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
George Bush in 2004 and won’t say if he voted for Barack Obama last year. (The Daily News has reported that he told Republicans he voted for John McCain).
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.
Weingarten is using raging controversies over charters and mayoral control to get the best contract she can at a time when there’s no money in the till. The charter war is already dirty and destructive. And with Weingarten acting like an unguided missile, launching attacks on the mayor she must also woo, there’s no telling where it’ll go.
The UFT will soon celebrate its 50th anniversary. Other than a couple of years of temporary and muddled leadership at its start in 1960, it has been governed by only three presidents, and each of its long-lasting potentates—Albert Shanker, Sandra Feldman, and now Weingarten—has handed it off to a designated successor. Weingarten, who was Feldman’s lawyer for years before she became a part-time teacher to position herself for the presidency, is about to do the same. Former carpenter Michael Mulgrew, the vice president for vocational and technical schools, is expected to take over, possibly as soon as this summer.
Like Shanker and Feldman, Weingarten is giving up her city post after using it for 11 years as a stepping stone to the presidency of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), and will leave town only when she is sure she can install a disciple here that she can influence from Washington (no rule bars her from holding both titles).
What’s baffling is why Weingarten has embroiled herself in a Harlem street fight below her $350,000-a-year pay grade. Her slugfest over charter schools in Harlem—where 24 of these public schools, run by nonprofit boards, are changing the education landscape—pits her against the mayor who’s done more to promote charter schools than any local leader in the country, and who is promising 20 more schools by September. It also puts her at odds with the president she has to do business with in her new AFT job, since Barack Obama made clear in his first education speech how much he believes in the “broad leeway to innovate” that charters represent, noting that he’s supported them since his days in the Illinois Senate.
The charter school war is also making Weingarten a target of the mostly minority parents of the 24,000 children in city charters, as well as the 44,000 on waiting lists. With 77 percent of charter school kids reading above grade level, the charter movement has an an activist army of thousands that cheered the mayor wildly at a March rally in Harlem.
The champions of charters believe the union is hostile because these numbers are embarrassingly better than those of traditional schools in the same districts, and because almost all city charters have opted out of the master contract that the city has with the UFT, a privilege granted under state law. Even a charter school that the UFT is running in partnership with a California-based sponsor of charters, Green Dot, is negotiating a school-based contract, having opted out of the citywide agreement, a striking admission of what a work-rule straitjacket it is. The contract regulates everything from the hiring, firing, transfering, and assignments of teachers to the length of the school day and year, and each teaching or non-teaching period.
Partly because of disputes like the one about charter schools, Weingarten told the Voice during a two-hour interview in late April that Bloomberg is “very agnostic on unionization” and that Chancellor Joel Klein is “generally very anti-unionization,” a peculiar description of an administration whose historic salary hikes raised the top teacher paycheck to six figures.
Appropriately enough, it was Bloomberg who introduced Weingarten at her National Press Club debut in November, revealing in a gushing speech that he and his on-again-off-again union friend “share breakfast every couple of weeks at the same Greek diner.” Despite the salary largesse and these public and private dalliances, Weingarten appears willing to take on the mayor in a fight against the facts, a challenge to a Bloomberg reform whose case makes itself.
As much as Weingarten tried in the Voice interview and a recent debate on NY1 to distance herself from her own dogfight, her claims that the union’s opposition to charters is “much exaggerated” are betrayed by her bellicose actions. Weingarten’s heavy-handed fingerprints, for example, were all over index cards with pre-written questions that were given to City Councilmembers at an April meeting of the City Council Education Committee about charters.
The cue cards, first revealed by gothamschools.org, urged the reliably compliant Council to grill charter supporters and pitch softballs at the union lobbyist who testified. In the tabloid firestorm that followed, Bloomberg charged that the stacked deck of questions didn’t “pass the smell test.” Weingarten said she was out of town, apologized, and promised in a television interview “to make some changes at the union to make sure that that never happens again.” All she did, she concedes now, was assign a different public relations staffer, Brian Gibbons, to the team that lobbies the Council.
The Weingarten witness at the hearing, Dr. Leo Casey, who was Weingarten’s social studies co-teacher when she put in her teaching time at a Brooklyn school in the 1990s, still spearheads the union’s charter school response. His testimony, consistent with the cue cards, railed against the Bloomberg administration’s charter plans, warning that they “would remake the very constitution of public education in New York City.” Two Councilmembers at the hearing—comptroller candidates Melinda Katz and John Liu, who have received $19,000 in UFT donations over the years and are seeking the union’s support for citywide office—asked questions that were very similar to the ones posed on the union crib sheets.
