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‘Stop Wasting Our Time’: Michael Mulgrew on UFT Contract Negotiations, Charter Schools & More

UFT President Mike Mulgrew hugs Mayor Adams (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)

The United Federation of Teachers (UFT), the union representing the majority of educators in New York City’s public schools, has been bargaining with the city for a new contract since October of last year. Now, the union is expected to be next in line for an agreement after District Council 37 (DC37), the city’s largest municipal worker union, secured a tentative agreement of its own last month with the administration of Mayor Eric Adams, a first-term Democrat.

The UFT’s previous contract expired nearly six months ago, and the union’s president, Michael Mulgrew, is ramping up pressure on the Adams administration to deliver on the union’s demands. Mulgrew joined Gotham Gazette’s Max Politics podcast to react to the tentative DC37 deal and discuss the UFT’s top priorities for ongoing negotiations as well as other major issues the union is focused on, such as its opposition to Governor Kathy Hochul’s proposal to raise the cap on largely non-unionized charter schools in New York City.

“I believe everybody who works should have access to a union,” Mulgrew said on the show. “It's shown that if you have access to a union, you'll be treated better overall.”

Mulgrew has been president of the UFT since 2009, leading a union of about 200,000 active and retired members, including teachers, paraprofessionals, secretaries, counselors, and therapists.

Contract Negotiations
DC37’s February agreement with the city was the first of its kind under Mayor Eric Adams’ administration. If ratified, the five-plus year contract, in part retroactive from DC37’s contract expiration on May 26, 2021, will impact nearly 100,000 current public workers directly, and hundreds of thousands more via the tenets of “pattern bargaining” that the city’s unions abide by. It includes annual raises of 3% for 2021-2024 and 3.25% in 2025; and an increase of the minimum wage for DC37 workers to $18 per hour, among other details.

Mulgrew said on the podcast that he was headed later that day (Tuesday February 28) to a meeting with his 500-member bargaining committee that afternoon, during which they would continue to discuss their priorities for contract negotiations and would likely also discuss the tentative deal reached by DC37 and what it might mean for their bargaining process. He was hesitant to go into many specifics of what the UFT’s top priorities would be during negotiations, citing internal, ongoing discussions, but he did point to some of the union’s overarching focus areas.

The UFT’s bargaining with the city will most adhere to “pattern bargaining,” Mulgrew confirmed, in which key agreements made for one contract are used to dictate others. Mulgrew said that the extent to which his union has held to the “pattern” has varied over recent years, and every union negotiates its own deal, from the major aspects like pay to sector- and profession-specific details. He expressed some initial frustration with the percentage of wage increases won by DC37, and their added value over time.

“The people in my profession, working with the children, should be the people with the highest compensation,” Mulgrew said. “That's not the way our world works, but that's how I feel. And I know that DC37 was trying to do what they could do to really help their folks.”

Mulgrew said that increased funding was near the top of the priority list for the UFT’s ongoing negotiations with the city. He added that, across the board, teachers want relevant training — not bureaucratic paperwork, which he said has taken time away from educators’ work with children. He said most of the added paperwork was due to chain of command issues and bureaucratic hangups: “You name it, we got it all.” 

“It was funny because both the mayor and the chancellor, when they were coming into office, they kept talking about how the bureaucracy of the DOE was the enemy of the children,” Mulgrew said. “Yes, I agree…Stop wasting our time.”

Agreed to under the de Blasio administration in 2018, UFT’s previous contract promised new positions like bilingual social workers and speech teachers, health-care savings, and compounded wage increases of between 2-3% per year. It also included specifics like the Bronx Plan, intended to increase recruitment and retention of teachers in “hard-to-staff” positions and schools, and the Collaborative Schools Model, a program to provide coaching to teachers, $25,000 annual grants to each school for an “innovation fund,” allocated toward projects chosen by a school-specific committee, and increased teacher involvement in school planning.

Now, Mulgrew said that the UFT wants standardized literacy curriculum rather than what he called “fly by night” trainings. Many of the decisions made about education and working conditions are made by bureaucrats at the Department of Education who do not know the reality of working in a school, he said.

“We want to be compensated fairly,” Mulgrew said. “We want everything to be focused on the work that we're trying to do with the children. That's it, because this profession has gotten way out of whack with all the other stuff,” referring often to the large amount of paperwork teachers and other school professionals must do.

