Leaving millions on the table

Michael Bloomberg versus New York City teachers

By — on / Mediation

It’s hard to imagine a situation in which negotiating counterparts would choose to sacrifice hundreds of millions of dollars rather than reach agreement. But this is the choice that New York City and its teachers union, the United Federation of Teachers (UFT), made in January when they declared impasse on a new teacher evaluation system.

Back to basics
In 2010, New York State passed a law requiring its school districts to replace their old teacher-evaluation systems, which were widely criticized for keeping poor teachers on the job, with more stringent systems that would identify ineffective teachers and remove them from schools.

The law charged local school districts and their unions with specifying certain aspects of their new systems by January 17, 2013. Districts that reached agreement on new systems would be eligible for millions in state aid and grants.

New York City stood to gain about $250 million in aid and $200 million in grants, a 4% overall increase in state aid. But the talks were expected to be difficult because of the frosty relations between the UFT and New York mayor Michael Bloomberg. The union, which had been without a contract since 2009, had declined to endorse the mayor in his reelection campaign that year.

School yard taunting
As 2012 drew to a close, the city and the UFT were indeed deadlocked. On December 27, the city filed a complaint with the state labor board, accusing the union of failing to bargain in good faith and trying to “extort” the city by negotiating topics unrelated to teacher evaluations, such as teacher pay. Union president Michael Mulgrew responded that the union had a right to discuss a multitude of issues, since the evaluation system would be part of a new contract.

The union also launched a television ad campaign accusing Bloomberg of “going after teachers again.” And with Bloomberg reaching the end of his final term in office, Mulgrew suggested in an interview that the union hoped to have a better relationship with New York’s next mayor.

A mediator had preliminary meetings with the interested parties to form the outlines of an agreement, but Bloomberg officials reportedly canceled on the day of the scheduled mediation.

The final bell
On January 17, the day of the deadline, the two sides separately announced that a final, late-night negotiating session had collapsed. Bloomberg maintained that the union had scuttled the deal with last-minute demands, such as a “sunset clause” that would extend the dismissal process for ineffective teachers. Mulgrew insisted that the city had earlier agreed to a sunset clause.

Mulgrew also maintained that he shook hands on a deal with education officials early on the morning of January 17. But soon after, schools chancellor Dennis M. Walcott called to report that “the boss”—Bloomberg—“ says no deal.”

Bloomberg traveled to Albany to urge the New York State Legislature to prevent the city from losing $450 million in state funds. While at the capitol, the mayor took the opportunity to deride evaluation systems put in place by other districts.

New York governor Andrew Cuomo said the state would not reverse course on the funding. But a judge temporarily blocked Cuomo from withholding the aid, and Cuomo ultimately decided to impose an evaluation system on New York City if it can’t reach a deal with the UFT by a new deadline: June 1.

Lessons learned out of school:

  • Accentuate the positives. Both Bloomberg and the UFT had much to gain from a new teacher-evaluation system, including better teachers and much-needed state funding. To foster a cooperative spirit, frame your negotiations around gains rather than losses.
  • Stay behind closed doors. What was supposed to be a private negotiation morphed into a battle for public support that had each side slinging accusations at the other. Wise negotiators know better than to escalate a tense situation with inflammatory public statements.
  • When all else fails, mediate. The two parties appeared to have been negotiating “on far sides of the moon from each other,” observes Michael Powell in the New York Times. When negotiators are this far apart, it may take a professional mediator or other independent party to help bridge the divide.

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