In 1992, 10,000 city police officers, angry over the failure of the Dinkins administration to give them a new contract, held a labor rally outside City Hall. Almost instantly, it was out of control: Off-duty cops broke through barricades, stormed the City Hall steps, and banged on windows. Some jumped up and down on cars, denting their hoods. One beer-drinking protester called a black city councilwoman “nigger.” Signs referred to Dinkins as a “washroom attendant.”
More a riot than a rally, their performance was so embarrassing that even police union leaders apologized, saying they had lost control of their members. But there in the midst of the crowd, standing before a microphone on a flatbed truck, his shirtsleeves rolled to the elbow and his face contorted, was New York’s next mayor, exulting in the cops’ cheers and shouting “bullshit” to describe Dinkins’s policies.
His actions were so stunning, Wayne Barrett recounts in the biography Rudy!, that the Times called Rudy Giuliani “reckless”; the Daily News said he was “shameful.” After an investigation faulted the cops’ conduct, Giuliani said the administration was using them as scapegoats. The Times concluded that the soon-to-be mayoral candidate was cynically betting “that divisiveness will win votes.”
That was one labor rally.
Last month, on the day that their contract expired, some 12,000 to 20,000 teachers held another. Like the cops in 1992, the protesters gathered outside City Hall were angry that their contract wasn’t being negotiated. Like the cops, they were asking for raises. Unlike the cops, the teachers were well behaved. And unlike 1992, when the city was facing bleak economic times, the United Federation of Teachers’ rally came during a fiscal surplus.
But here was Deputy Mayor Tony Coles, sneering at the demonstrators, “Why do teachers have time in the middle of the workday to spend demonstrating?
“The answer,” said Coles, “is New York City has one of the shortest workdays.”
It wasn’t the middle of the day, of course. It was 5 p.m., two hours past official quitting time for most teachers. In reality, most teachers see little downtime.
“There’s not a teacher I know that doesn’t put in an extra hour at night and another in the morning before school just to keep up—not to mention time over the weekend,” said Gregory Large, 46, a Bronx public school teacher and union delegate who attended the rally.
How dedicated are teachers? A teacher for six years, Large said he figured that he and others commonly spend five times the $200 per year currently allotted for teacher supplies out of their own pockets. “I buy a gross of pencils a month, just so I don’t have to hear the kids saying they can’t do a test because they don’t have pencils,” he said.
But the administration knew all that. In an echo of themes he raised during his aborted senatorial campaign, Mayor Giuliani has decided to make teachers a political object lesson, the potential fodder for a future gubernatorial run. Teacher pay hikes, he has said, must be based on merit, despite evidence that there is no practical calculus to measure a teacher’s performance and that any attempt to impose one would simply pit teacher against teacher.
Giuliani and Coles have also denied that there is a teacher shortage, a fact that education experts, including the mayor’s bargaining partner, schools chancellor Harold Levy, have acknowledged. Some 40,000 teachers have to be hired over the next five years. Those with the most talent are quickly recruited by suburban schools, which pay 20 to 30 percent more than the city.
In the wake of the demonstration, Giuliani agreed to an initial bargaining session last week. It lasted less than an hour. UFT president Randi Weingarten staggered from the room, calling the proposals “surreal.”
“Despite its $3.2 billion surplus, the city has demanded savings, salary lags, and wage deferrals that amount to at least an 8 percent cut in salaries,” said Weingarten.
The UFT has had a mixed record in this city. After its pathbreaking organizing drives in the early ’60s, the union tore the city apart with a racially divisive strike in 1968. Since then, the leadership has often seemed more interested in protecting mediocrity than promoting education. Weingarten, a lawyer, has tried to change that. Smart and spunky, she has stepped forward on teacher and city labor issues. It has been interesting to watch some of the city’s most powerful labor men cede the floor to the quick-thinking and inventive union leader.
No union is expected to propose its own concessions, but there are several areas where the teachers’ union could move. The rules that keep teachers with demonstrably bad conduct on the payroll for months while their cases are examined could be relaxed without yielding the union’s duty to defend its members. Teacher sabbaticals—a year off with pay for those with seniority who agree to study—are often abused and could be curbed.
As things stand now, however, meaningful bargaining on those or other issues appears unlikely. Four potential mayoral candidates attended the teachers’ rally, and the union may opt to run out the clock until a new administration takes over City Hall. As for Giuliani, he appears to be calculating again that there are more votes to be found through division than addition.