Wednesday, December 03, 2014

Expert UFT Negotiators at Work

 by special guest blogger Harris Lirtzman

I worked in New York City and State government and politics for twenty years before I made the late career switch to become a special education math teacher at a community high school in the Soundview section of the Bronx.

While I was in government I learned a lot of tricks about how to "bury" bad news.

Most folks know about the Friday afternoon "deep six": if you drop the press release announcing your conviction for embezzlement on a Friday afternoon around 5 p.m. the news will carry, if it does at all, on the Friday night news and in the Saturday dailies, which are the least seen and read of the week.  If you're lucky enough to have some flexibility and want to announce that you're closing ten firehouses, do it the last week in August or the week between Christmas and New Year's.

But what do you do if you want to "bury" some really good news?

The de Blasio administration has the answer for you.  Let the world know about it the Wednesday before Thanksgiving Day. Absolutely no one will find out about the fact that you've just discovered $2.6 billion in the City budget that you didn't expect to have at the beginning of the year.  After all, why ruin anyone's big dinner with great news like that?  Someone might notice.

Just as you were on the way home from work last week ready for your four-day weekend, the City announced that it had found under its sofa cushion an additional $1.1 billion in debt service savings and another $1.5 billion in additional tax revenues for the current fiscal year.  This is serious money, even in connection with a budget that totals $75 billion.

Among the people whom Mayor de Blasio might not want to notice such news is a small group called "municipal labor negotiators."  These people might be particularly interested to find out that the City stumbled across some pocket-change and might be inclined to do something quite awful with all that money.  For example, if those labor negotiators were good at what they do they might want to bargain a contract settlement for their members that includes things such as decent raises, retroactive payments for a round of settlements that other unions received but which were not paid to its members or, God forbid, lump sum distributions of those payments to its retirees on a timely basis and with enough money in the pot to cover the obligations made to those retirees.

These "labor negotiators" might even be the leaders of the United Federation of Teachers.

There were many people in late 2013 and early 2014 who disputed first the Bloomberg and then the de Blasio administration projections of doom-and-gloom about what would happen if they negotiated a "fair contract" with the UFT.  In late December 2013, the City's Independent Budget Office projected a surplus for the current fiscal year, FY 2015, of $1.9 billion.  In March 2014, the City Comptroller's Office, a perennially pessimistic crew, projected that the budget for FY 2015 would be balanced and that there would be relatively small budget gaps in the years to follow.  In January 2014, I suggested in a blog posting on the MORE Caucus website that the City would be rolling in dough over the next few years because of rapidly increasing sales, property and income tax revenue resulting from the boom in real estate and the City's recovery from the "Great Recession."

If you are a member of the UFT, you will remember that our "labor negotiators," negotiated a contract last spring that you approved by a 3-1 vote in May.  That contract included a raise of 0% in 2012 (you got a one-time "contracting signing bonus" of $1,000), 1% through 2016, 2.5% in 2017 and 3% in 2018.  The 8% retroactive raise for the contract rounds that Mayor Bloomberg refused to negotiate will be paid out in chunks through 2020, two years past the end of the current contract. Our negotiators promised an immediate lump-sum payment of the retroactive raise to anyone who retired before July 1, 2014 but only agreed to fund $180 million for those payments.  So many teachers took the bait that the City needs another $60 million to make good on those retiree payments but, thank God, the UFT negotiators included a "re-opener" in the contract and agreed a few weeks ago to allow an arbitrator to rummage around in the contract to find the chump change to fund that $60 million.

I take you on this tour through the back alleys of the City's recent budgets and offer a refresher course on the UFT contract that you approved on the recommendation of union leadership not because I want to bore the pants off of you.  I just want to remind you that there was a large group of people who attempted loudly to warn your own labor negotiators not to believe the City's hype about the terribleness of the things that would happen if it agreed to a fair contract for UFT members. One of the things I did say early this year was "If you don't get a raise or don't get paid retroactively for the last two rounds of contracts it won't be because of the 'economics' of the thing.  It will be because of 'the politics.' And the politics connected with the next round of contract negotiations will be the fiercest in a generation...the people who have run this City are still coming for us and we need to be ready for them."

Your leadership failed you.  You were told that the contract you approved was the best that could be negotiated. You were told that the City couldn't pay for a "fair contract," much less finish paying you the retroactive salary you earned until the beginning of the next decade. You were told that if you didn't approve the contract put in front of you that the UFT would have to get in the back of the line behind 150 other locals trying to negotiate contracts with the City.

Some people think that the UFT leadership doesn't do a very good job.  They think that our beloved union should be more democratic and transparent and that it should adhere more closely to a social justice agenda.  I happen to agree with all of that.  But more than anything else, I think that our leadership should do its most important job and do it intelligently, which is to negotiate a collective bargaining agreement that protects the interests of its members.

The UFT leadership did not do that. The UFT leadership failed miserably at its most important responsibility.

Folks, you were had.  And you found out--or maybe you didn't--that you were had on Thanksgiving Eve at around three in the afternoon when all the very good news that the City and the UFT leadership knew about last December finally came tumbling out of the closet.
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