Adams’ unlikely alliance with the head of New York’s teachers union

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NEW YORK — Last June, as a massive field of candidates battled for the Democratic nomination for mayor of New York, the city’s teachers union put out an election guide urging voters not to check Eric Adams’ name on their ballots. Adams had supported charter schools, a non-starter for the union.

The move was a bust.

Following the Brooklyn borough president’s Democratic primary win, the union endorsed him in the general election. Retired teacher Kenneth Achiron gave a tepid nod to the pick at a union meeting. “We may not agree on everything, but he has certainly proved he respects the position we have,” Achiron said. It was safe to assume there would be tensions between Adams and Michael Mulgrew, who heads the United Federation of Teachers.

But over a month into Adams’ tenure, the pair have had a surprisingly chummy rapport, with the mayor even dubbing Mulgrew a “hero” and “modern day Paul Revere” for airing concerns about Covid-19 in schools.

“I know that Mayor Adams has a… little bit of a different stand on charter schools than UFT would,” former City Council education committee chair Daniel Dromm said in an interview. “I don't know if that's gonna become an issue in the future, but Mulgrew did tell me that he has a good relationship with Mayor Adams."

The mostly positive interactions between the formerly-at-odds pair show the waning power of teachers unions, which moved aggressively in states across the country to control how their members taught — and where they taught — as Covid-19 took hold in 2020. Two years of the pandemic have led experts to overwhelmingly agree that the push by the UFT and other unions to keep students home had a damaging effect on pupils’ long-term learning.

Michael Shulman, who heads a UFT opposition caucus formed to challenge the current leadership, argued Mulgrew is concerned about the optics of the union appearing to keep kids out of school due to Covid while balancing internal pressure from rank-and-file teachers for a remote option.

“He’s hoping, I think, to wait and see maybe at this point rather than draw any red lines,” Shulman said about Mulgrew. “I think he’s hoping that this thing will go down,” Shulman said, referring to Covid. “So he has to be careful from a political point of view how much he wants to push [a remote option].”

More practically, the alliance reflects one of convenience that serves the political needs of both Adams and Mulgrew, whose union has nearly 200,000 members.

"I think that Eric is being pragmatic and smart,” said a city official who knows both leaders and is familiar with their relationship. “The initial issues that are coming to the forefront are not bread and butter issues where there's opposition. He's not closing schools, he's not privatizing for charters. It's health and safety. So he's basically saying, ‘On these issues we should be unified and I'm not gonna be stubborn or crazy about it.’”

Mulgrew, for his part, finds himself in a tough position as he faces an upcoming union election in the spring and the UFT contract expiring this year.

Nationwide, teachers’ unions have been facing backlash from parents who want schools to stay open. In Chicago, the teachers union clashed with Mayor Lori Lightfoot for days before reaching an agreement to reopen the school system following a week of canceled classes. Chicago parents have expressed frustration over school being closed, and some also said neither the mayor nor the union sought to get parents’ perspectives on the issue. In early January, a group of parents sued the Chicago teachers union to get their children back in school.

In other places like Washington, Los Angeles and Sacramento, teachers unions have refrained from pushing school closures. The California teachers union, for example, recently vowed to keep schools open in a joint statement with Gov. Gavin Newsom — a reversal from earlier in the pandemic, when California schools remained closed longer than anywhere else in the country.

Ahead of New York City schools reopening following winter break, the union urged the local Department of Education to delay in-person learning temporarily. But Mulgrew mostly refrained from critiquing Adams and praised the city and DOE’s response.

“It was much better than anything we have seen in quite some time,” Mulgrew told POLITICO in early January. “What I saw this week was up to the level of, in terms of here is the plan, the effectiveness and the efficiency of it was at levels that I hadn’t seen in over a year in the schools.”

Last month, Adams handed out his “hero” and “Paul Revere” labels to Mulgrew. And, following the reopening of schools, Adams insisted he and Mulgrew have been coordinating “to allow a safe space for our children.”

“We’re not in a battle with the teachers union,” Adams said on CNN last month. “We are [in] lockstep… I speak to Michael Mulgrew three times a day.”

Spokespeople for City Hall and the union declined to make Adams and Mulgrew available for interviews about their relationship.

