WTU contract rally
The Washington Teachers' Union has been rallying for a new contract, including at this Nov. 3 protest at the DCPS Central Office in NoMa. Credit: WTU

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The last time D.C. had an up-to-date contract with its biggest teachers’ union, the Washington Nationals had yet to win a World Series, Lizzo’s first single was still topping the charts, and hardly anyone had ever heard of COVID-19. The two sides have been negotiating ever since, with a resolution to this saga now increasingly likely to stretch into a fourth year of debate.

The Washington Teachers’ Union and D.C. Public Schools have been fighting over a new collective bargaining agreement for so long that an independent arbitrator took over the matter late last month, setting up an end game for a dispute that has defined education politics in the District since the last contract expired in October 2019. But that has not ratcheted down tensions between Mayor Muriel Bowser and the union, deepening the political rift between the two sides and heightening concerns that this unsettled labor situation is driving teachers out of the school system. A new contract would not only update salaries to account for three years of inflation, but it could also settle long-running arguments about working conditions at a time when teacher retention is broadly viewed as a major challenge for the District.

The parties could still come to their own agreement, but optimism for that outcome is low as a public war of words has escalated in recent weeks. The WTU, which represents roughly 5,000 DCPS teachers, has begun holding more frequent protests to demand an updated contract (with a citywide day of action planned Thursday) while Bowser and her deputies have only doubled down in their recent public comments blaming union leaders for denying rank-and-file educators a raise. It’s much more likely that the arbitrator will decide the issue, taking several weeks to hear arguments and deliver a deal both sides must accept.

“You almost can’t believe we’re at this point where an arbitrator’s going to make a decision for something so important to our city,” says Jacqueline Pogue Lyons, the WTU’s president. “I would have put money on it that we would have gotten a contract before the teachers left for the summer this year. And I was sadly disappointed.”

Clare Berke, an English teacher at Benjamin Banneker Academic High School active in union organizing, shares Pogue Lyons’ sense of frustration, but she at least feels relief that there’s “an end in sight” for teachers. And she is hopeful that whatever deal they strike will include both salary increases and back pay to account for the three-year-long gap between pay raises: “Every little increase is something, because things are just that tight right now,” she says. But neither side will reveal much about their negotiating positions, except for the broad outlines of the disagreements, so it’s difficult to know for sure what a final agreement might look like.

Representatives for Bowser’s deputy mayor for education and DCPS declined to comment on the labor dispute, but did refer Loose Lips to public remarks from both the mayor and DCPS Chancellor Lewis Ferebee suggesting that the union is to blame for this ongoing impasse. Bowser said during a Nov. 7 press conference that “we’ve put a great deal on the table that is fair and is needed” and the union simply “needs to say yes.”

“I want our teachers to have the back pay and the competitive raises that they deserve,” Bowser said. “But we need their leadership to say yes. We at least need a leader at the table that can say yes. If I’m at the table, I’m the yes for the D.C. government. We can’t have a back-and-forth with a committee on the other side. I’m starting to think that the leadership of the Washington Teachers’ Union, because they can’t agree with each other, they want it to go to arbitration and that’s not fair to the teachers. That is going to delay their money. They should have their money right now.”

Ferebee struck a similar tone in a Nov. 3 Council hearing, telling Chairman Phil Mendelson that he believes WTU’s bargaining team has not presented the DCPS offer to its full membership, and if they had, “their members would overwhelmingly support what we have on the table.”

Pogue Lyons sees these arguments as disingenuous, part of an effort to craft a narrative about “greedy teachers” who simply won’t accept a good deal. She can’t understand why the mayor suggested the WTU leaders would prefer arbitration (she is adamant that the union doesn’t support this option, as the full membership won’t get to vote on the agreement the arbitrators draw up) and believes that the last DCPS offer substantially falls short of what teachers are demanding.

Though she won’t share exact details, Pogue Lyons says her main sticking points with DCPS have been around not only salaries, but other issues like benefits, planning time, and working conditions (a particularly salient matter with COVID-19 still disrupting things). She notes that a survey of teachers the union conducted in September found that 79 percent of respondents weren’t satisfied with conditions in DCPS, and 62 percent believe things have changed for the worse in the last three years.

“We’re hearing more and more teachers say things like, ‘Without a contract, I don’t feel respected enough to do this job every day,’ especially with the work changing so substantially in the last few years,” says Scott Goldstein, a former DCPS teacher and executive director of the advocacy group EmpowerEd. “We’ve had an enormous amount of turnover even when we did have a teacher contract. This is the bare minimum we need to do.”

