By Christina Veiga
(Originally published August 2, 2019, by Chalkbeat)
Some preschool teachers will see their pay increase by as much as $20,000 after union members voted Thursday night to approve a labor agreement that has been touted as historic.
The deal with District Council 1707’s Local 205 significantly boosts salaries for about 300 teachers who work in publicly funded but independently run programs, bringing them on-par with starting salaries for public school teachers.
That is a major step forward for advocates who have long fought for pay parity between both groups of teachers, who are represented by different unions but have the same credentials — and have played a major role in rolling out Mayor Bill de Blasio’s highly touted universal pre-K initiative.
“We never thought this day would come,” said Kim Medina, the executive director of DC 1707. “It was always a constant fight for us because the mindset was that our childcare providers…were not teachers. They were babysitters.”
The salary gap nearly sparked a strike earlier this year, but it was called off at the last minute when city leaders and management representatives agreed to come to the table.
Esther Morrison, a teacher in the Bronx who is in line for the biggest raise, said she is “so thankful.”
“We do the same exact thing the other teachers do,” she said. “We should get paid the same amount of money.”
The rest of the union’s almost 4,000 members, including assistant teachers, janitors, and cooks, are in line for a $1,800 bonus and yearly salary increases of about 2.75%. Also included in the deal are reductions in healthcare costs that apply to all members.
Medina said the agreement passed by a 3-to-1 margin. She was brought to tears describing the room where about 600 members had gathered to vote in Tribeca.
“It was a beautiful moment,” she said. “Many of them stayed til the count was done and they were just cheering. And it wasn’t just teachers. It was teachers’ aides and custodians and bookkeepers.”
Preschool directors have charged that vast difference in paychecks makes it hard to keep teachers, who leave to make far more money in public school classrooms. The churn, advocates argued, put on shaky ground de Blasio’s signature education initiative — free pre-K for all of the city’s 4-year olds, and now some 3-year-olds, too. Most of the city’s Pre-K for All programs are housed in community organizations.
Teachers posed the pay gap issue as being at odds with de Blasio’s pledge, both as mayor and now during his long-shot run for the White House, to create a more fair system for working people. Many of the pre-K teachers in community-run programs are women of color, while a majority of those in higher-paid public school positions are white.
Advocates have said that they hope the new salary boost will encourage assistant teachers and aides to get their credentials to lead their own classrooms and benefit from the raises.
The ratified deal is not a new contract, but an extension of the current one. Significantly, it’s now timed to expire at the same time as contract for the United Federation of Teachers, meaning DC 1707 could benefit from any gains negotiated by the far larger and more powerful union.
Despite the vote for ratification, there was a current of dissatisfaction among support staff who received far less generous perks while barely earning more than minimum wage and working in programs that, unlike public schools, do not close for the summer. Many said they are struggling with healthcare costs and wished for more affordable plans, though the agreement calls for a “significant” reduction in co-pays and a 10% reduction in co-premiums.
“I want to see everyone get a raise,” said David Bennett, a custodian at Friends of Crown Heights in Brooklyn, as he headed in to vote.
“A raise we can live off of,” said Gladys Guzman, a teacher at the same center. “Why are we getting pennies?”
Despite having similar concerns, Marie Thompson, a 16-year cook at Utopia Children’s Center in Harlem, said she voted in favor of the deal.
“It’s not fair, but it’s something,” she said.
With the extension now in place, the union will pivot its attention to a new contract for Local 95 members, who work in centers that are largely funded through federal Head Start contracts. Officials have said that the deal approved Thursday will serve as the template for the next round of negotiations.
City leaders have also said that the agreement could set the stage for increases for a still larger group of teachers: those who aren’t unionized. They make up a majority of teachers in the city’s universal pre-K program and have been galvanizing support for raises through online petitions and other advocacy.
“The advocacy will go on,” said Alice Mulligan, the director of a non-unionized program in Brooklyn. “The whole thing is just so disgraceful.”