The High, Low and Lowest Points Between a Mayor and a Union

Sunday, February 03, 2013 - 08:17 PM

Editor's Note: The article below includes a corrected date. The rubber room deal was made in 2010.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg's partnership with the city's teachers' union has always been a bit awkward, akin to an arranged marriage that never gelled into a fruitful relationship. For starters, there was a culture clash. Bloomberg, a self-made billionaire, neither attended nor enrolled his children in the New York City public school system. New to politics when he won the election in 2001, Bloomberg also was not beholden to the union, a powerful player accustomed to holding some sway in City Hall.

Still, the early years were a high point, when there were contracts negotiated - with raises for teachers - and deals made on issues like eliminating the so-called rubber rooms. As the years wore on, distrust got the better of the relationship. Now, as the two sides face another deadline to reach a teacher evaluation deal, the relationship is on the rocks.

For an audio trip down memory lane, listen to the story above. It’s striking to hear how the tone changes as the mayor’s efforts to overhaul education cut closer and closer to third-rail issues for the union: seniority rules, the use of test scores, the rapid expansion of non-unionized charter schools.

Here's a look at a partial timeline, with some choice words from both sides. Share your own memories of the high and low points in the comment box below.

June 10, 2002

Governor George Pataki and legislative leaders agreed to give the newly elected Bloomberg control over the city schools and an infusion of cash so he could settle a contract with the teachers' union. U.F.T. president Randi Weingarten praised all of the leaders involved:

"This is historic in so many different ways," she said. "It does say something very important. The mayor is willing to take responsibility for education. That teachers are stepping up to the plate, and saying yes we’ll revamp our discipline system. Yes we’ll be more flexible. But yes, you have to do something to pay us more competitively."

Bloomberg was a low-key presence at the announcement but said, "I wanted to thank Randi Weingarten for her efforts in negotiating. She is very tough but I will say fair."


Based on the 2002 contract, the Department of Education added one 50-minute instructional period for students each week and another 50-minute professional development period for teachers each week. But because the contract was mostly retroactive, it expired fast, at the end of May, 2003.

That year Bloomberg and Chancellor Joel Klein proposed merit pay - which the union opposed. Weingarten sought mediation but things went nowhere. In June of 2005 she rallied thousands of teachers at Madison Square Garden to prepare for a possible strike. The U.F.T. and the administration reached a contract agreement that year.

The third contract negotiation was much faster, with an agreement reached in November, 2006. Total wage increases under all three contracts added up to 43 percent. Starting salaries went from less than $35,000 to about $45,000 and the most experienced teachers made $100,000, making city salaries more competitive with those of suburban schools.

In exchange, teachers worked a longer day. And those who lost their positions (because of school closings or budget cuts) gave up the right to "bump" less experienced teachers.

October 17, 2007

Despite its opposition to merit pay, the U.F.T. and the Bloomberg administration agreed to a pilot program in which teachers at a few hundred struggling schools would receive bonuses if test scores go up. An individual teacher could make an extra $3000.

"I am a capitalist and I am in favor of incentives for individual people," said Bloomberg. The distribution of the bonuses would be determined by compensation committees at every school. Weingarten noted that these committees would provide "checks and balances."

Years later, a study concluded the bonuses were not effective.

November, 2007

The D.O.E. released its first A-F letter grades for schools based largely on student test scores. They're called "Progress Reports" because they assess whether student achievement improves from the previous year. Teachers and other critics questioned the methodology , and continue to do so.

February 14, 2008

The city was weathering the recession. Bloomberg praised his contracts with the teachers union as an example for other unions.

"I think the U.F.T. and Randi Weingarten deserve a lot of credit and should be a good example for the rest of the country of how a forward-thinking union can help their employer and the people they’re supposed to serve and at the same time benefit,” he said.

February, 2010

The teachers union and the NAACP sue the city for planning to close 19 low-performing schools. They claim the city ignored state law by not allowing enough community input and by failing to conduct a thorough study listing how each closure would affect surrounding schools. The plaintiffs eventually won, forcing the city to hold more hearings before closing schools in 2011 and 2012.

March, 2010

Bloomberg proposed a draconian budget which included teacher layoffs.

“Well over 50 percent of the projected layoffs and attrition would be through the Department of Education, including more than 6,400 teachers," the mayor said. While layoffs were averted in the final budget deal, the message was clear that City Hall was looking for ways to fire lower performing teachers and were not beyond proposing outright layoffs.

April, 2010

The new president of the U.F.T., Michael Mulgrew, signed an agreement with the city to end the "rubber rooms" for teachers awaiting disciplinary charges.

Hundreds of teachers accused of misconduct and more serious charges had been waiting in offices and trailers for years, while remaining on the city's salary. The city agreed to hire more arbitrators to hear the cases and to expedite the process.

"We want a faster, fairer process," said Mulgrew.

March, 2011

Bloomberg again proposed laying off thousands of teachers because of budget cuts. He urges Albany to end seniority protections known as Last in First Out, or LIFO.

“We need legislation that allows us to lay off teachers this year using merit," he said. "Anything else just doesn’t help us now." Layoffs again were averted with help from the City Council.

As teachers accuse the mayor of attacking them, he defended his record. By adding in longevity bonuses, he said teachers got even more than a 43 percent wage increase over the last decade.

"Every other union got a third raise for their people, 33 percent over the last 10 years," he said. "The teachers got 105, 110 percent over the last ten years. If that doesn’t show how much we care about teachers I don’t quite know what does."

February 16, 2012

Gov. Andrew Cuomo gets his way with teacher evaluations by tying them to state school aid. Sixty percent of a teacher's evaluation will come from classroom observations, and 20 percent will come from student performance on state exams with another 20 percent to be determined by local assessments.

Cuomo's proposal is seen as a compromise between Bloomberg and the union.

Districts have until Jan. 17, 2013 to reach agreements with their unions and to have those agreements approved by the state.

February 24, 2012

The Department of Education released its "teacher data reports" to the public, including the names of teachers. The reports rank thousands of elementary and middle school teachers based on how well their students do on standardized tests.

The U.F.T. opposed the release of the reports, arguing it fueled the anti-teacher rhetoric heard in national and local debates.

“The parents are gathering around the teachers," Mulgrew said, as the reports were released to great skepticism because of their high margin of error. "I think New York City has had enough of the teacher bashing and we all know where that’s coming from, that’s the mayor.”

January 17, 2013

This recent history was a low point in a slow side downwards.

Unable to reach an agreement on the details of a teacher evaluation system, the union and the mayor blamed each other for the breakdown in negotiations at the 11th hour.

"There were things that they had come in at the last moment, last night, that were obviously designed to keep the deal from working," Bloomberg proclaimed at a news conference that afternoon.

"Just tell everybody the truth," Mulgrew tells the mayor, at a news conference shortly afterwards. "You didn't want the deal. You blew it up. You agreed. You kept moving the goal posts."


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