The hearing was more like a hanging, sparked by the Council’s apparent perception that the tougher they were on charters, the more appreciative the UFT might be, an out-of-classroom lesson plan in negative reinforcement. The principal of the four charters schools of the Harlem Success Network, longtime UFT target and former Council Education chair Eva Moskowitz, was branded a liar by Councilmembers Maria del Carmen Arroyo and Lou Fidler and grilled about everything from where she lived to where her kids went to school.
Arroyo demanded to know Moskowitz’s home street address, and openly questioned whether Moskowitz was “telling the truth” when she claimed to live in Harlem. “Take offense—it is OK,” taunted Arroyo. Even after Councilman Robert Jackson, who succeeded Moskowitz as the education chair, informed Arroyo that he had been to Moskowitz’s home and knew “for a fact that Eva lives in Harlem,” an unapologetic Arroyo went on to accuse Moskowitz of “arrogance” and “coming into a community and setting up the dynamics for there to be conflict.” Not only does Moskowitz live in Harlem, but she was raised there and one of her children attends her Harlem school, selected by lottery.
Fidler pushed Moskowitz on the funding for her schools, challenging her answers with an incredulous sneer: “Is that what you’re asking me to accept?” Moskowitz—whose testimony, like all the witnesses, was unsworn—volunteered to take the oath during Fidler and Arroyo’s questioning. Ironically, it was Fidler who strayed so far from the truth that he alleged that charter school students got $6,000 more per pupil than traditional schools. The committee staff report, released before the hearing, had actually already pointed out that charters “receive roughly the same operational expense funding” as regular schools, but “do not receive facilities funding,” unlike the rest of public schools. Even the UFT has conceded that charters get less public money, having pushed in state legislation to exempt them from a facility allocation.
The eight-hour session also included a roasting of four members of Klein’s top Department of Education (DOE) staff, led by Chris Cerf, the deputy chancellor. Jackson, who went so far as to question why the DOE was “not charging charter schools anything whatsoever” for space in public schools, conceded that almost all of the 15 Councilmembers at the hearing raised critical issues about charters, telling the Voice that, at best, there “might have been one or two good words” about them from his colleagues and him. Neither Jackson nor anyone else on the council asked the UFT’s Casey so much as a single critical question, much less where his children go to school (Casey told the Voice his stepchildren attend private Brooklyn schools).
Indeed, Jackson’s first public appearance as chair—on the day he was named to replace Moskowitz by Speaker Christine Quinn in 2006—was to visit the UFT with Quinn, assuring the union that he did not think he was “in a position to evaluate” their contract, a repudiation of the extensive hearings Moskowitz once held to examine them.
Weingarten still calls those contract hearings a “star chamber,” and Moskowitz says she was so blackballed after them that “various candidates” for the Council speaker vacancy, which opened up in 2005, “vied to outdo others in promising they would never make me chair again,” a factor in her decision not to seek re-election to her Council seat. She instead ran for Manhattan borough president, and Weingarten boasts that she did “everything in my personal power, fought day and night” to elect Scott Stringer, who defeated Moskowitz.
When Moskowitz subsequently launched her charter school career, Weingarten successfully blocked her from getting space for her first school, though the union boss eventually acquiesced to the selection of an alternative location. More recently, the UFT newspaper published a story attacking Moskowitz’s school the same week as the hearing. Moskowitz hasn’t tempered her tone either, condemning the “union-political complex” that wants “to shut down competition” in her Council testimony. Even after the hearing, Weingarten was blasting Moskowitz on TV as a “hypocrite.” She told the Voice that Moskowitz was an example of “the hatred we have to try to overcome if you want to help all kids,” while claiming she operated “without grudges.”
Though Jackson said he “didn’t see” the UFT cue cards distributed, his opening statement at the hearing echoed one of the canned questions on the cards. The West Harlem Councilman, who went to one Harlem charter school event last fall wearing a teachers’ union pin supporting Obama, suggested that the chancellor may have “abdicated his responsibility and is giving up on improving neighborhood schools.” The union script was almost a match, describing the DOE’s “abdication of its most important responsibility to provide quality district schools.”
