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What’s on the table as New York City and the teachers union negotiate a new contract

United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew, right, says the union is negotiating with Mayor Bill de Blasio, center, for a paid family leave policy.
United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew, right, says the union is negotiating with Mayor Bill de Blasio, center, for a paid family leave policy.
Alex Zimmerman

The clock is ticking on the city’s contract with the United Federation of Teachers, the largest local union in the country representing more than 100,000 members.

With the deal set to expire in November, negotiations between the city and the UFT have already begun.

But the backdrop this year is much different from 2014, when Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration and the influential union first met. Even though de Blasio and the union still enjoy a friendly relationship, the political and financial realities this time around are very different.

For one thing, the talks come amid national turmoil as teachers strike in some states, including West Virginia and Oklahoma, to demand better pay and benefits. New York City teachers are relatively well compensated, but the current labor climate could embolden the local union to push for more.

In addition, de Blasio is solidly into his second term, and while it’s hard to imagine a mayor more sympathetic to labor unions, the UFT could choose to wait until his replacement takes office to settle on a new contract. There’s little immediate cost if no deal is reached: The current contract will simply remain in place until a new one is negotiated, even if it’s after the expiration date.

Here is a primer on what is likely on the table in New York City, how the fiscal climate may impact negotiations, and what a new city chancellor and pending state changes to the teacher evaluation system could mean.

The backdrop

The first time the union and de Blasio administration came together, de Blasio was fresh off his first election. After years of acrimony and an expired contract under the previous mayor, Michael Bloomberg, the UFT endorsed de Blasio, who made it a priority to bring all of the city’s labor contracts up to date.

At the time, the city was dusting itself off from the economic crash. And after going so long without a contract, there was an eagerness on both sides to make a deal, said Maria Doulis, vice president of the Citizens Budget Commission, a nonprofit watchdog group. The unions agreed to healthcare concessions, she said, which helped pay for salary increases.

Now, some of those contracts have already expired. And unions, including the UFT, may not be so willing to bargain this time around.

“It’s a whole new world,” Doulis said.

Property taxes are once again flowing into city coffers, and the de Blasio administration has dramatically increased the size and spending of local government. There are already signs that labor might not be willing to accept more concessions on healthcare. The Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association has filed for arbitration in its negotiations with the city — a move that could set the tone for the UFT and other unions. Among the sticking points cited by the PBA in a press release: a city proposal to increase health insurance co-pays and deductibles.

“I don’t get the sense that labor is in a give-back kind of mood,” Doulis said.

The UFT declined multiple requests for comment on negotiations. “Negotiations are confidential and so we don’t comment on them,” union spokesperson Alison Gendar wrote in an email.

The UFT has spent months talking with members to set its contract priorities. In an online survey this winter, teachers were asked for their thoughts on class size, performance evaluations, and school schedule changes that set-aside time for teacher training. Teachers say it was the first time that leadership had asked for input from their rank-and-file before heading to the bargaining table — perhaps because the union is bracing for a looming U.S. Supreme Court decision that could drain members and money from its war chest.

The case — known as Janus, after the Illinois public employee who filed it — could end mandatory dues for non-members. Some states, including New York, allow unions to collect fees from non-members to help cover the cost of bargaining contracts that cover all workers.

“It’s absolutely new and different … which is a great thing,” said John Giambalvo, steering committee member MORE, a dissenting caucus within the UFT. “We’re very happy to see that members are being asked.”

The issues

Some issues, like pay and insurance benefits, are perennial. In the previous contract, the current city administration agreed to retroactively pay UFT members for raises that were given to other municipal unions while the teachers union contract was expired in 2009 and 2010. The city is still doling out much of that backpay.

Another issue that is sure to be on the table: paid parental leave. The union has already begun to push City Hall for the benefit after a high school teacher’s petition calling for paid leave went viral online.

New York City teachers do not have paid leave. Instead they must use saved sick time — and only birth mothers are allowed to use that time, putting a strain on fathers, adoptive parents and same-sex couples. While de Blasio has extended parental leave to City Hall employees, the union could face an uphill battle in convincing the city to treat teachers the same. City workers gave up some benefits to pay for the leave, but the UFT has said it isn’t willing to offer any concessions.

Within the union, different caucuses are also pushing for their own priorities to make it to the bargaining table, including more protections to enforce class-size limits and solutions for educators who are in the Absent Teacher Reserve — an expensive pool of employees who don’t have permanent positions and often act as short-term substitutes.

Open questions

At the state level, teacher evaluations are once again under discussion. A moratorium on using state tests in performance reviews is set to expire, and education leaders in Albany recently laid out a plan to retool evaluations by next year. Once they do, it is up to every school district to create its own plan within the state framework. But the livewire issue probably won’t get decided by the time the UFT and the city strike a deal, so the two sides could settle the issue of evaluations with an agreement that is separate from the contract.

The new chancellor, Richard Carranza, may also want to leave his mark on the contract. His predecessor, Carmen Fariña, had a hand in negotiating a change in the school day to give teachers more time for job training — a move that has been met with mixed reviews. Just like Fariña, Carranza already seems eager to help boost teacher morale. But it may be too early to expect Carranza to get involved: He only started last week and has no previous experience in New York City schools.

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