Bill de Blasio won the mayor’s office by promising to unite New York’s supposed “two cities” of rich and poor. His progressive vision of affordable housing, quality preschool, and Nordic-style social policies would close the gap in quality of life that residents of the two cities were experiencing. But, unsurprisingly, it turns out that progressive politics often mean favoring a special group with a basket of goodies at the expense of everyone else.
In mid-June, the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) and New York City announced a new deal: the city will pay for six weeks of paid parental leave, at 100 percent of salary, for the union’s 120,000 teachers. In announcing the agreement, Mayor de Blasio voiced what sounds like a core progressive principle: “No teacher should have to come to school sick because they’re saving their sick days to have a baby,” he said. “Today, we right that wrong and make the city a little fairer.”
Touting the agreement to its members, the union exulted that teachers and other workers would not have to give up “an expected raise, reduced vacation time, or similar . . . concessions” in exchange for parental leave, a benefit valued at about $51 million. The deal doesn’t pay for itself, though. Instead, the city and the union have temporarily funded this year’s cost by extending the current labor contract. The only way that the new benefit pays for itself—and for one year only—is if the next UFT contract is more expensive, overall, to the city than the current one. If that happens, then extending the current contract would delay the imposition of the higher costs.
The bigger issue, though, concerns the ideal that the mayor supposedly upheld—“no teacher should have to come to school sick.” What he really meant was no union teacher. The new benefit is structured so that, unlike with health insurance and most other basic benefits, the union, rather than the city, will administer it (after the city pays the $51 million into a union fund). According to the fine print, as the Empire Center’s E.J. McMahon has noticed, union officials have “discretion” to grant this leave to “all UFT-represented employees.” Announced just a week before the Supreme Court, in the Janus case, ruled that state and local governments could not force their workers to pay dues to unions, the new benefit gives teachers and other members, such as school secretaries and guidance counselors, an incentive to stay in the union.
City officials unwittingly sharpened this uncomfortable point: the benefit doesn’t further the public interest, but is rather a sop to people with power. In announcing the deal, schools chancellor Richard Carranza, like the mayor, stuck to grand principles. “I can’t overstate how important it is for new parents to have the opportunity to care and bond with their newborn,” he said. Well, sure—but he doesn’t seem too worried that workers at DC-37, a much less powerful union whose clerical, maintenance, parks, and hospital workers earn much less than teachers, won’t enjoy the same arrangement. A week after the UFT announced its deal, DC-37 inked its own agreement: 10 weeks of paid family leave, at 55 percent of salary. But there was a key difference: the workers really will pay for the new benefit themselves, via a new payroll tax, and the state will administer the program.
Indeed, DC-37 is merely opting in to a statewide program that Governor Andrew Cuomo and state lawmakers enacted two years ago. Effective earlier this year, most private and nonprofit employers in New York must offer the family-leave benefit. Using similar language as de Blasio, Cuomo said that the broader statewide benefit would “ensure that no one has to choose between losing a job and missing the birth of a child or being able to spend time with a loved one in their final days.”
It’s a good idea. But these contrasts all raise the question: if a widely desired benefit financed by a broad payroll deduction is good enough for millions of workers in the private and nonprofit sectors, as well as for DC-37’s 100,000 members, why isn’t it good enough for the UFT teachers? Union leaders style themselves as progressives and often say that they’re sticking up for everyone, not just their own members. But much of public-sector union history involves unions bypassing the more modest benefits that make up the social safety net: health benefits for retirees too young for Medicare paid for by the city, for example, rather than the choices available on Obamacare exchanges.
New York City politics are dominated by public-sector unions and other groups that lobby relentlessly for their own interests. They have the right to advocate for their causes, but we should expect our elected officials to distinguish between the demands of their political base and the public good.
Photo: New York City's Mayor's Office