Familiar Pattern in Teachers' Union Negotiations

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The teachers union and city negotiators will be back at the bargaining table today to try to hash out a contract that is already more than two years overdue. The teachers have amped up their rhetoric but are having difficulty getting traction. As WNYC's Dan Blumberg reports, that's a familiar pattern.

REPORTER: The Mayor has something he wants the unions to know.

BLOOMBEG: Anybody that thinks the city has a lot of money is just mistaken.

REPORTER: Those comments were recorded in June, but the Mayor has being using variations of this mantra since he took office three months after 9/11. Usually, he goes on, as he did last week….

BLOOMBERG: We'd love to pay our teachers more, we did give them the largest raise in history….

REPORTER: But that's not necessarily how the teachers remember the deal. Yes, they did get a big raise, but they agreed to work an extra 20 minutes a day.

It's part of the Mayor's focus on productivity. From his statistic-packed Management Reports, to the bullpen cubicles he's made city administrators sit in, the CEO-turned-Mayor is always looking for ways to improve output.

STEIER: He's been able to get concessions to a greater degree than previous Mayors have.

REPORTER: Richard Steier is the editor of the Chief-Leader, a weekly newspaper focused on municipal employees. He says the Mayor did well last year when he got the largest municipal union, DC 37, to take a 5% percent pay raise, along with one thousand dollars in cash.

STEIER: Traditionally, DC 37 has been willing to come forward and make a deal when other unions with more ambitious demands have wanted to hold back.

REPORTER: Mayors often use the DC 37 deal as a pattern for other negotiations. Bloomberg did this successfully in 2001, but last year he met stiff resistance particularly from the police and firefighters. Before the Republican Convention, they tried to shame him into giving them new contracts. Uniformed Firefighters Association President Steve Cassidy:

CASSIDY: Mayor Bloomberg says we're no different than people who just push paper. That's a joke. It's an insult to police officers and firefighters who risk their lives everyday

REPORTER: Leading up to the convention, disgruntled firefighters and police followed the Mayor around during the day and kept him up at night, chanting outside his Upper East side apartment.

Chanting: A Billionaire, who doesn't care

REPORTER: But Mayor Bloomberg didn't roll over. The police waited another year for a contract and the firefighters still don't have one.

BELL: Mayor Bloomberg is master of the rope-a-dope as it used to be called in boxing. To let kind of sit back and calculate that it's at his advantage to let this thing go on and on even if he has absorb some blows for this.

REPORTER: Queens College History Professor Josh Bell has written about the city's labor politics. He says Bloomberg's tactics have saved the city money, but he wonders about the long term price.

BELL: There's a tremendous cost in morale and recruitment and retention that comes from not having contracts and having such substandard wages and working conditions and ultimately that's the great danger that he's going to preside over a city whose services will deteriorate.

REPORTER: Mayor Bloomberg's cost savings have often come at the expense of new employees who will get much lower salaries. Some refer to these as contracts that "eat their young." Thanks to an arbiter's ruling, new police recruits will now earn $25,100 a year And the NYPD may have already seen the effects: Only 21,000 people signed up to take the upcoming police entrance exam, compared to 25,000 one year ago.

Chanting: What do we want? A contract. When do we want it? Now.

REPORTER: As for the teachers, they're battling over more than just salary. Once again, the Mayor is demanding productivity gains and state arbitrators have backed him up. The non-binding report recommended teachers get an 11% raise over three years if they work another 10 minutes a day, another three days a year and that they give up their highly prized seniority rights.

Many teachers were don't like the offer. Donna Marie Smith teaches English as a Second Language on the Upper West Side at Booker T. Washington middle school.

SMITH: I would not support the arbitrator's contract as it is. We fought hard for tenure for people who have stayed in this system and for principals to be able to just bump them around at will that's unacceptable.

REPORTER: Despite reservations about the state report, the UFT delegates voted last week to use the report as a "vehicle" for negotiations. And they gave the Mayor a deadline. If they don't get a fair contract by early next month, they say they'll discuss going on strike or endorsing Bloomberg's Democratic opponent Fernando Ferrer.

The threat got the Mayor's attention. Negotiations have resumed, but Bloomberg drew his own line in the sand when he said that talks have gone on "long enough" and that if a deal is not struck quickly, he'll simply offer the teachers the deal suggested by the state. But that was a non-starter with union president Randi Weingarten who says Bloomberg likely only offered it because he knew the teachers wouldn't accept.

Whatever Bloomberg's motivations, he certainly has a powerful incentive to end the discord. The election is about a month away and the education Mayor could live without the head of the teachers union making comments like these.

WEINGARTEN: The educators in this city feel betrayed and they are fed up. They're angry, they're demoralized.

REPORTER: Meanwhile, the city's 4th graders just posted record high math tests.

For WNYC, I'm Dan Blumberg.

Correction: We mistakenly identified a Queens College History Professor who has written about the city’s labor politics. His name is Josh Freeman, not Josh Bell as we reported.