By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
There's only one force in New York politics that could possibly counter Mike Bloomberg's cartload of campaign cash: the organizational muscle of the city's public employee unions. And none is more politically potent than the 200,000-member United Federation of Teachers.
The mayor understands this well. In 2005, he cut a generous contract with UFT President Randi Weingarten weeks before the election, keeping the union neutral and denying its phone banks, troops, and money to Fernando Ferrer, his Democratic opponent. Ferrer tells the Voice now that he was a "realist," and didn't push Weingarten, noting that she and Bloomberg were "negotiating a contract, and everybody knows the value of that transaction," especially "City Hall and a union president."
This October, a month ahead of election day, the UFT contract expires again, presenting the mayor with another chance to put the public interest above his electoral ambitions. He can, as he did in 2005, ingratiate himself with the union, which would help him run up the score in a race he's regarded as certain to win. Or he can risk a few percentage points and insist that the teachers' union help him make real structural changes to the city's schools in a new collective bargaining contract.
Bloomberg's three previous contracts with Weingarten have resulted in a 43 percent cumulative salary hike, a record for city teachers that tops every other major urban system in the country since 2002. But Bloomberg has handed out those raises without materially changing the work-rule and job-security provisions that are so onerous, they've helped spark an alternative universe of 78 highly popular public charter schools in the city. (Charter schools can opt out of the 165-page, micro-managing union contract.) In the coming months, Bloomberg will be negotiating a new contract, having approved over the years previous versions that fueled the charter rebellion he now champions.
Weingarten, who was elected president of the national union last summer and is preparing to shed her local position, is making open war on Bloomberg's prized charters before she leaves town. She's also pushing her allies in the state legislature to rewrite the 2002 bill that wiped out the old Board of Education and gave the mayor control of the school system. Weingarten's two-front insurrection in a contract and election year is either catastrophically dumb, or a smart move with a less obvious purpose: Fighting for seemingly lost causes might get her what she actually wants the most—namely, one more big raise (even while a Democratic governor is asking state unions to give up the increases they've already won).
As much as the charter school controversy has dominated headlines in recent weeks, it's only the opening skirmish in the upcoming Albany battle over the mayoral control law, which expires June 30. The mayor cites charters as a sign of the success of the control law; the union sees them as a weapon to use against that law. At stake, as Mike and Randi size each other up one final time, is whatever chance we have at a mayoral contest that's not simply a coronation, or school reform that's more than campaign hype.
Democratic candidate Bill Thompson, the city's comptroller, is facing the same likelihood of labor desertion that sunk his Democratic predecessors, Ferrer and Ruth Messinger in 1997, when they ran against Republican incumbents with the power to compromise unions, which are the backbone of the city party. Even Rudy Giuliani, who rode into City Hall as the antidote to street crime in 1993 (just as Bloomberg got there as a 9/11 corrective in 2001), figured out how to co-opt the UFT and others, coasting to re-election.
If Bloomberg wins this year, it will be the fifth consecutive time that a Republican candidate has carried a 5-1 Democratic city. This time, the mayor isn't running as a registered Republican—as he did the first two times—and he wants us to believe that he is an Independent with a Democratic tilt. In some ways, he is, especially on issues like abortion, climate change, guns, public health, and gay marriage. But his pro-rich, pro-development, pro-war, anti–food stamp, anti–affirmative action, CEO reflexes are also a large part of his political persona. He's so comfortable with GOP priorities that he endorsed
That's why labor's abdication was so key to Bloomberg's effort four years ago to achieve a record-setting vanity victory margin (he missed it), as well as his 2008 drive for City Council approval of a term-limits extension. During last year's economic meltdown, the mayor doled out 8 percent salary hikes in two-year contracts to five unions that beat the drums for another term for him, just as he had done five deals with unions that endorsed him in 2005. Weingarten, meanwhile, won the favor of City Hall during the term limits fight by simply deducting herself from the opposition. She started out publicly deriding the extension, and then disappeared from the debate.
Neutral in the 1993, 1997, and 2005 mayoral elections, the UFT has learned that it can reap its grandest rewards at the bargaining table when it does nothing to help the Democratic loser, even an incumbent like David Dinkins. Unsurprisingly, its electoral choices are more commercial than ideological decisions, a function of transactional relationships: The union likes a winner who does deals.