After a long and difficult contract struggle that saw the unprecedented mobilization of New York City’s public school teachers, a much deserved agreement was finally won by the UFT yesterday. Given the extraordinary array of forces hostile to public education and teacher unionism facing us, from the President and the Congress to the Mayor and the Chancellor, from the New York City tabloid press to the Wall Street business elite, the achievement of a decent contract without the sacrifice of core union principles is an important, noteworthy victory. The improvements over the proposal of the fact-finders are especially striking. In these times and under these conditions, it is remarkable that the balance sheet of what we won and what we were able to turn back in the way of draconian demands from the Chancellor and the DOE, on the one hand, versus the areas where we lost ground, on the other hand, is tipped so dramatically in the favor of gains and rejections of DOE demands. Even where we lost some ground, the UFT was able to win significant ameliorations.

Perhaps most importantly, we turned back completely the efforts of Chancellor Klein to eviscerate the UFT, to eliminate democratic voice for New York City’s public school teachers, and to destroy meaningful collective bargaining. What he ended up with was a UFT stronger and more active than ever.

It is important to take a clear and precise inventory here, because there has already been some disinformation produced on the web and in the blogosphere. Important wins for the UFT which were in response to UFT proposals, such as the streamlining of the grievance process and the expansion of the lead teacher program, are being misrepresented as losses, and other purported losses are being created out of thin air. Perhaps it is a sign of how much the UFT was able to accomplish under difficult circumstances with this contract that we are now facing such disinformation.

Here is where we really stand.

WHAT DID WE GAIN?

A 15% compounded increase in take-home pay over the life of the contract, with a new maximum salary of $93,416.

When added to the 16% increase in the last contract, this increase has dramatically narrowed the salary gap between NYC and suburban teachers. What is especially important here is that Randi and the UFT negotiations team were able to obtain nearly 4% more than the 11.4% proposed by the fact-finding panel, and fix it in place for the first two years of the next mayoral term, without providing any additional “productivity” savings to the City.

This increase is important not only for New York City educators, who face the difficult challenge of living in the metropolitan region with the second highest cost of living in the US, but also for New York City school children, who need the experienced and accomplished teachers that a competitive salary can attract and retain.

In all of our surveys and polling, a significant increase in take home pay was cited by UFT members as their number one goal for this contract.

A 65% increase in retroactive pay over the fact-finders’ proposal.

Once the contract is ratified, a teacher on maximum will receive $5771 in retroactive pay; a teacher who started work in September 2003 will receive $2819.

An agreement from New York City to seek a change in state pension law would allow all UFT members to retire without penalty at age 55 with a minimum of 25 years of service.

This agreement will continue the important progress that the UFT has made in eliminating the differences among the different pension tiers, giving Tier 2, Tier 3 and Tier 4 members the same option for a 55-25 retirement without penalty now available to Tier 1 members.

New contractual language protecting teachers against micro-management.

Since the start of the DOE’s Children First program, teachers have been beleaguered with a torrent of directives governing everything from the appearance of bulletin boards to the arrangement of classroom furniture. This language strengthens already existing contractual language on the teacher’s professional authority over lesson plans and on the resolution of disputes between supervisor and teacher over professional, educational issues.

A new career rung for para-professionals who have received a Bachelors degree, with additional compensation.

The expansion of the UFT and parent initiated lead teacher program, with a $10,000 annual differential for participating teachers.

For many years, the UFT has advocated the development of a lead teacher position, to provide new career opportunities for accomplished, experienced teachers who want to remain in the classroom. This agreement will expand a pilot program begun in the Bronx, in which the lead teacher teaches half of the day, and provides mentoring and professional development for new teachers in their school the other half of the day.

While the Bronx parents in CC9 and the Bronx teachers had to push the DOE into doing the pilot program there, the Chancellor, desperate for some “victories” in an agreement which utterly demolished the agenda he set out in his infamous 8 page proposal, is now trying to claim the program as his own. Only the most gullible, those completely ignorant of the history of this initiative and the way in which it functions, could take seriously his outlandish claim that it is a form of “merit pay.” The very procedure for the selection of the lead teachers, which involves parents, teachers and DOE officials working in collaboration to make consensus decisions, shows just how little it has in common with the top-down, autocratic dystopia of Klein.

The adoption of a UFT proposal to streamline the grievance process by eliminating Step Two.

In recent years, the DOE has clogged the grievance and arbitration machinery with deleterious appeals and refusals to abide by precedents and clear contractual language. On the principle of “justice delayed is justice denied,” the UFT set about looking for ways to speed up the process, which can go on for months and years. By eliminating a redundant step of the grievance process, in which the superintendent invariably ruled against the grievant, we have made some progress in this area.

A number of important advances were made for functional chapters.

Nurses and therapists won a ten month year [reduced from twelve months], together with an 11.5% salary increase. School psychologists and social workers won a workload dispute process, similar to that now in place for secretaries and guidance counselors. This process will be vital for countering the exceptional pressures and burdens that the Children’s First program has visited upon psychologists and social workers, especially in the wake of the elimination of the education evaluator position.

There was no increase in health care premiums.

Since 2000, employer health care premiums have increased 73% throughout the US. The rate of premium growth in 2005 alone was three times the rate of growth in employee earning, and two and a half times the rate of inflation. Yet when union after union is losing ground in this area, we held the line: there was no increase for UFT members.

