-contract proposal and a 20 percent pay cut.”

That last part, at least, is a matter of debate. It’s not no-contract; it’s just not the contract Weingarten has spent her career nurturing and refining. And it’s not really a 20 percent pay cut; the eight-pager simply doesn’t include the points the current contract has about vacation days (Weingarten conveniently extrapolated from that the notion that Bloomberg wanted to wipe out the teachers’ vacation days, and prorated the pay). The city hasn’t proposed anything about salary yet.

And it’s hard to imagine Weingarten really being sandbagged when wiping out the contract’s protections of seniority and tenure have been part of Chancellor Joel Klein’s stump speech for months. “By and large, we have a system that has people who have life tenure,” he told a crowd at Goldman Sachs last April. “We have a system of lockstep pay. And we have a system that’s organized on seniority. It’s very hard, for example, for new, young, and talented teachers. Under our current system, enormously talented young people end up in some of our least stable, most challenging environments.” The eight-page contract would change all that.

So Weingarten saw something like this coming. And Bloomberg knew that she would hate it. But if this all feels a little preordained, that’s because this proposal is more than just a lowball offer from management. This eight-page contract is nothing less than Mike Bloomberg’s educational manifesto.

When people think school reform, they usually think of reshuffling the deck chairs of a sinking bureaucracy. But Bloomberg’s pint-sized contract could, with such twentieth-century innovations as merit pay, forever change what it means to be a teacher in New York City. More than the mayor’s takeover of the Board of Education, this is a profound cultural shift aimed straight at the classroom. Put simply, instead of being civil servants, teachers become employees.

In certain ways, the eight pages read as a wish list that every former chancellor always wanted but never dared ask for. The proposed contract would make it easier to get rid of incompetent teachers (it can take years now) and suspend teachers without pay who face serious charges (ditto). It would offer teachers bonuses to work in the worst schools. It would give teachers raises based on how well they teach. It would add more work days to the school year, reduce the number of unused sick days that can be cashed in by retirees, and nix nearly all teacher sabbaticals. And the final kick in the teeth: Teachers would be barred from doing union business during the school day. Bloomberg is gambling that this scheme will help kids—but it definitely hurts the union.

In the past, teachers have agreed to uniform pay increases in exchange for ten or twenty minutes of extra work; in this new construct, teachers would work until they get their jobs done and win raises if they do them well. Some wonder why the teachers wouldn’t prefer that. “The rhetoric that Randi uses is, she wants teachers to be treated as professionals, but the contract she’s defending treats teachers as factory workers, as clock punchers,” says Eva Moskowitz, the City Council Education Committee chair who spent much of last fall vivisecting the contract in public hearings. “And there’s a tension there. We need to compensate teachers like professionals, but we also need to allow a flexibility in how those professionals can do their jobs.”

Weingarten treats this kind of talk as too pie-in-the-sky to take seriously. The stakes are too high: Why should teachers give up a contract that protects class size and dictates procedures about school safety? “I have no objection to the rhetoric that Eva Moskowitz is using,” she says, “but you have to get there in a way that’s negotiated. Ultimately, I’d like to see those kinds of changes. I’d like to see if we could treat teachers as professionals. We made lots and lots of proposals as to how to do it. And the rhetoric on management’s side is always, ‘Oh, we want to treat teachers as professionals,’ and they do nothing about it.” Except propose this contract.

How important, really, is the 800-page contract to day-to-day life in schools? Even Weingarten acknowledges that many teachers ignore the rules—taking, say, a quick shift in the lunchroom—just to get their jobs done. “Ultimately, if a school works, whatever way it works, if people are being treated respectfully, I’m not going to overregulate it or intervene,” she says. What Bloomberg is proposing is a cold, hard codification of that reality. And at the start of negotiations in September, Weingarten even tried to preempt the mayor by suggesting experimenting with a shorter contract in 150 schools. But this only gave him an opening to suggest going wide with the idea. By doing that, he committed the cardinal negotiating sin: He left her with nothing on the table.

“She’s like any union leader,” says one veteran of these negotiations. “She’s saying, ‘You should tackle these issues an issue at a time, and you’re asking for everything, and that’s just not how collective bargaining works.’ And he’s saying, ‘Fuck you, we’ve tried incrementalism and it hasn’t worked. I’m only here once—here’s what I want.’ ”

Bloomberg might indeed be gearing up to blame the union if his reforms tank (though it’s too early to say if they will). But the converse is also true: Weingarten has nothing to lose politically by treating his eight-page contract like plutonium. Teachers are being trained on the fly in mandated new reading and math programs, and many of them feel more micromanaged than ever. It makes good political sense to lump frustration with the mayor’s curriculum reforms with frustration over the contract. So along comes the PR offensive: The papers suddenly print teacher e-mails to Klein railing about the reforms. And the chancellor’s people then leak other e-mails from teachers saying how nice it is that the mayor doesn’t want the union to bend over backward to protect incompetent teachers.

The eight-page contract also gives Weingarten, on the cusp of campaign season, a chance to talk about how out of touch the mayor is. “The problem is this,” she says. “Most people in New York City don’t work under a contract these days. But when you had contracts in place for people, you know, there were many, many, many people who were happier in their work than they are right now. And more and more, I am seeing a lot of class distinctions in New York. People who earn more than $100,000 tend to like Mike Bloomberg more than people who earn less than $100,000. I’ll be in places in Brooklyn or in Queens or in union halls or teacher cafeterias where people say, ‘What is he thinking?’ So the disconnect is getting starker and starker.”

In the long run, Bloomberg may have the upper hand. Mayors have delayed the teachers’ contract before; it’s a no-lose for him to stall this one for more than a year. If he wins the next election, he’s got Weingarten in a box; she has to give her members a new contract sometime. And if he loses, hey, it’s not his problem anymore.

So when the mayor pretends not to negotiate in public, it’s because he doesn’t think he has to. Weingarten, however, has no choice. “They’re not serious about this,” she says. “Why are they doing this in February when we made our proposal in September? All this is is a smoke screen to eliminate the teachers’ contract. That’s what they want to do.”

Which is true. Minus the smoke screen.


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