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I knew Al Shanker, Mr. Mulgrew, and you’re no Al Shanker.

Would Al Shanker have agreed to let at least 200 schools, thousands of teachers, exit the basic UFT contract?

Would Al Shanker have allowed differentiated teacher salaries beyond the classroom rank (and what highfalutin titles!) from mentor, to ambassador, to master; management titles —management! — in sheep’s clothing?

Al Shanker, organizer Paul Bradford, and the author, c. 1979
Al Shanker, organizer Paul Bradford, and the author, c. 1979

Would Shanker have signed off on salary bonuses for select members based on their schools’ staffing needs?

How about a health plan with centralized care rather than choice of private doctors, like other professionals?

And would Shanker ever have shriveled salary demands to less than an average 2% annually, with retroactive pay — salary already earned! — meagerly scattered into the next decade?

Would Al Shanker have let the mayor walk tall out of a contract announcement instead of bringing him to his knees?

Michael Mulgrew
Michael Mulgrew

This is the 21st Century with unionism on the run. Shanker helped found the United Federation of Teachers in 1960, becoming its president in 1964. Mulgrew, the UFT’s fifth president, succeeded Randi Weingarten in 2009. He faces a far different city, union, and instructional landscape than Shanker, 50 years ago.

The union, its members, and labor allies were then more militant, focused on substantially raising public employees’ status in a growing economy. Solidly liberal, the city was hospitable to increased wages and improved working conditions among its workers. The political might of the UFT was enough to bring schooling to a halt during its strike over decentralization in 1968 and again, over school cuts, in 1975.

Today, public employees are under siege. Wisconsin ended teachers’ collective bargaining rights. There are increasing numbers of non-unionized charter school teachers, unlike the unionized teachers in Catholic schools back in Shanker’s day. The fiscal crisis of 1975 still looms as a cautionary tale of New York’s near bankruptcy, often blamed on excessive wage and pension packages. Fourteen thousand teachers were laid off with consequent increases in class size for those remaining.

In addition, and most importantly, teachers are now squarely in the middle and upper middle salary range, enjoying automatic stepped raises that max out in six figures. Pensions and benefits allow for comfortable retirements. Shanker’s victories mean that Mulgrew can fight to keep what teachers have rather than having to claw up successive rungs of the class ladder.

Mulgrew also has a strong reason to make New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio look good. Despite major salary gains in Mayor Bloomberg’s first term, teachers have experienced a long, demoralizing winter since the last Democratic mayor 20 years ago. After so long out in the cold, de Blasio and his schools chancellor, Carmen Fariña, are the union’s best hope for supportive policies over the next four to eight years.

Those policies are more important to teachers than ever. The new education agenda of accountability and standards has made their work that much harder than in Shanker’s day. The specter of termination under New York state’s new teacher evaluation system is a tremendous burden, likely to be eased by the city’s promise to decrease emphasis on standardized testing. Bloomberg’s serial closing of schools caused widespread upheaval since even those that survived saw classes filled with students ousted from their original placements. School closures also created the Absent Teacher Reserve pool of excessed teachers, due for winnowing under the new contract.

The charter school movement has also changed the thrust of union contract demands. The signal achievement of the UFT, aside from salary gains, was creation of the lengthy union contract, a Byzantine document closely regulating the work rules and schedules of every school day. Seen another way, charters are the reaction to such over-regulation. Eva Moskowitz, now head of the city’s biggest charter chain, originally made her name as a City Council member challenging the educationally indefensible breadth and specificity of contract rules.

Shanker’s victories mean that Mulgrew can fight to keep what teachers have rather than having to claw up successive rungs of the class ladder.

So widely and wildly unpopular are these provisions, both in their spirit and their letter, that the new contract dramatically steps away from this cookie-cutter approach. In addition to creating differential salaries, anathema in Shanker’s day, the contract calls for a new initiative called Progressive Redesign Opportunity Schools for Excellence (PROSE), touted on the UFT website as a way out of the contract for union members “seeking exemptions to certain Chancellor’s Regulations or UFT contract provisions that could result in initiatives such as a different school day and year; greater teacher voice in hiring decisions; or wider variations in how a school day is laid out.” Shanker, at least 1960’s Shanker, would be turning in his grave.

The new face of teacher unionism, the face of Michael Mulgrew, is not and cannot be the mirror image of Al Shanker. This contract, like the working relationship between Mulgrew and de Blasio, is a historic partnership built not on social mobility and regulatory detail but on fiscal stability, rule flexibility, and shared decision-making focused on instruction. A new era has likely begun.

David C. Bloomfield is Professor of Education at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center. He has been parent President of the Citywide Council on High Schools, General Counsel to the New York City Board of Education, and, while a teacher, organized his school as a UFT chapter.

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  1. Proposed changes to the work rules seem to illustrate the “charter school effect;” that is, traditional public schools teachers will be treated more like those in charter schools–more pressure to perform and less rights. You’re right on the money when you suggest the new unionism builds on everything except social stability. This is continuing the trend toward privatization. The question is, will it go too far? Hopefully, we won’t forget why the union had to be so militant in the first place–there has to be a balance between job security and performance.

  2. Teachers are among the stupidest people around. They had an opportunity to get rid of Mulgrew, and didn’t seize the moment. In my school, I am the ONLY staff member who voted.

    Additionally, what pack of losers would vote for more time added to the work week with no compensation whatsoever? That’s what they voted for the last time around.

    So therefore, I hold out NO hope for teachers and their pathetic situation. Maybe they’ll wake up once the “union” has been broken once and for good.

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