Strike Is Averted as A.F.T., Staff Union Agree on a Contract

By Ann Bradley — January 08, 1992 5 min read

After a grueling 20-hour bargaining session, negotiators for the American Federation of Teachers and the union that represents A.F.T.'s staff employees reached a tentative agreement on a new contract last week, narrowly averting a strike.

Members of the American Federation of Teachers Staff Union had voted unanimously in early December to strike if their negotiating team could not turn back proposals that would have given the A.F.T. management greater latitude in laying off employees.

Representatives of both sides refused late last week to discuss details of the new agreement, which was reached Jan. 2 with the assistance of a mediator after an all-night bargaining session.

The staff union’s contract expired at midnight Dec. 31 and was extended hour-by-hour to allow the negotiations to continue.

“Neither side got all they wanted,” said Solomon H. Smith Jr., president of the A.F.T.S.U. “These were damn tough negotiations. But we’ve got something we feel fairly confident the members will ratify.”

Members of the staff union are scheduled to vote on the proposed contract Jan. 12.

The staff union, representing 85 employees, has two bargaining units. One is made up of the A.F.T.'s approximately 35 national field representatives, who serve existing locals and organize new ones; the other consists of the employees who work at the A.F.T.'s headquarters in Washington.

The A.F.T.'s professional staff is made up of accountants, lobbyists, editors, public-relations officials, financial experts, and the like.

Financial Worries

Contract negotiations between the A.F.T. and the staff union usually are conducted with little fanfare.

This year, however, the economic recession prompted the A.F.T. to make a number of proposals that would have changed several longstanding aspects of the staff-union’s contract, including seniority and layoff provisions, travel benefits, and grievance and probationary procedures.

Mr. Smith said the staff union’s members believed the proposals constituted “an all-out assault on our contract.”

The acrimony surrounding the negotiations mirrored the difficulties that A.F.T. locals in Los Angeles and Chicago, both of which took strike votes, have had in holding on to the salary gains their members made during the 1980’s.

Albert Shanker, president of the A.F.T., said the union does not expect its members, whose salaries are flat or declining, to approve a large per-capita dues increase this year to finance national operations.

The union cannot even count on having the same income it had last year, he added, because its overall membership is expected to drop this year as teachers are laid off or accept early-retirement incentives.

“We are running into some hard times,” Mr. Shanker said, “and we may have to have layoffs.”

In New York State, an A.F.T. stronghold, between 4,000 and 5,000 teachers have opted to retire early, the union president noted.

The precise impact of the layoffs, retirements, and hiring freezes has not yet been calculated, Mr. Shanker said. But the union already has taken some cost-cutting measures, including canceling Mr. Shanker’s weekly column in The New York Times for 10 weeks last summer and printing fewer editions of the union’s magazine and newspaper.

“I still hope there won’t be layoffs,” Mr. Shanker said. “But it would be irresponsible if I signed a three-year contract not knowing where the money is coming from.”

Seniority System Targeted

The A.F.T.S.U.'s previous contract had guaranteed that the most recently hired employees in each bargaining unit would be the first fired, Mr. Smith said.

The A.F.T. proposed changing that provision for its administrative employees to create new categories of staff members. Any layoffs would then be done according to category.

Mr. Shanker said the change was necessary to prevent departments with large concentrations of new employees or entire job specialties from being eliminated.

“It just does not make sense to have a single, straight seniority list when people are working in different capacities,” he said.

The A.F.T.'s field representatives supervise about 80 employees who work on various organizing projects for the union. These employees are not members of the staff union and are paid far less than field representatives.

The previous contract provided that no field representatives would be laid off before all of the project workers were let go, Mr. Smith said.

But in negotiations, the A.F.T. argued that laying off all of the project staff members would shut down important projects organizing nurses, teachers, paraprofessionals, professors, and government employees across the nation.

In a letter to union officers on the tense negotiations, Mr. Shanker noted that the layoff policy was developed “at a time when the very notion of layoffs was inconceivable.”

That provision is now unreasonable, the union president said.

“Our people are the supervisors, and the people out there are like the teachers,” Mr. Shanker said. “It’s crazy to say before you fire the principal you have to lay off all the teachers.”

Mr. Shanker described the proposed seniority provisions as characteristic of many schools, but Mr. Smith disagreed.

“We’re asked to go around the country and develop the kind of seniority system we have,” Mr. Smith said. “In all good conscience we can’t allow them to take away the system and then go out and be hypocritical.”

‘No Compromise’

In his letter to union officials, Mr. Shanker said the organization would not compromise on either proposal. The union’s negotiating stance was backed by its executive committee.

In addition to trying to gain more flexibility to lay off employees, the A.F.T. proposed restricting the amount of money field representatives could spend on airfare to travel to their homes on weekends. The union also asked that its employees give up their corporate credit cards and then be reimbursed for their on- the-road expenses, Mr. Smith said.

Other proposals that the staff union objected to included lengthening the probationary period for new employees from two years to three, removing contract language prohibiting employees from having to work on weekends, and limiting the range of things that employees could file grievances over, he added.

The staff-union’s analyses showed that the A.F.T. does not have financial problems at this time, Mr. Smith said.

“We tried to meet them every way we could as far as cost-saving issues are concerned,” he said. “We’ve satisfied ourselves that money is not the issue.”

But Mr. Shanker said the financial concerns are “real” and that the changes the A.F.T. was asking its employees to accept simply would bring their contract in line with those in schools and other unions.

Mr. Shanker also noted that non-management employees at the A.F.T. are paid an average of $57,000 a year, with many making the top pay of $63,973. In addition, the union pays 23 percent of their salary into a pension plan, pays up to $9,300 worth of health and dental insurance for family coverage each year, and provides five weeks of vacation annually.

“Nobody ever leaves this job voluntarily,” Mr. Shanker said, “and there are lots of people who would give their right arm for them.”

A version of this article appeared in the January 08, 1992 edition of Education Week as Strike Is Averted as A.F.T., Staff Union Agree on a Contract