Jackson and Fidler have received a combined $6,850 from union committees. Arroyo, who was elected in a largely uncontested special election in 2006, hasn’t reported any UFT donations, but her mother and mentor, Assemblywoman Carmen Arroyo, has collected $5,150 since 2002. Richard Arroyo, the councilwoman’s nephew, chairs two South Bronx charters managed by a for-profit firm run by an investment banker who, unlike Moskowitz, lives in an $8.5 million, 4,200-square-foot, Fifth Avenue apartment.
Though Weingarten insisted that the ugliness of the hearing “had nothing to do with us,” it was hardly a coincidence that in the union-orchestrated world of Quinn and Jackson’s Council, charters were treated like a contagion as scary as the swine flu.
The hearing itself was scheduled in response to Klein’s attempt to close two Harlem traditional schools in phases by 2012 in favor of charters. Only 124 children would have been affected by the phase-out next September, and all of them were granted priority admission to five district schools with better scores or Moskowitz’s charter (where 95 percent of the third-graders are reading above grade level). But Weingarten financed a lawsuit against the closings, causing the chancellor to quickly reverse himself. The closing was cancelled before the scheduled hearing, but Jackson nevertheless went to a Harlem rally and urged backers of the district schools to back his own committee session by arriving an hour and a half early, before the expected champions of charters arrived.
“I’m not saying their kids don’t deserve a space,” said Jackson, as if the students who attend charters aren’t part of the public school community. “But if you want to open up a charter school with your own rules, then build your own.” The rally was partly orchestrated by ACORN, the community organization that received $1.2 million in payments from the union between 2005 and 2008. The celebrants followed Jackson’s speech with the chant, “We are ACORN, the mighty, mighty ACORN,” and Jackson urged, “I hope to see the red flag with the acorn in the middle at City Hall early.” The group showed up in large numbers. In fact, one of the UFT lobbyists at the hearing, Francine Streich, is a former ACORN organizer who is married to its New York field director, John Kest.
ACORN, the union, and their Council allies were championing schools that had received D and F ratings from the department, with only 22 and 38 percent of the students reading at grade level. After the hearing, scores rose in one school to 54 percent. The union appeared to prefer a school that was rejected by 85 percent of the parents of this year’s zoned kindergarten kids (who sent their kids elsewhere) over Moskowitz charters that 3,500 parents signed up for, even though there was only room for only 475 students. In fact, when parents zoned into one of the traditional schools were given a choice between sending their child to kindergarten there or Moskowitz’s charter, five times as many chose Harlem Success.
The UFT and its allies tried to portray the Harlem Success move into the district schools as an expansionist space-grab by Moskowitz, but her still-new kindergarten-through-third-grade charters either add new grades each year or force current students to leave, just like the UFT’s own elementary school charter. The DOE now plans to keep the two district schools open. One will share space with a Moskowitz academy.
The union also argues that charters reach only 3 percent of city students, and dismiss them as irrelevant to resolving the larger issues of the system. But if charters demonstrate how successful schools can be when unleashed from the contract, they become the rationale for dumping the contract that serves the remaining 97 percent of children.
The charter battle has become a public relations nightmare for the usually savvy Weingarten, whose wild swings at these predominantly successful schools have left only her bruised. In a recent debate on NY1 with Moskowitz, the backpedaling Weingarten said Moskowitz’s schools were “doing great” and even praised her as a “really good City Council chair,” the position Weingarten allies had forced her to surrender.
Weingarten even retreated on her own contract, saying it was “something that happened over 40 years,” and that she was quite willing to tailor one to Moskowitz’s schools and other charters. While this pullback may have been primarily triggered by the media and Bloomberg’s reaction to the debacle of the Council hearing, charters are also complicating her relationship with the Obama administration.
Arne Duncan, Obama’s new Secretary of Education, unwittingly took on Weingarten when he blasted the $50 million shorting of charters in the new state budget. “I have two children,” he told the Post, recognizing traditional and charter schools as equal members of the public school family. “I’m not going to treat my son differently than I’m going to treat my daughter.” Questioned about this disparity by the Voice, Weingarten bizarrely contended that charters were seeking “preferential treatment” in the budget, which she said made her “very sad,” contending that “everybody got frozen” equally.
But in fact, traditional schools in the city get a third of their budget from the core state aid that was frozen, while charters get up to 90 percent, making the freeze disproportionate. It was also precisely what state union vice president Alan Lubin lobbied state legislators to do. Even Weingarten’s union ally, the Council of Supervisors and Administrators, said the freeze, which also pegged charters alone to the spending levels of two years ago, caused a “funding inequity” that’s “creating unnecessary divisions” between district and charter schools.
