Commentary: Open Union Contracts

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For the last two weeks, the chair of the New York City Council Education Committee, Eva Moskowitz, has raised eyebrows and blood pressure with her unprecedented hearings into the union contracts governing New York City Public School teachers, principals and custodians. WNYC's Brian Lehrer says there's a word for those hearings: Democracy.

Brian: The first thing most New Yorkers heard about these hearings came two weeks ago when teachers' union president Randi Weingarten said they should be cancelled. Here's how she put it on my weekday talk show.

Randi: If you want make big changes in a contract, you do it privately. If you want to grandstand, you do it in public.

Brian: Of course, change was exactly what the UFT was afraid of. And sure enough, by the end of last week, Weingarten bowed to some of the pressure coming from the hearings and proposed easing some longstanding rules for disciplining teachers.

Brian: Other work rules, some of which seem absurd to the average person, also came to light - like the clause in the custodians' contract that forbids them to paint more than ten feet off the ground - they call it a safety measure - or the one limiting how many tiles they can lay.

Brian: Councilwoman Moskowitz, who convened the hearings, stated the obvious when she appeared on the talk show last week.

Eva: The contracts are public information, the public has a right to know them?

Brian: Of course, while discussing the work rules is right, that doesn't mean the rules themselves are always wrong. For example, the teachers and the chancellor are currently at odds over the provision in the LAST contract to free teachers from lunchroom and hall monitor duty so they can spend more time in training and preparing for their classes. I have two kids in a city public school, and I know how hard professional teachers work. They shouldn't be out patrolling lunchrooms and bathrooms any more than lawyers or stockbrokers do in THEIR workplaces. And isn't it more efficient anyway to use lower-paid employees for that?

Brian: Then there are the seniority rules, which present a real paradox. Principals SHOULD be able to hire and assign teachers based on who's most suited for the job at hand. That's in the interest of the children, remember them?

Brian: But in the real world, one of the system's biggest problems is that teachers get burned out and LEAVE after a few years. Without the control over their careers that the seniority rules provide, even MORE good teachers may simply quit and find something easier to do. Maybe a compromise is needed. And let's hope that Eva Moskowitz is as thorough and aggressive at scrutinizing the new Education Department as she has been at inspecting the unions.

Brian: But if we're having this debate because the councilwoman is trying to make a name for herself, that's okay with me. In our democracy, making a name often means ambitiously serving the public. Let's not take that for granted.