Buffalo teachers picketed schools earlier this week to call attention to the fact that they haven’t had a new contract in 10 years – even though they haven’t seriously sought a new contract since the last one was signed in 2004.
There is a reason for the reluctance. The economy remains weak, putting the union in poor position for negotiations, and even then, the absence of a new contract hasn’t prevented most teachers from earning “step” increases that are part of the expired contract. Those increases aren’t large, but they are preferable to the small to nonexistent raises earned by most other Western New Yorkers, especially those toiling in the private sector.
Still, teachers are right when they say that they deserve a new contract. They do critical work and should be paid fairly. But the weak economy provides little wiggle room for generosity on the part of the School Board and the taxpayers it represents, and also serves as a disincentive to the Buffalo Teachers Federation to negotiate in good faith.
Public-sector contract negotiations are guided, in part, by the Triborough Amendment, which mandates that the terms of an expired contract – including, in the BTF’s case, that infamous cosmetic surgery rider – remain in force until a new deal is signed. Unions, thus, have little reason to push for new contracts under economic conditions that will require significant givebacks as part of any agreement that is fair to all parties, including taxpayers.
It is, then, a little disingenuous, though not unexpected, for the BTF to be clamoring for a contract as the new school year breaks. That is especially so given that the union kicked away recommendations made earlier this year by a mediator who had been working with both sides for the past several years to craft a new agreement.
A year ago the BTF rejected another proposal offered by a state mediator. That recommendation called for teachers who now have fully covered health insurance to contribute to the cost of their health coverage and called for an increase in the years of service needed to qualify for early retirement, items that other public sector unions have agreed to.
The BTF seems to want a new contract, just not one that reflects economic realities.
Things may change. The new School Board majority wants to come to an agreement, if its comments are to be taken at face value. Indeed, member at large Larry Quinn campaigned on the need to provide teachers with a contract that was fair to all concerned. That should remain the goal of both the board and the union.
The problem has been in defining what is fair. Public-sector unions have at least one advantage over their private-sector counterparts. While companies can – and do – go out of business, a school district won’t. A city won’t. That gives public-sector unions leeway to squeeze where most private-sector unions – understanding that the health of the company is in their compelling interest – don’t.
Relations between the Buffalo School District and the BTF have long been dysfunctional, and for that there has been plenty of blame to go around.
But with a new School Board and a new interim superintendent, both looking to improve the district, there is an opportunity now to start fresh and work toward common goals.
That will require both the board and the union to be prepared to negotiate, which by definition means agreeing to some things each would rather not. The record of the past 10 years doesn’t seem to hold out much hope for that to occur, but that’s the test. It is up to both sides to show that they are willing to meet it.