Wednesday, January 12, 2022

Spring 2020--Arbitration and Its Discontents

There are a lot of things to complain about these days. I'm pretty good at complaining, as anyone who knows me can attest. And there are a lot of genuine issues we face every day. 

For one, we're going to work in a pandemic, and we have a mayor and chancellor who collectively lack the sensitivity of a number two pencil. They share the philosophy of the de Blasio chancellor, what's her name, who told us, "Macy's is open. It's a beautiful day." In other words, you're on your own as far as your safety is concerned.

I was chapter leader of the largest school in Queens for 12 years. We always got complaints about when grades were due. When they were due on a Friday, people asked why they didn't have the weekend to grade. When they were due on a Monday, people asked why they were being forced to grade on the weekend. When they were due midweek, people asked what was up with that. Why didn't we get the whole week?

For myself, I kind of disregarded the due dates and determined when I had enough to decide on a report card grade. At that point there were no more assessments until after the next marking period began. I was prepared to give grades pretty quickly, and I always did. In this job, people are always setting down edicts. You must do this thing! It's serious but not impossible. When people say that, I think to myself, "It's impossible but not serious."

To survive in a system like this, you need to improvise. You need to find ways of dealing with odd situations. As I write this, I'm masked and sharing a room with two masked colleagues. This is the oddest time I've ever faced in 37 years. But I'm here, doing my best to teach the kids who end up in front of me. Even as far back as Up the Down Staircase, when teachers were faced with ridiculous demands, they said something like, "Make it your challenge." In a large bureaucracy like ours, there are many curious demands. That's one thing that keeps me blogging.

When we had to go back Spring week, they asked us to try to be creative. I called Congresswoman Grace Meng, who's from our district. She agreed to do a Q and A with our students. I called Jillian Jorgenson, the great education reporter from NY 1. She met with our journalism students. I called a group of successful Asian women who'd offered to come to our school to meet with our students and act as role models. They ended up doing this via Zoom. I made the best of this, and our students benefited. I try to make the best I can out of whatever cards I'm dealt, even if I'm supremely pissed about losing a week I pretty much needed.

That brings me to the arbitration. For a long time, people have been asking, "When are they going to deal with that extra week we worked?" Often people would predict never, that's when we'll be compensated. A lot of people asked me personally, as though I had input, which I did not. Leadership always said as soon as the grievance process is back in place, we'll take it to arbitration. 

And that they did. 

Once we got the decision, some people said it was a loss, that the UFT had no power at all, and we may as well give up. That's kind of ridiculous. I've been at arbitrations where we got bad decisions. One year, I filed a grievance that the principal failed to give us programs with rooms the day before the year ended. The principal sustained that grievance. The next year we still did not get the programs. When I complained, the principal cut up current programs and stuck them in everyone's mailboxes. However, he had no intention of giving everyone the same programs and classrooms.

At arbitration, we lost. Though it was a blatant violation of black letter contract, the arbitrator said it was good enough to just hand everyone their current program and hope for the best. How on earth that helps people to plan their schedules I have no idea. I was able to place stronger language in an SBO we used and avert the situation in the future. But I'll tell you something--when you lose an arbitration, it''s screw you, you get nothing. That did not happen here.

People said we should have gotten money. Now I like money as much as the next person, and I'd have gratefully accepted it without hesitation. (I'd have been particularly happy if they'd given us pro rata.)

Nonetheless, had that occurred, some people would still complain. They'd say we gave up time, and ask why on earth we weren't getting time back. I know some people will disagree, but it's plain to me that no matter what you do, you can't make everyone happy. (If you could  make everyone happy, we'd be like the Borg on Star Trek, or those Cybermen in Dr. Who. However, we're all different, we all value different things, and we all complain about different things as well.)

David Campbell, who runs the grievance department, told the Executive Board Monday night that the arbitrator announced point blank he was not going to ask the city to write a large check. Right or wrong, the arbitrator decided. There are ways to deal with that. You could open by arguing with the arbitrator. Perhaps you can be persuasive enough to sway him or her. Perhaps you will make the arbitrator angry enough that you'll pay dearly for it. Perhaps you'll get nothing.

UFT decided to go a different route. We lost seven days, so we should therefore be awarded seven days. In fact, that's just what happened. We did not lose money during that break. We lost time and were awarded it back. While there are circumstances under which you may be denied your preferred vacation dates, the arbitration gave parameters for what they are. If your imperial principal arbitrarily sees fit to deny you, UFT can go to the arbitrator and cite failure to follow regulations.

Now this is not perfect. But nothing is perfect. When we won parental leave, it was criticized. You can't use it for family leave. It's not pensionable. There were a million reasons it could have been better. And that's true. Still, it beat the hell out of the nothing it replaced. I wish I'd had it when I adopted my daughter in Colombia. I could've saved twenty or thirty car days. (Hell, I wish they'd have given it to me when I adopted my dog. Why does UFT discriminate against canines?)

People asked why the DOE had to take back the four CAR days they originally awarded us. I'd love to have kept them too. But the DOE wanted to give us as little as possible for our time, ideally nothing. They'd surely have asked why the UFT couldn't just take the four CAR days, sit down, and shut the hell up. I'm sure that's what they wanted. UFT did not do that, and I'm thankful. That would have been a dire loss. CAR days are actually half days if we donate them to sick colleagues, or get paid for them when we retire. The holiday days are full value.

It's really easy to tear things down. When the chancellor writes us one of his outlandish emails, I delight in filling in the blanks. He richly deserves it.

This arbitration agreement, however, does not. We lost seven days. Then we gained seven days. This is a win, and we should regard it as such. I don't agree with everything leadership does or every position they take. But young teachers I know can visit the countries they came from and avoid paying the high travel fees we see during the holidays. They can get married and take honeymoons when their spouses can. Older teachers can retire and get the equivalent of 14 CAR days. 

Anyone who tells you they would have fared better in arbitration has either little experience with arbitration or has not thought things through. This was not perfect, but again, this was a win.

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