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News of unusual back pay proposal draws mixed reactions

UFT President Michael Mulgrew
UFT President Michael Mulgrew
Patrick Wall

A potential back pay compromise that has emerged in new contract talks between the city and teachers union sparked mixed reactions Friday.

On the one hand, some said, the proposal to spread more than $3 billion in retroactive raises over a nine-year contract offers the city an affordable payment option, while creating some budget stability. But on the other hand, critics said, the deal could set a damaging pattern for other unions while still requiring serious givebacks from the teachers.

Meanwhile, the mayor declined to confirm the negotiation details, which were revealed in a New York Times report, while union officials noted that more options were on the table than just those leaked to the press.

“There’s just a whole lot of potential ways to settle this,” said Doug Turetsky, chief of staff for the Independent Budget Office, who noted that both the city and union say they have viable proposals. “Sometimes realism is in the eye of the beholder.”

The Times report, which offered the first glimpse into intense, ongoing city-union negotiations, said the long contract would include $3.4 billion in retroactive raises to match ones that other unions received several years ago. The deal could also include raises for more recent years. It would extend from 2009, when the teachers’ last contract expired, until 2018, after Mayor Bill de Blasio faces re-election.

Such a deal could make the sizable back pay affordable to the city, which says it does not have anywhere near that amount available in its current budget, said Charles Brecher, research director of the Citizens Budget Commission, a business-backed watchdog group.

If the deal gives teachers the 4 percent raises that they missed in earlier bargaining rounds, they may be more willing to accept smaller raises for the latest rounds — setting a precedent for “reasonable settlements” with the other municipal unions, Brecher added.

“I think if you’re getting an amount of cash like that it makes it easier to be content with a more modest package going forward,” he said.

But that very possibility might make the union wary: The other 151 municipal unions that lack contracts would not be pleased if the United Federation of Teachers set a pattern of modest pay increases.

“We should not undercut other unions by getting our retroactive money and then skimping everyone else for the subsequent years,” said Peter Lamphere, a high school teacher and member of the UFT’s MORE caucus, which has called for a more inclusive and transparent bargaining process.

What’s more, even if the raises were spread out over several years, the union would still likely have to stomach serious cost-savings, most likely relating to health insurance, but also possibly in other areas, such as its pool of paid teachers without full-time jobs.

De Blasio said as much in brief comments to reporters Friday.

“We can’t get where we need to go without cost savings,” he said. “And I think folks in the labor community understand that.”

That is not necessarily the case. Some in the union have suggested that the city has hidden funds in its budget that could be used for worker raises.

“I definitely do not agree with the position that [the raises] will require concessions from the union,” Lamphere said. “I think the money is there.”

The UFT, like de Blasio, declined to comment on the details of the news report Friday.

But one union official noted that such a lengthy contract would be highly unusual, and risky, if economic conditions worsened or problems arose with other provisions of the deal during the long life of the contract. The official added that UFT President Michael Mulgrew has “talked about a whole variety of lengths of contracts” with city negotiators.

Of course, while back pay is a major issue in city-teacher negotiations, it is hardly the only one. Changes to the new teacher-evaluation system will almost certainly be up for discussion, as well as the various non-instructional tasks now required of teachers.

MORE has called for smaller class sizes, additional in-school supports for students, and teacher evaluations that do not incorporate standardized-test scores, among other demands. It says the union should do more to rally its members around those causes while bargaining is still underway.

“There’s a window right now where there are a lot of things in play,” Lamphere said. “And the more pressure we bring to bear on the city the better.”

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