Obama has also called for “lifting the caps” imposed in states like New York on the number of charters that can be granted, caps that are another result of UFT legislative muscle. The union stalled charter legislation until 1998, when then-governor George Pataki finally got the Democratic assembly to approve a bill for 100 charters by packaging it with a pay increase for legislators and new benefits for teachers. New York was the 34th state to approve charters, and Weingarten was the reason. She then thwarted Bloomberg efforts to raise the cap to 200 until 2007, when then-Governor Eliot Spitzer won it as part of an agreement that institutionalized a new state school aid formula that helps the city.
The union insisted on economic gains for itself as compensation for allowing the creation and expansion of charters, compounding the cost of reform. In her Voice interview, Weingarten replayed that strategy: “I may not be as embracing of lifting the cap as the President is without pre-conditions,” she said, saying that school systems “have to first and foremost deal with turning around low-performing schools,” another possible show-me-the-money demand.
David Paterson is now the third consecutive governor to support charters, as does Senate Democratic leader Malcolm Smith, making Assembly Speaker Shelly Silver the last Albany heavyweight in Weingarten’s corner. Instead of using the charter issue as an argument for diluting mayoral control when it comes up for a vote soon, as Weingarten ally Jackson openly urged, it is becoming a strong part of the case for continuing it, with 67 percent of New Yorkers favoring more charter schools.
Weingarten, who is also concerned about her progressive reputation, recognizes that the long-standing UFT effort to paint charters as a right-wing plot is wearing treacherously thin. She has attempted for years, far more than either of her predecessors, to mend the rift between her union and minorities, born in a convulsive strike in 1968 over an experiment in community control of local schools in three small demonstration districts, including Harlem.
But she has reached out only on her own terms, never flinching on the key question at the heart of that decades-old dispute, the unaccountable “due process” protections that make it almost impossible to fire bad teachers. Only 10 of the city’s 55,000 tenured teachers were terminated for poor performance as recently as 2006, with another 25 of the roughly 6,250 who became eligible for tenure denied it at the end of their three-year probationary period. Despite a candlelight vigil protest at the DOE that was organized by the UFT, Klein has in recent years stepped up efforts to deny tenure to poorly performing probationers (164 in 2008) and to dismiss tenured incompetents (all Cerf would say was that the number of terminations was “up multiples” over the paltry prior record).
Nevertheless, the DOE spent $65 million in 2008 to pay hundreds of teachers that are facing charges, who do nothing but play cards and doze, often for years, at Teacher Reassignment Centers called “rubber rooms,” while their cases wind their way through the labyrinthine procedures enshrined in the UFT contract and state law. Bloomberg won rather a minor adjustment in these procedures in the last contract, but the issue remains a bone of contention that, like charters, threatens Weingarten’s alliances with Bloomberg and minority groups. Weingarten calls this wall of protections an “anomaly,” conceding that it is an instance when the usually mutual “interests of children and teachers” diverge, but insisting nonetheless that maintaining it is “our obligation.”
The mayor was greeted with laughter when he said at a press conference announcing his new budget of tax hikes and service slashes that “it never occurred” to him that he was serving up such gruel in an election year. At some level of self-delusion, he still believes he’s the “Mayor Merit” he was dubbed in his first term. On charters, he’s earned that title—but his contracts with the UFT have always fallen far short of Chancellor Klein’s productivity hopes, nibbling away at incompetence protections, for example, instead of securing gains worthy of the salary boosts Bloomberg has granted. He said, when he first ran for mayor, to judge him by what he does for schools, and while he can claim some progress, his rollover to Randi at the bargaining table has limited the structural change he’s been able to achieve.
This is a watershed year in the relationship that is a political and governmental keystone in Bloomberg’s public life. His legacy promise to transform schools depends on what he can get from Weingarten and her legislative allies; his electoral margin could depend on what he gives her. It’s already clear that Bloomberg, especially after his “school reform” meeting with Obama last week, has an immensely popular Democratic ally in the White House on charters and bad teachers, an ace he never had before.
Weingarten says that “Eva and Joel” are “throwbacks to 50 or 60 years ago” when it comes to respecting teachers, boldly trying to separate Bloomberg from his chancellor and his charter allies. Circumstances have Weingarten back on her heels, dispatching contradictory spin from minute to minute, wearing national and city hats that tug at her in sometimes-conflicting directions.
If all Bloomberg wants is a repeat of 2005—a neutralizing deal that widens his electoral win—he will have sold the city and himself short. Another big check and comfy wink won’t do. This time, he really should forget that it’s an election year.