Although retired, I went to my local’s contract ratification meeting yesterday. I wanted to be on hand to help our new president Nina Melzer, as I led our union during most of the negotiations that leading to the contracts that were before the membership. While I was please to see our contracts ratified, I was deeply disturbed b y some of what I heard from those who felt our negotiating committee did not do a good enough job.
In the context of a property tax cap that limited the increase in our district’s budget to a small fraction of one percent, in a bargaining environment in which almost every settlement on Long Island has been financed by modifying the increment structure of the salary schedule – taking from the newer staff to give to those who already make more, we were able to get raises compounding to 6.3 percent over a four year period and completely preserved our increments. We cut six hours from our staff development requirement, ended disruptive parent classroom visitations, improved our sick leave buy-out upon retirement, improved our leave and bereavement clauses and got $150 per member more over the course of the contract for our welfare fund. Yes, we will work two extra days, and we will introduce extra help in our elementary schools and increase extra help in our middle schools, all within the existing school hours. I am completely confident that there has not been a better contract negotiated on the Island in recent years.
For quite a few of our members, you would have thought the district rolled over us. Quite a few speakers spoke about the unfairness of the deal, unfairness being generally defined as being obligated to do some things differently, albeit in the identical amount of time. Others expressed their belief that the district doesn’t respect us, as if that had the slightest thing to do with negotiations essentially about time and money. The lack of understanding of the realities of bargaining in the current context left me concerned for the future and a little guilty that I had somehow failed to educate so many to the realities of public sector collective bargaining at the current time. I’m saddened too by what that lack of understanding means for my successor who begins her tenure with so much anger. There was so little appreciation for the extraordinary job she did at the meeting, explaining the contract, answering difficult emotionally charged questions with pin-point accurate answers and a self-control that I doubt I could have mustered. What should have been a unifying, happy day was anything but.
When we entered the tax cap era of collective bargaining, I predicted that memberships would turn in on themselves and ultimately blame their union for conditions no one local union can overcome. As the era has unfolded, I’ve seen local leaders defeated, successive leaderships of our state union challenged, all of which makes our position more difficult, makes putting the political coalitions necessary to improve our situation more problematical to create. I keep hoping locals in our area will finally get together and develop a common bargaining strategy, but I frankly see no signs that that will happen. Districts effectively continue to coordinate their bargaining through the work of the two major law firms that represent most of the Island’s districts. We continue at our peril to maintain that negotiations is a local matter. When will we learn?
I will be doing a little travelling for the next week. Please look for me again the week of the 19th.