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Teachers join city’s labor force to demand backpay in contracts

A steady stream of blue flowed down the Brooklyn Bridge Wednesday afternoon as union teachers marched in solidarity with more than 100 other labor organizations that are without contracts for the first time in New York City’s history.

Public school teachers haven’t had a contract, or a raise, in more than four years since it expired in 2009. United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew has said that either Mayor Bloomberg or his replacement will have to find the money to pay his members more than $3.2 billion in back wages.

“It’s time, it’s overdue,” said Rosalina Vazquez, a school librarian. “Not just for the UFT, but for all the unions. We’re here as one, united.”

The teachers ended at City Hall Park where they joined police, fire fighters, sanitation workers, nurses and other public employees who make up the city’s 300,000 workforce for a rally calling on Bloomberg to negotiate back pay in their contracts.

Bloomberg has refused to consider back pay in any contract negotiations, a condition that has stalled talks and led to the widely held assumption that his successor will inherit the issue.

The mayor has said the city can’t afford retroactive raises because it would cripple finances at a time when the local economy is still recovering from the recession. City estimates project that backpay would cost $7.8 billion in 2014, with the biggest payout going to teachers.

Union leaders point to annual budget surpluses, which exceeded $2 billion each of the last two years, as an example of fiscal stability for the city and a reason for Bloomberg to at least consider backpay in negotiations.

“I think it’s important that working conditions be fair and that there be a place for the middle class in New York City,” said Carolyn R., a teacher in Brooklyn who declined to give her last name. “I’ve lived here all my life and I really don’t feel like I belong here any more.”

Wednesday’s event was a rare show of solidarity for city labor, which has been fractured recently in its mayoral endorsements. District Council 37, the city’s largest union, endorsed John Liu; a coalition of police unions picked Bill Thompson; and the healthcare workers union is backing Bill de Blasio.

The UFT is endorsing next week, but it is expected to back Thompson. As they marched to City Hall on Wednesday, several teachers said they’d go along with whoever the union’s pick is.

“We have to stay united,” said Rich Mantell, a math teacher at M.S. 68 in Brooklyn. “We have to make sure we support somebody who … ultimately will win.”

Michael O’Shea, a social studies teacher at Brooklyn Technical High School, said he can’t vote because he lives outside of the city. But he said his top picks would be Thompson or Anthony Weiner.

Ellen Driesen, a teacher at P.S. 69, said she was undecided, but added that she didn’t think that was such a bad thing.

“It’s really going to be a tough decision because there are wonderful people running,” Driesen said.