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Quick Take: ‘Bargaining for the Common Good’ or Self-Interest? A Critical Look At A Teachers Union Puff Piece

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Last week, Rachel Cohen at The American Prospect wrote a laudatory piece about teachers unions’ efforts (shocker!) to bargain for policies that go beyond the usual issues of salaries, benefits, and work rules. As she explains:

“By expanding their bargaining demands beyond wages and benefits, unions are recognizing that they can more fully support, and engage their community partners—and get those community groups to support them in return.”

Cohen points to an agreement signed last week between the Los Angeles Unified School District and United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA) as an example of this new strategy, which UTLA president Alex Caputo-Pearl describes as “bargaining for the common good.”

So how does the LAUSD/UTLA agreement actually serve the common good? Well, we’re told it commits the district to “hiring a Pupil Services and Attendance counselor for high-poverty high schools, and hiring a new teacher for the 55 most needy elementary schools in order to reduce class size.”

UTLA president Alex Caputo-Pearl: A true humanitarian (in the eyes of the American Prospect).

UTLA president Alex Caputo-Pearl: A true humanitarian (in the eyes of The American Prospect).

To bolster the case for UTLA’s beneficence, Cohen turns to John Kim, executive director of the Advancement Project, who praises the agreement: “We commend UTLA’s innovative leadership in leveraging its bargaining power to deliver real and impactful investments for low income communities of color.”

But is UTLA really using its power “deliver real and impactful investments for low income communities of color?” There’s a few reasons to be skeptical of Kim’s assertion:

  • The Advancement Project received approximately $150,000 from UTLA’s parent organization, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), in F.Y. 2015;
  • Research has shown that a small reduction in class size has a negligible impact on student performance, especially when compared to other interventions;
  • The agreement requires LAUSD to hire dozens of staff covered by the collective bargaining agreement (Cohen leaves out that the agreement also added an additional teaching position at every middle and high school that serves at least 200 students), which means UTLA has essentially set itself up for a boost in dues revenue when those new hires join the union.

When one takes these factors into consideration, it’s much less clear whether said contract stipulations were conceived to benefit the public or the union’s own interests.

When viewed through this same lens, the other examples of “common good bargaining” Cohen cites – last year’s Seattle teachers strike, the contentious negotiations that led to St. Paul’s 2014 teachers union contract, and the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools – also appear less altruistic than self-interested.

In both Seattle and St. Paul, the demands of union leaders required those districts to hire additional staff, which of course, added to the unions’ ranks and their coffers. Moreover, the Alliance is a particularly deceitful example of common good bargaining, since it is essentially a group of AFT/NEA-funded organizations attempting to pass themselves off as an organic, grassroots coalition.

Just something to keep in mind the next time you’re seeking an honest appraisal of public education issues in the pages of The American Prospect

Pete became involved in education reform as a 2002 Teach For America corps member in New Orleans Public Schools and has worked in various capacities at Teach For America, KIPP, TNTP, and the Recovery School District. As a consultant, he developed teacher evaluation systems and served as a strategic advisor to school district leaders in Cleveland, Nashville, Chattanooga, and Jefferson Parish, Louisiana. He now writes about education policy and politics and lives in New Orleans.

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Explainer: Does AFT Really Have 1.7 Million Members? How The Union Uses Accounting Tricks To Inflate The Numbers

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On Friday, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) announced its membership had risen to over 1.7 million members, surpassing the 1.6 million-member American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees to become the largest union in the AFL-CIO.

According to union officials, the milestone was reached last month when the Asociación de Maestros de Puerto Rico (AMPR), which represents the U.S. territory’s 40,000 teachers, voted to affiliate with AFT.

However, as Education Week pointed out, the pact concluded between AFT and AMPR comes with several caveats. To start, the agreement only establishes a three-year “trial affiliation,” after which the two unions will decide whether to extend their relationship. Plus, although AMPR teachers will be considered full AFT members during this trial period, they will initially pay $12/year in dues to the union – far less than members of AFT affiliates elsewhere.

AMPR got a good deal from AFT: all the benefits of membership at a fraction of the cost.

But AFT’s 1.7 million claim is dubious for a more fundamental reason: the union uses creative accounting when tallying its membership. For example, in AFT’s 2016 annual report to the U.S. Department of Labor, they claimed to have 1.54 million members in 31 states, the District of Columbia, and Guam, but a closer look reveals only 675,000 of those individuals were actual full dues-paying members. A significant portion of the rest belonged to a hodgepodge of special membership classes: one-half members (204,344), one-quarter members (93,047), one-eighth members (34,104), associate members (49,984), and laid-off/unpaid leave members (1,808).

