Contract gains for New York teachers

In November 2005 New York City’s United Federation of Teachers (UFT) ratified a contract that contained a number of givebacks to the city. These included a longer workday, a longer work year and the loss of certain grievance rights. The contract aroused deep opposition among the membership and demoralized many workers.

In the year since, the UFT has made several changes in its contract strategy. The leadership set up a 300-member negotiating committee that included many school-based members and representatives of several opposition caucuses in the union. Over the summer, the UFT was the driving force behind the formation of a municipal labor coalition.

By the fall, the coalition had formulated its proposals and decided to designate the UFT as a lead union in citywide negotiations. The two sides announced a tentative agreement Nov. 6, eleven months before the expiration of the current contract.

Though the proposed agreement does not get back any of the concession made last year, there are some solid points won by the union. The contract will run for two years, during which time the top teacher salary will pass $100,000 for the first time. All members will receive a 7.1 percent salary increase.

The city will make a $750 one-time lump sum payment that is pensionable on Jan. 2, 2007.

The union won a new five-year longevity increase in 2008; the first longevity increase is now 10 years. An important guarantee covers those workers charged with corporal punishment or verbal abuse. The new agreement reads, “If accusations … are not substantiated, all records relating to these accusations will be immediately expunged from the employee’s personal file.”

Some members of the UFT are willing to support the agreement even though there have been no changes in the givebacks lost in 2005 if the UFT commits itself to organizing and mobilizing the membership between now and 2009, when the proposed contract ends, to win a strong contract. People feel that the union has gone backward long enough and that the time has come to move forward again.

— David Cavendish

David Cavendish is a New York City teacher and a UFT activist.

Right wing ousted in Arkansas

Voters here delivered a resounding defeat for the GOP on Nov. 7. In the state House of Representatives, Democrats now have a 99-36 majority. One of the biggest state House victories was Rep. Lindsley Smith’s re-election in Fayetteville’s District 92. Smith handily defeated her Republican challenger in a 72 percent landslide. Cephus Richard II, the GOP nominee, criticized Smith for her efforts to add sexual orientation to the list of characteristics protected under Arkansas’ civil rights law. Smith went on the offensive and answered Richard by saying she was “against discrimination,” and that she “would vote the same way again.”

A key part of Smith’s victory was the support of AFSCME Local 965 which represents the workers at the University of Arkansas, where Smith is an assistant professor. Members of Local 965 have been hitting the streets knocking on doors and making phone calls for weeks to turn out the vote.

Ending 10 years of GOP domination of the governor’s mansion, Democratic Attorney General Mike Beebe defeated Asa Hutchinson, Bush’s undersecretary for homeland security. Beebe took 56 percent of the vote in a four-candidate race.

An election-eve visit by President Bush seems to have only doomed Republican candidates even further as trends suggest Arkansas voters are increasingly questioning the Iraq war.

Ultra-conservative state Sen. Jim Holt was the Republican nominee for lieutenant governor against Bill Halter, a former Clinton administration official. Holt’s campaign focused almost exclusively on his reactionary positions on such issues as abortion rights, immigrants and gay marriage. Holt said that a proposal to raise the state minimum wage to $7.25 amounted to “socialism.” Holt lost by more than 100,000 votes.

When results started coming in on election night, union member Fillan Ferguson-Rivers said, “I am feeling as if I have just awakened from a six-year nightmare.” Ferguson-Rivers, who is a university staff person and a sociology grad student, continued, “Finally, the American electorate has begun to impose some checks on our government.”

Another big boost to turnout in the district was a pre-election rally for peace held just two days before the polls opened. A coalition of peace activists, student groups, churches and political parties organized a demonstration under the slogan “March for Change, Vote for Peace,” which brought out hundreds to rally at City Hall. Though most in attendance were not fans of some of Arkansas’ conservative Democrats, there was widespread agreement on the need to defeat the most right-wing Republican candidates.

— C.J. Atkins, Fayetteville, Ark.

C.J. Atkins is a member of AFSCME Local 965.

Texans were great

I worked as an elections clerk Election Day. It was a busy day, and very rewarding. Two little old ladies came to vote. One was born in 1914 and the other in 1925.

Republican Gov. Rick Perry squeezed back in for another term with just 39 percent of the vote. Chris Bell, the Democratic candidate, had 30 percent, and the two other independents had 18 percent and 12 percent. Polls suggest Bell could possibly have won if the vote had not been split. He is a wonderful man and labor really tried to help him win.

We had the usual block walks, phone committees, rallies, etc.

The outcome in Texas was different because Democrats lacked the financial resources to run expensive commercials about national issues, said Perry’s pollster.

Democratic consultant Glenna Smith, who has run two previous gubernatorial campaigns, said the election results show Texans are tired of Republican governance. Democrat Nick Lampson won the bitter race to succeed former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay. The 22nd CD was one of the most competitive House races in the country, as the GOP waged a last-minute battle to hold the seat in the Republican-leaning district after DeLay resigned from Congress.

While officiating, I just teared up watching these majestic old Texas women exercise their right. As they left with the great granddaughter of the oldest woman, the other clerks and I wept with respect and admiration.

— Pat Burnham, Houston

Pat Burnham is an IBEW member in Houston