NYC teachers’ union head cites ‘massive morale problem’ as contract talks heat up

The union that represents New York City teachers is stepping up its pressure on Mayor Eric Adams for a new contract by staging a weeklong series of demonstrations in front of public schools as negotiations intensify.

The United Federation of Teachers, which represents roughly 115,000 members who work in the city’s school system, is among the largest and most powerful labor organizations that has yet to reach a new contract deal. The teachers’ contract expired last September.

The union is one of dozens demanding pay raises at a moment when the mayor is urging budget cuts that could affect many city services such as public libraries and services for the elderly.

But teachers, similar to first responders and other essential workers, have argued that they deserve higher pay, given the risks they assumed by working in-person during the pandemic. New York CIty was the first big city to reopen its public schools after COVID-19 forced students to learn remotely.

In addition to economic demands, teachers are also seeking educational policy changes as part of their collective bargaining. They are pushing back on what they say are overly burdensome requirements. Examples the union cited include: excessive testing and data collection, teacher training sessions unrelated to student needs, and having to administer repeated social-emotional assessments throughout the year.

“What we’re being mandated to do has nothing to do with what we’ve been hired to do,” Michael Mulgrew, the president of the union, told Gothamist in an interview.

He said the policies had created a “massive morale problem” among teachers.

Mulgrew is expected to hold a press conference Monday morning outside East Side Middle School on the Upper East Side.

It marks the third such labor action the teachers union has taken to rally its members as they lobby for a contract.

Mulgrew said that talks with City Hall had picked up momentum in recent days, but declined to provide further details. He said the two parties last met on Wednesday.

Under Adams, the city’s labor negotiators have so far reached deals with two large unions: District Council 37, the largest municipal union that includes many lower-wage workers, and the Police Benevolent Association, the city’s largest police union.

Both received generous multi-year deals, worth $4 billion and $5.5 billion respectively. The city also agreed to pilot programs for remote work for some city workers and longer shifts that would allow police officers to work fewer days.

For the teachers’ union, the precedent of those two agreements takes some of the pressure off its talks: Under the process known as pattern bargaining, the city is expected to apply the same framework to other unions, depending on whether they are civilian or uniformed.

The expectation is that salary increases for teachers would fall in line with the roughly 3% annual raises received by the members of District Council 37.

Salaries for teachers start at around $61,000, and currently top out at a little under $129,000.

Budget watchdogs, however, criticized the city for not extracting more concessions in its labor negotiations.

“There’s no question that the city has thus far failed to use the opportunity to use these labor agreements to reduce ongoing costs,” said Andrew Rein, the president of the Citizens Budget Commission.

The mayor has ordered across-the-board budget cuts for city agencies, citing concerns about an economic slowdown and the billions of dollars in costs from caring for the influx of migrants from the southern border.

“What the city and the UFT should be talking about is how we can educate kids and live within our budget,” Rein said.

Adams and the teachers’ union are not considered especially aligned. Adams is a supporter of charter schools, a position anathema to the UFT. The union did not endorse him during the 2022 primary. And Mulgrew’s successful lobbying effort in Albany last year to pass a law to make class sizes smaller drew objections from the mayor who said the policy would be too costly for the city to implement.

Still, experts say that reaching a deal with the teachers’ union would remove one less political headache for the mayor.

“The members of the UFT directly impact the public more than a lot of other categories of city workers,” said Joshua Freeman, a labor historian at CUNY. “There’s no advantage in having this linger. It leads to bad press, bad morale in the school workforce.”

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