N.Y. teachers mull no contract, no work strategy

Workers’ Correspondence It is about 15 months until the current contract between the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) and the city of New York expires, in October 2007. Already, the union is planning its strategy for the next round of negotiations, with many of its ideas deriving from the results of the last round.

The contract agreement that was reached last fall (covering the period from June 1, 2003, to Oct. 12, 2007) included a number of givebacks, most notably the loss of the right to grieve negative letters-in-the-file, or unsatisfactory observations; an additional 10 minutes added to the workday; and the loss of the seniority transfer plan. Nearly 40 percent of the membership voted “no.” Since the votes are not counted separately by school or division, I can only guess, but I am certain that the contract was defeated in the high schools.

In New York City, the mayor controls the school system; there is no elected school board anymore. Michael Bloomberg, our mayor (and billionaire who runs a nonunion shop in his communications business), and Joel Klein, his hand-picked chancellor, are trying to impose a corporate-model, top-down, bureaucratic system on the school staff. During the last negotiations, the city proposed to tear up our contract and replace it with an eight-page set of rules that would have gutted all workers’ rights. The UFT was able to stand up to the mayor and the proposal was withdrawn. There is every reason to expect the city to make similar proposals in the next round.

The only way for the UFT to defeat this juggernaut is through unity and strength. UFT President Randi Weingarten has established a 350-member negotiating committee that includes members from all the various caucuses within the union. From this group will come a 20-30 member “executive committee” that will meet with the city. The negotiating committee will work in the schools to organize the membership around our demands. Currently, the membership is discussing the idea of adopting a policy of “no contract, no work.”

In June, the UFT was instrumental in organizing a bargaining coalition with most of the other municipal unions, all of which will be negotiating new contracts in the next year or so. In the past, the city has used a method of “pattern bargaining” to win contract concessions from the workers. What the mayor would do is pick on the weakest union that is about to sit down to bargain and force on it an agreement with low pay raises and numerous givebacks. The other unions would then be presented with similar demands. The unions in the bargaining coalition feel that if there is to be a pattern to contract settlements, then let the workers set the pattern. The united front will negotiate mostly on economic issues. The combined power of these unions will be used to force the city to face a new reality — the workers are sick and tired of being pushed around.

It is in this context that the UFT will negotiate its next collective bargaining agreement. There is room for optimism. There is much work still to be done.

— David Cavendish, a N.Y. teacher