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Teachers union coffers take a hit as membership drops

The bags of swag at the city teachers union’s regular conferences might be lighter this year, the catered dinners less lavish. The recession has caught up with the union and it’s beginning to cut back.

Hit with the combination of a two-year hiring freeze and typical teacher attrition, the United Federation of Teachers has lost roughly 2,000 members in the last year. With them has gone about $2 million in dues.

On top of the membership decline, the union is now funding programs that the state used to support. This year, the state legislature cut all $16 million of its funding for the Teacher Center, a professional development program that trains teachers at over a hundred city schools. To keep a cut-back version of the program going, the UFT has had to kick in $5 million of its own money.

“In many respects, you can say the economy caught up to us,” said the union’s Chief Financial Officer David Hickey. “We’ve done okay in the last couple of years. And so it did, it got us.”

At the same time that it’s losing members and dues money, the union’s political fund is the largest it’s been in 10 years. But the millions it has set aside to wield its influence through campaign contributions can’t be used to cover its operating costs.

To remain in the black, the union has had to renegotiate all of its contracts with vendors and cut back on how much it spends on conferences and other extras. In past years, the UFT hosted an annual parents conference at the Hilton Hotel in November. This year, parents will convene at the union’s less glamorous borough offices.

The union is also cutting some employees’ hours by as much as 20 percent. With more teachers choosing to work past the retirement age due to the poor economy, the UFT needs fewer people to answer questions about pensions or consult on retirement, Hickey said.

“We’re not necessarily cutting things out, but we’re cutting back,” he said. “No full time person was laid off.”

In an effort to bring in new revenue, the UFT is leasing out space in its headquarters in Lower Manhattan. In about a week, a new high school, the Manhattan Academy for Arts & Language, will open on the building’s fifth floor.

Though the union has been able to make small cuts, city officials have warned that next year they may have little choice but to lay off more teachers, costing the union more members.

Hickey wouldn’t speculate about what steps the UFT would take then. “We’ll cross that bridge if we come to it,” he said.

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