WHAT DID WE TURN BACK?

The DOE’s effort to take away tenure, and eliminate ‘due process’ in disciplinary procedures and dismissals.

The DOE demanded an end to tenure, an end to the ‘just cause’ standard for a teacher’s dismissal, and an end to having independent arbitrators hear and decide cases for a teacher’s dismissal. The Chancellor wanted the burden of proof in dismissal cases to be shifted to the teacher, who would have to demonstrate that she was a satisfactory teacher who should not be dismissed, rather than the DOE having to show that she was unsatisfactory and should not be dismissed. And the Chancellor wanted dismissal cases to be heard and decided by DOE employees, rather than by independent arbitrators. On all counts, the DOE’s demands were rejected.

Due process is a core union principle. We could not accept a contract in which it was not kept intact.

The DOE’s demand for the authority to lay-off teachers ‘ excessed’ from their schools.

The DOE sought the authority to lay-off any teachers who were excessed from a school, regardless of seniority, and were not able to find another job, on their own, within 18 months. This demand was rejected.

Seniority in lay-offs is a core union principle. We could not accept a contract which did not secure the rights of senior excessed teachers to a position in another school.

The fact-finders’ proposal for 10 additional unpaid coverages in the middle schools and high schools.

There will be no additional coverages.

HOW DID WE AMELIORATE LOST GROUND?

Part of the increase in this contract was financed through additional time, primarily through ten more minutes of time per day. In response to the many complaints regarding the lengthy professional development sessions which were not, in most schools, very useful, the professional development sessions were eliminated. We were able to secure a uniform school day, Monday through Thursday, of 6 hours, 57 minutes. Friday will remain a 6 hour, 20 minute day.

One of the issues that we have had to face in seeking salaries which are competitive with the suburbs is that suburbs work a longer school day – most suburbs have a seven hour day. As this contract brought us closer to the suburban salary, it also brought our work day closer to the suburban work day.

In order to ensure that the 37 minutes of time added to the Monday through Thursday workday is strictly limited to tutoring, test preparation and small group work, with no more than ten students at a time, an expedited arbitration procedure, with monetary penalties for violations, has been written into the contract.

Multiple session middle schools and high schools which do not have the space for the after school small group sessions and District 75 schools will have the extra time incorporated into their school schedules for a regular school day of 6 hours and 50 minutes.

The fact finders report called for three additional days of work, two before the Labor Day weekend and one holiday within the regular school year. We were able to use Brooklyn-Queens Day as the third day; it is been a holiday only for Brooklyn and Queens teachers, so teachers in Manhattan, the Bronx and Staten Island will only be working two additional days.

We won specific language that allocated the two additional days before Labor Day to classroom preparation, thus securing for teachers the time necessary to organize their classroom for the first day of school. As it now stands, many elementary school teachers are working days without pay before the start of school, simply to get their classrooms ready for their students. Now this work will be recognized as part of their paid work.

The contract calls for ending ‘seniority transfers,’ by giving the principal of the school into which a teacher wants to transfer a veto. Prior to this contract, a growing number of schools had been leaving the seniority transfer plan for the school based staffing and transfer plan, with about half of all schools in the school based plan last year. One would expect that these numbers would continue to grow with this contract. In fact, the 1996 contract had called for the complete replacement of the seniority transfer plan by the school based transfer plan, and it was only the bureaucratic incompetence of the DOE that prevented the implementation of that part of the contract.

The loss here is that the principal will have final authority but we were able to win language which specifically prohibited a principal from rejecting a transfer on the basis of “ age, race, gender, sexual orientation and union activities.” The principal will also be required to list all vacancies in his school [only one-half of the vacancies are listed under the seniority transfer plan], all caps and limits on the number of teachers who can transfer have been removed, and a teacher will not have to obtain a release from their current principal to transfer, provided that she does so before August 7.

Circular 6R is maintained, but supervisors have more leeway in assigning teachers to administrative assignments such as homeroom, hall patrol and cafeteria duty. Principals will continue to develop a menu of activities with the UFT Chapter Leader, and the teacher will select from the menu.

This agreement removes the right of teachers to grieve letters in the file, although the fact finders report clearly stated that teachers would retain the ability to challenge the content of those letters should they be used in a disciplinary or dismissal procedure against them. This is important, because the only real practical import of a letter is its use in a disciplinary or dismissal procedure. Any negative letter which is not used in such a procedure would be removed from the file in three years.

In practice, it was extraordinarily difficult to win ‘letters in the file’ grievances, since the labor relations standard which was used only allowed grievances on issues of fact and on the fairness of the conclusions which had been drawn. Supervisory judgment, such as whether or not a class was ‘teacher dominated’ or whether or not students were ‘actively engaged’ in a lesson, could not be grieved. The most effective response to a letter in the file was thus often a written response, and the teacher retains that right under this proposed contract.

Grievances over ‘letters in the file’ were thus mostly a symbolic way of challenging and ‘fighting back’ against an abusive supervisor. The UFT will now develop other avenues, such as the contractual procedures to deal with supervisory harassment, to address these needs.

A careful examination, therefore, shows that this is a contract which has real and significant gains, that it turned back the Chancellor and the DOE on vital core principles, and that it ameliorated the areas where we lost ground. It is a remarkable achievement, fully deserving of members’ support, given the extraordinary array of forces we face at this moment.