Their count also included nearly 357,000 retiree members and approximately 128,000 members of affiliates – in Florida, Minnesota, Montana, New York, and North Dakota – that have merged with NEA.1

In short, as is often the case with AFT, there is a huge gap between their rhetoric and reality.


Read AFT’s 2016 DOL annual report:


  1. Note that these are self-reported numbers and therefore subject to AFT’s interpretation. In a piece in The 74 earlier this year, Mike Antonucci claimed, “more than 600,000 working AFT members belong to merged NEA/AFT local and state affiliates” in 2016. 
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Policy

Willful Blindness Official Pushing NYC's ATR Plan Has A History Of Giving A Pass to Bad Teachers

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The New York City Department of Education (NYCDOE) is planning to move as many as 400 teachers out of the district’s Absent Teacher Reserve (ATR) and into full-time classroom positions at schools this fall, regardless of whether those schools want to hire them.

Principals have had control over staffing at their schools since 2005, when the district officially adopted “mutual consent” hiring. That shift resulted in the creation of the Absent Teacher Reserve, which is comprised of teachers who were forced out of their jobs or lost them due to school closures, but have not found new positions.

UFT president Mike Mulgrew, Mayor Bill deBlasio & Chancellor Carmen Fariña at a press conference in 2014.

Thanks to NYCDOE’s contract with the United Federation of Teachers (UFT), individuals in the ATR pool continue to receive full salary and benefits, even though nobody wants to hire them. According to data obtained by Chalkbeat, the district spent nearly $152 million last year to compensate ATR teachers.

District officials have been trying to shrink the size (and expense) of the ATR pool for years, leading some to wonder whether they would resort to forced placement to accomplish their goal. When New York City Council members posed that question directly to Chancellor Carmen Fariña in 2014, she emphatically stated: “There will be no forced placement of teachers.”

However, NYCDOE reneged on that promise last month when it was announced that principals will have until mid-October to fill vacancies at their schools, after which the district will place teachers from the ATR pool into any remaining openings.

The new policy has gotten an icy reception from principals and parent advocacy groups, who say the district is simply putting bad teachers back into classrooms. As evidence, they point to NYCDOE figures showing that a third of the teachers in the ATR pool ended up there due to legal or disciplinary problems and half have been there for two or more years.

“There is not one parent in New York City who would willingly accept one of these ATRs into their child’s classroom,” StudentsFirstNY Executive Director Jenny Sedlis said in a blog post on the ATR plan. “It is unconscionable to put the worst teachers into the classrooms of the neediest students.”

NYCDOE’s Absent Teacher Reserve by the numbers.

In an effort to allay those concerns, NYCDOE issued a statement noting that “DOE has discretion on which educators in the ATR pool are appropriate for long-term placement and may choose not to assign educators who have been disciplined in the past.” Nevertheless, the department has not explicitly ruled out the possibility that teachers with disciplinary records could be used to fill vacancies.

That fact is especially troubling when one considers that Randy Asher, the NYCDOE administrator overseeing the Absent Teacher Reserve plan, was accused of letting bad teachers run amok in his previous role as principal of Brooklyn Technical High School.

Randy Asher, who formerly served as principal of Brooklyn Tech High School, now oversees the Absent Teacher Reserve for NYCDOE.

Asher served as principal of Brooklyn Tech for nearly eleven years before assuming his current role in January. During that time, the elite public high school was racked by a series of sex scandals involving faculty members, including the widely-publicized case of Sean Shaynak, a Brooklyn Tech math teacher who victimized seven female students.

According to a lawsuit filed by the victims, Asher and his fellow Brooklyn Tech administrators knew about Shaynak’s sexually suggestive antics (such as the time he showed up to a school dance wearing a skimpy schoolgirl’s uniform), but did nothing to address them. For his part, Asher claimed he was unaware of Shaynak’s devious behavior, but was “horrified and disgusted at the allegations.”

NYCDOE eventually settled the victims’ lawsuit for $450,000 and Shaynak was sentenced to five years in prison.

Although Asher claimed he was unaware of Shaynak’s sexually inappropriate behavior, photos of Shaynak in drag appeared in the school’s yearbook.

In light of Asher’s history, it’s hard to see how the public can trust that officials will use their discretion to keep the least desirable ATR teachers out of the classroom. That’s why parents and community members should fight to prevent NYCDOE from implementing its forced placement plan and call on city leaders to solve the district’s ATR problem by demanding a phase-out in contract negotiations with UFT next year.

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