Ferebee acknowledged some of those challenges in the Council hearing, which was convened specifically to focus on teacher retention after recent reports have shown D.C. far outpacing the national average in staff attrition rates. But he also said that “the fact that we’re one of the highest paid school districts in the region certainly helps with recruitment and retention.”

However, Goldstein is quick to note that the District’s high teacher salaries are a bit of a mirage, considering the city’s high cost of living—a recent WalletHub study found that D.C. ranked 47th in the nation for annual teacher salaries when adjusted for cost of living expenses. He sees this attitude from DCPS leadership as part of a broader problem, with top officials refusing to acknowledge salient concerns from teachers and address those with a reasonable contract offer.

“What I am hearing from teachers is that they don’t feel that DCPS is negotiating in good faith,” says Ward 1 State Board of Education Rep. Emily Gasoi, who has worked with her colleagues to elevate teacher retention issues over the last few years and advocate for a resolution to the contract dispute. “Because they feel like there’s no union that would take three years to negotiate contracts unless [the offers] were completely unacceptable.”

Pogue Lyons agrees, seeing a complete lack of “urgency” from DCPS on this issue, “because if there was urgency, we wouldn’t be doing this for three years.” Bowser and Ferebee have disputed this point repeatedly, noting that DCPS negotiators have met weekly with union leaders since the old deal lapsed, but the union has questioned the seriousness of those discussions when top leaders have frequently skipped meetings. Mendelson raised that point with Ferebee directly during the hearing, saying he’s heard the chancellor has barely attended these sessions—Ferebee countered that he’s had “many, many conversations with the bargaining team and WTU leadership, at the table with their members.”

“The law allows for either side to move negotiations along more quickly,” Mendelson observed. “Management could’ve forced a resolution of the bargaining two years ago and you didn’t.” Ferebee said in response that he “thought we were going to reach an agreement” and “that’s why we stayed on the path we were on.”

The chancellor added that he would still be “happy to put the decisionmakers in a room” to avoid arbitration, and subsequently wrote on Twitter that the two sides planned to resume bargaining Thursday. He added, however, that he was “surprised” to see the union organizing protests for that very same day—Laura Fuchs, the WTU’s secretary and one of its more pugilistic public faces, replied that “your team has been ‘negotiating’ in BAD faith while the mayor lies about it for 3 years, so it is time for MORE action to get this to actually work.”

Plainly, there is bad blood on both sides after years of stalled negotiations (and some bruising battles over COVID protocols at the height of the pandemic). And Bowser has never been especially close with the union, given her strong support for mayoral control of schools and the WTU’s rejection of that governance model. The two sides have frequently sparred politically over her two terms as well, with the union most recently endorsing At-Large Councilmember Robert White’s primary challenge against Bowser (in addition to backing frequent Bowser antagonist At-Large Councilmember Elissa Silverman).

So it is probably no great surprise that things have gotten so ugly, or that arbitration will be necessary to resolve this matter. Pogue Lyons said she’s been told that the process won’t stretch much longer than 45 days, but the holidays could well delay things. Bowser’s labor relations director, Lindsey Maxwell, told a Council committee on Nov. 3 that he doesn’t “expect there’s going to be a resolution before the end of the calendar year.”

Whenever the matter gets resolved, Pogue Lyons fully expects that the union will be “turning around and doing this again” soon afterward. The WTU won’t know how long its new deal is good for until the arbitration process plays out, so it’s very possible they’ll be negotiating another contract before too long.

“We seem to have a problem here settling contracts in a timely manner,” she says. “And then we wonder why we have a high turnover of teachers.”

Goldstein is hopeful that a new contract will buy some time for the Council to take action on more systemic issues affecting teachers, at least, like helping DCPS offer more flexible work schedules or reforming its teacher assessment system (which has been widely criticized for its racial biases). He’s especially optimistic that the new Council to be seated in January will be more attentive to these concerns, since its two new additions (Matt Frumin in Ward 3 and Zachary Parker in Ward 5) both have backgrounds in education advocacy.

After 14 years working for DCPS, Berke finds it a bit difficult to share that optimism. From protracted contract disputes to fights about COVID safety, Berke says she sees a clear “pattern” in how DCPS treats its teachers.

“People are more aware of these issues and starting to talk about it, but actual change is probably not around the corner,” Berke says.