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Working In These Times

Wednesday, May 11, 2011, 1:09 pm

New York City Teachers Union Protests Education Cutbacks, Joins May 12 ‘Mobilization’

BY Akito Yoshikane

The beginning of May marked Teachers Appreciation Week. But that didn’t stop cities from announcing plans to give pink slips to its educators.

In New York, the union representing local teachers will rally Thursday against a proposal to eliminate more than 6,100 education jobs, the first layoffs of city public school teachers in decades.

The United Federation of Teachers (UFT), which has 200,000 members in various education sectors, will join community groups and other unions at City Hall to protest a budget that sparked a wave of criticism from city officials and educators. "Mr. Mayor, it’s not going to happen, and enough is enough!" Michael Mulgrew, president of the United Federation of Teachers, said this Saturday at the UFT’s spring conference in Manhattan.

Tomorrow's protest is the culmination of a week of protests and actions in New York City organized by "May 12 Coalition." Demonstrations have protested low taxes for large banks; here's a video the coalition put out this week:

The move paves the way for a potential showdown between the mayor and teachers over the new spending plan for the fiscal year beginning in July. The budget proposals come as teachers across the country are battling cuts to education. Some have found themselves in the legislative pushback against unionized public employees.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced the layoffs last Friday when he unveiled his $65.7 billion budget that includes cuts to several agencies. Bloomberg said the measures were necessitated by funding cutbacks from state and federal agencies, adding he had already used extra taxpayer money to plug the education funding gap.

Currently, there are 75,000 public school teachers in New York City. Under the current proposal, 4,100 teachers will be laid off and 2,000 teachers will be phased out through attrition. Including attrition, that means one in eight teachers will lose their jobs, the first significant layoff since the city’s financial crisis in the 1970s. The cuts would increases class sizes on average by two or three children, leaving 69,000 teachers to educate about 1 million students, the Associated Press reports.

Some say Bloomberg’s announcement is an effort to cull more funding from state government, or pressure Albany lawmakers to eliminate the seniority provision protecting layoffs for long-time teachers.

The mayor’s announcement came one day before the UFT’s spring education conference. Michael Mulgrew, president of the union, told the crowd that the mayor is “playing political games” in order to gain concessions. The union also says the city has a $3.2 billion surplus and hasn’t used the money to avert layoffs. City officials say about $300 million is needed to avoid just the teacher layoffs, or $435 million for the total job cuts.

The budget also needs approval from the City Council, which has raised concerns about the cutbacks. But even if the mayor and the officials can find a middle ground, the future looks bleak as New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has reportedly planned to reduce education funding by as much as $500 million next year.

In other states, teachers are facing increasing pressure from state and local governments. In California, teachers are staging a weeklong campaign to prevent budget cuts to education and dozens have reportedly been arrested at the state Capitol in Sacramento. The California Teachers Association and others are pressing lawmakers into to extend taxes to fund schools.

In Pennsylvania, Gov. Tom Corbett singled out teachers’ unions for putting contracts over curriculums, blaming labor poorly performing schools. In Ohio, unionized teachers agreed last Friday to pay higher dues to help fund a referendum against the recent collective bargaining law. The Ohio Education Association is raising funds to repeal a law that limits public employees from negotiating health care, sick time and pension benefits.

And in Washington, D.C., 660 teaching jobs will be eliminated next month due to budget concerns. A local union official says it is just a way to layoff older teachers.

The conflicts have grown from the larger campaigns to reduce the bargaining power of unions. But debates over seniority firing and how to best evaluate teacher performance have also magnified the labor strife. Teachers’ unions and administrators have struggled to find a middle ground for education reform policy, but the added dimension of layoff threats further complicates negotiations for the future.

Akito Yoshikane is a freelance writer based in Chicago. He can be reached at akitoyoshikane [at] gmail.com

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