Mulgrew said the UFT is not willing to negotiate on mandatory health care savings, which were included in the union’s previous contracts, and that it was something that the UFT, DC37, and other members of the Municipal Labor Committee had decided together to take off the bargaining table heading into this round of negotiations.

“We were clear that we would do no health savings in this round,” Mulgrew said. “We said enough with that. We've done what we needed to do.’”

However, improved healthcare as a whole is a priority, including better deals and lower costs. The union is doing “hard-nosed negotiations” over the issue with hospitals and others, Mulgrew said.

Asked about how remote and hybrid work models may be part of contract negotiations, Mulgrew said that offering more remote work options, especially for roles like social workers and psychologists — which are extremely short-staffed — may improve morale and staffing rates. 

“Say we had a foot of snow. Right now, the city mandates that because those people are not part of a school, they have to go to work,” Mulgrew said. “They would call out or spend the day trying to get to their office where no children are coming just because the city says they will not allow those folks who aren't in schools not to show up for work.”

Although not necessarily a main issue at the bargaining table, Mulgrew said many teachers are concerned about the cost of living in the city with regard to housing. Unless a house has been in a family for several generations, it is difficult to buy property as a civil servant, Mulgrew said. He acknowledged general UFT support for the major housing development plans that Adams and Hochul have advanced, but noted that this is an issue that the union has been talking about for a very long time.

“I don't know how the city is ever going to really get back and moving in the right direction if the people who work and keep the city moving and keep the children being educated can't afford to live here,” Mulgrew said.

The union president also said the city has “a long way to go” on ensuring clean air and water in New York City schools, and advocated for increased safety measures like air purifiers in classrooms, though he did not indicate exactly how the issue may factor into contract negotiations.

And, he said the UFT is supportive of efforts to add Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights, to the school calendar, currently the subject of a legislative push in Albany, where Mayor Adams and lawmakers are seeking to remove Brooklyn Queens Day as a city school holiday and instead insert Diwali.

Charter Schools
Governor Kathy Hochul has proposed to raise the cap on charter schools in New York, allowing for an estimated roughly 100 new charters, which are privately-run public schools. The proposal, which would allow mostly non-unionized, city-based charter operators to utilize unused allocations from elsewhere in the state without increasing the statewide cap of 460 charter schools, has faced considerable opposition.

Speaking to members of the State Legislature at a budget hearing last month, Mayor Adams said that while he is in favor of allowing more charters, Hochul’s plan would be untenable for the city’s finances.

“If the state raises the charter cap as proposed, we will need more resources,” Adams said. “We believe it will cost us over $1 billion to site these schools and cover the required per-student tuition — money we do not have.”

On the podcast, Mulgrew reiterated the UFT’s long-standing opposition to the expansion of charter schools, stressing the opposition is focused mostly on the “corporate charters,” by which he means the large networks like Success Academy, KIPP, and others.. He said that one of the UFT’s chief objections is that charter schools have lower standards of accountability, saying that many charter schools are only able to boast of high graduation rates because they don’t serve as many harder-to-teach students as district public schools and actively seek to move certain student populations out of their schools.

“It’s really about corporate charters,” Mulgrew said. “They tell everyone they have a 98% graduation rate, but 50% of the kids that started are gone…That's really the issue for us is fairness and equity, because as an educator, your job isn't to weed out kids with challenges. Your job is to educate all children. If you don’t have that in your DNA, in your soul and in your heart, then, for me, you shouldn’t be in education.”

Though the majority of employees within the charter school system are not unionized, Mulgrew said that it was not the main reason why the UFT was in opposition to Hochul’s push. Instead, he said that the UFT’s main concerns are the implications of disciplinary measures he has observed at charter schools — including handing out suspensions to children who present challenges in the classroom — on the education system as a whole.

“Most of the things that we are now talking about that are problematic are things that nobody envisioned that a group of schools would try to do,” Mulgrew said. “Not taking children with special needs, not taking homeless children…We'll talk about it, but first, all of this has to be undone.”

[LISTEN to the full conversation: Max Politics Podcast: UFT President Michael Mulgrew on Contract Negotiations, Charter Schools, & More]

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