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Who should we keep secrets from?

March 5, 2022 pm31 11:27 pm

My phone rang. My cell. I was in the program office at school. It was late September, 2009. I was busy.

Program changes had just finished. I was teaching 3 classes, but each one different. Algebra. Geometry. Combinatorics.

There was a mayoral election campaign in full swing. Eight years of Bloomberg was the legal limit, but with enough money, apparently, you can change the limit. He was running again. And he was in the lead. In an act of gross cowardice, Mulgrew and Unity were preparing to stay out of the election, to give Bloomberg a free pass. (In case you don’t remember, Bloomberg’s third term was his most destructive.)

The Call

But the phone call had nothing to do with the election. It had nothing to do with my classes. It had nothing to do with programming.

Hello? It was a NY Daily News reporter. She was calling to ask me about contract negotiations. (Well, maybe it was related to the elections, that’s one theory.) The reporter asked me about a contract demand – was it true that the UFT was going to ask the city as part of contract negotiations to return to “unit costing”? And she read me some language. It was precisely the language the UFT was using.

“I am in favor of a return to unit costing. As far as negotiations, the UFT is developing many demands, but I am unable to comment on any of them at this time.”

The reporter knew I was in favor of a return to unit costing. I had written about it on this blog. And the rest, the negotiations, Mulgrew required us to sign “confidentiality agreements” that promised not to discuss negotiations with anyone. I signed, and abided, by that agreement.

Not So Secret

Those words the reporter read to me? They were mine. Not quite word for word. I suggested them at a meeting of the full (300 member) negotiating committee, and they were popular enough to include, but Mulgrew had a lawyer work them over. So it was weird not being able to confirm that the words she was reading me were actually words I had written and a team of lawyers had rewritten. Weird.

And what about the secrecy stuff? The current UFT leaders, Unity caucus, often repeat, like a mantra “we do not negotiate in public.” Except, sort of, it looked like they did. The reporter knew every word of a specific demand. She probably had every word of every demand. I got the call because, given what I’d written publicly, she figured she’d get a good quote. And to be clear, the 300 committee members did not get the text – we just discussed it. If she had something in writing, it came from the leadership.

And “unit costing”? I’ll take a look back at that, in a fuller post. But in short, it was the practice of giving schools a specific number of teachers. It was replaced by a new sort of costing, and a new sort of funding, and a new sort of transfer, a new sort of school governance, and a new policy about closing schools, that combined to make principals not want to hire more experienced teachers at the same moment that more experienced teachers were being forced to transfer. But more about that, and the culprits in a really nasty story, another day. For now it’s good enough to know that in 2009 the entire UFT, more or less, agreed with me that going back to unit costing would be a good thing.

Not So Secret Here, Either

Fast forward a week. I was on the “executive committee” of the Negotiating Committee. It was no longer 300 people. I was in a group of 30. And big day. Big day. We walked into a room. Filled the back and the sides. Table in the middle. Mulgrew waited. Through the other door some City or DoE people walked in.

James Hanley, the City’s chief negotiator, shook hands with Michael Mulgrew. They sat. Mulgrew began reading demands. Something about money. Hanley responded – don’t remember 13 years later exactly what – but I think more or less “there’s a package; we can tweak details.” Then a second demand. Then Mulgrew read my demand, quickly. And Hanley responded “not a subject of” and I think the phrase is “impact bargaining” but I’m not sure, but whatever it was, Hanley said it instantly, with no hesitation. He knew what to say, exactly what to say, upon hearing a fairly complex demand. Because… He already knew what Mulgrew was going to say. And Mulgrew knew what Hanley was going to say. No hesitation, no question, they just moved forward.

Did Everyone Know? No

“We don’t negotiate in public” apparently means – we leak our demands to the DoE and to reporters. Who do Unity leaders keep negotiations secret from? Not secret from the politicians. Not secret from the press. Mulgrew and Unity keep negotiations secret from our members.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Many unions involve their memberships in contract negotiations. Most make their list of demands public. While some unions keep some aspects of negotiations confidential, none that I know of go to the bizarro extremes that Unity and Mulgrew go to. And, frankly, we can’t point to wild success coming out of this policy. We’ve had more givebacks than gains in the 26 years since I started.

LA does things differently. Chicago does things very differently. I don’t know that they are doing any better than us. But their negotiations did not fail because they shared information with their memberships.

Hiding stuff from members is just bad policy. It should stop. “We don’t negotiate in public” is just Unity shorthand for “we limit information we share with our members.” An informed membership would be a stronger membership.

Keep the content of negotiations secret?
Or keep the fact that negotiations are happening secret?

That would have been a good close, except we are not quite done.

Last spring Mulgrew got busted. He was negotiating (really Unity, through the auspices of the Municipal Labor Coalition) with the City to force our retirees off of Medicare into Medicare Advantage (private medicare). And another union went public. Our retirees did not know. They heard about this from members of other unions.

This one also needs another post.

But get this – when Mulgrew got caught, he said, “we do not negotiate in public.” Really? Now he’s not talking about keeping the demands secret. No one knew he was negotiating. He hid the whole entire negotiation from our retirees.

This is even WORSE than Mulgrew swearing me to secrecy, then having his staff leak the demands to reporters and city officials. Back then, all of the UFT, teachers, secretaries, everyone, knew they were negotiating, just they weren’t sharing the details.

With Medicare Advantage, Unity managed to hide from our retiree even the fact that negotiations were going on at all. The nerve.

To end the policy of hiding information from members we will need change. United for Change.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Melissa Williams permalink
    March 6, 2022 am31 7:47 am 7:47 am

    A am deep into the Berkeley Labor Center’s document Turning the Tables about open bargaining. We can NOT be forced to sign confidentiality agreements and I will be refusing to sign one. I am going to reach out to BLC soon and ask them to potentially speak to the OT/PT negotiation committee. Going to buy all eight of my committee members a book about open bargaining. If we don’t call bullshit now, then when?


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