The city is also working with UFT to develop a possible “temporary” remote option following a citywide student walkout and rallies by teachers calling for a virtual option.

As to Adams’ motivation for playing nice with Mulgrew, he could be thinking about his long-term goals for his mayoralty. Mulgrew and American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten gave $350,000 to former Mayor Bill de Blasio’s nonprofit advocacy group to support his universal pre-K initiative and Adams could benefit from similar backing.

"I would assume that as much as the UFT is kind of a joke in terms of the endorsement success rate, they still have a huge campaign war chest,” the City Hall insider said.

And as Adams eyes extension of mayoral control over city schools, which gives the mayor full authority over the largest public school system in the country, getting Mulgrew’s support could prove helpful. The union has traditionally opposed mayoral control, arguing that it puts too much power in the hands of a single person and limits checks and balances.

Gov. Kathy Hochul, also a Democrat, recently proposed a four-year extension of mayoral control in her state budget proposal. The spending plan also includes a 4.7 increase in per-pupil funding for charters in New York City.

The mayor may also need to be on good terms with the union and the Municipal Labor Committee to hammer out collective bargaining agreements.

“He’s gonna need the unions to make these deals,” said Dermott Myrie, a member of another UFT opposition group.

The union’s contract is up this year. Mulgrew wants to be in a good position when he goes into negotiations.

“Mulgrew is trying to say, ‘He’s new, let’s be nice,’” said Myrie about the union leader’s attitude toward Adams. “‘Let’s see if we can get a contract to please our members. Let’s see if we can get some nice negotiations to please our retirees.’”

There’s also the question of the union’s upcoming election in the spring as opposition groups have teamed up to form a joint slate coalition to challenge Mulgrew’s UFT Unity caucus. Mulgrew may be trying to curry favor with members, including those who supported Adams in the Democratic mayoral primary over the group’s objections.

“There are a number of UFT members who probably voted for the mayor and support the mayor and I think that is another reason why Michael Mulgrew wants to have a good relationship with the mayor,” Dromm said.

The pair may see eye to eye on a number of issues as well. Adams recently said he plans to keep school safety agents in schools, a major win for rank-and-file teachers and Mulgrew. In November, UFT’s Delegate Assembly passed a resolution opposing the transfer of school safety agents from the NYPD to the DOE following citywide protests for police reform in the wake of George Floyd’s murder.

But questions remain about whether the honeymoon phase of the pair’s relationship will last as Adams’ tenure progresses, in part due to the stark differences between the two on major education issues.

Adams has a long history of supporting the charter sector. On the campaign trail, he called for keeping the charter cap but said he would expand more successful charters and close ones that were not performing well. Mulgrew sees charters, which do not hire unionized teachers, as taking resources away from city schools and shortchanging his members.

There is also the possibility of allies in their respective camps exploiting bad blood from the mayoral race. Ingrid Lewis-Martin, Adams’ chief adviser, and Frank Carone, his chief of staff, are reportedly bitter over the union’s ballot-blocking attempt.

That lingering tension played out in the recent race to run the City Council’s education committee. Lewis-Martin was pushing for Brooklyn Councilmember Rita Joseph — whom the UFT did not endorse — over Bronx member Eric Dinowitz because she was still upset that the union explicitly told members not to elect Adams.

Friday’s deadline for unvaccinated city workers to get the shot or get a pink slip could test the pair’s working relationship. On Monday, the union called for due process for the 700 UFT members facing termination over the mandate.

For now, both parties appear to be employing a more cautious approach to governing even as potential conflicts loom. UFT officials seem to acknowledge the tensions during the mayoral race but insist they’re working well with the mayor.

“Elections are one thing — protecting students, their families, and school staff in the middle of a pandemic is something else,” UFT spokesperson Dick Riley said in a statement. “The Adams administration has been working closely with the UFT to keep our schools open and safe.”

A mayoral spokesperson said that by working with labor leaders like Mulgrew, they are working to support teachers, paraprofessionals, school staff and students but did not comment on past tensions.

“We value a strong working relationship with the UFT, and we are in constant communication as we partner to achieve the best results for all those involved in our education system, and that includes keeping our schools open,” spokesperson Amaris Cockfield said in a statement.