NYC Teachers Just Took an Inflation-Adjusted Pay Cut – Why are Pundits Pretending We’re Bankrupting the City?
Betsy McCaughey, the Republican politician who thankfully served only briefly as the former Lt. Governor of New York, wrote an appalling piece in the Post this week. In it she makes the pretend argument that labor contracts, particularly labor contracts for teachers, are causing New York City’s financial woes. It’s a sneaky editorial, full of shaky foundations, cherry picked data, misrepresentations, and even outright untruths.
Right off the bat, McCaughey hooks in her audience with a misleading title: “It’s not migrants — saving New York City requires union concessions.” The genius here, if you want to call it that—I don’t—is that McCaughey starts readers off with a false assumption – that New York needs saving. It doesn’t, and I’ll get to that, but it’s a familiar argument to New Yorkers. For months and months, Mayor Adams has fed us a barrage of mistruths that Asylum Seekers are causing so many budgetary woes that they, and they alone, justify an absurd and perilous voyage into austerity. McCaughey’s spin is that, while Adams has rightly identified a fiscal cliff (he hasn’t), his scapegoats of choice are only a minorly massive drain on tax payers; it’s the mighty teachers union putting Gotham on the brink of collapse.
Of course, neither Adams nor McCaughey are basing their calls for cuts in numeric reality. Our numbers don’t justify cuts. And to be clear, one of the reasons our finances are frankly better than fine, is because the UFT just took half-a-decade worth of an inflation-adjusted pay cut.
Yes, as McCaughey notes, some UFT members will see 20% pay hikes over 5 and a half years. Most, in fact, will see less (our actual range is 17.58% to 20.42%, with the higher percentages going predominately to lower paid members). But McCaughey doesn’t mention that inflation has far exceeded even the high end of that range. In gross dollar figures, teachers may be making more than they did a few years ago, but their money is worth less – all while the millionaires and billionaires that McCaughey seeks to shield from extra taxation earn record profits by manufacturing consumer price increases.
When you compare our gains to the gains of other unions, the issue starts to become clear. The UFT’s wage increases are literally below the U.S. average, and most Americans don’t even have unions fighting for them. Teachers with stronger union leadership—leaders willing to use the power of the strike—have doubled the increases seen by UFT members. We saw this all over the country, especially along the urban Pacific. These days, when adjusted for cost-of-living, NYC teachers are lagging far behind our colleagues on the west coast. The $3,000 bonus that McCaughey claims was added like a cherry to some ‘crème puff’ deal was nothing but a bribe to take sub-inflation wages, and the bribe was cut out of the same pool of money that otherwise would have gone to our wages anyways. (That’s how pattern bargaining works).
McCaughey isn’t just misleading, though. She has some issues with facts. For instance, she states that “Gotham… provides any municipal employee who puts in 10 years a health insurance premium, 100% paid for with no cost-sharing, for life.” Except, Tier 6 pension members, like myself and most of the City’s teachers, have to wait 15 years to vest into healthcare. And the quality of that healthcare is under constant attack, with many of our raises being funded by promising cost-savings to the City. As a result of ‘savings’ like this, my copay at CityMD has jumped from $15 to $100 in a matter of years, my in-network radiology network has diminished to peanuts, our retirees are being threatened with switches to Medicare Advantage, and in-service teachers are losing mental health providers in droves to too-low reimbursement rates. And with our union leadership seeking to reduce the cost of our health plan by an additional 10%, members are being primed to pay even higher shares of healthcare costs and for even fewer services—all while taking an inflation-adjusted pay cut.
Moreover, unlike those workers in the few City jobs that McCaughey doesn’t seem to mind grandfathering out of cuts, contemporary teachers must work in austere conditions for decades. A teacher who starts tomorrow at the age of 21 will have to work for 42 years to get a full pension—almost double what police and sanitation workers would have to put in to retire comfortably. Teachers must work more than 21 years just to earn top salary, in fact, while police officers, for instance, make theirs after 5 ½. Whereas ignorant or malicious politicians seem to think teachers have mastered the art of needlessly siphoning off public funds, we lag far behind the pay and benefits of city workers around us – despite massive financial and temporal investments that we put into our education to qualify for teaching jobs.
The bottom line is teachers are working harder and harder but for less pay amidst New York City’s skyrocketing cost of living. Regardless of how much our wages and benefits diminish, politicians and pundits will twist our job responsibilities and financial details to make it seem like teachers are living some preposterously luxurious dream. Maybe some of those talking heads will read this or similar articles and realize their mistake; but I won’t hold my breath. What I really hope is that our union leaders will start to see that decades of inaction aren’t getting us anywhere. The anti-teacher faction of the political class will paint any wage gains we get as catapulting us off a fiscal cliff, even if we’re only getting peanuts. In that context, we might as well actually fight for those ‘crème puff’ deals—or what I’d call cost of living increases—that other unions across the country really are getting.
Nick Bacon is a member of the UFT’s Executive Board and a Co-Chair of New Action Caucus of the UFT. His writing can be read at https://newaction.org/