Taking on Unions, And Paying a Price

When East Side City Council member Eva Moskowitz decided to confront the city’s public-school unions over the touchy issue of work rules, she knew she was taking one of the biggest gambles of her brief political life.

“I knew months ago, when I decided to do this, that this was a difficult topic,” she said of her decision to question powerful union officials representing teachers, principals and custodians. “Initially, it wasn’t even clear my staff wanted me to do it, because this was a very politically risky thing to do.”

Any ambitious Democrat with thoughts of running for higher office-and the 39-year-old Ms. Moskowitz fits that description-has to consider the power and influence of the city’s unions, particularly the potent United Federation of Teachers. Nevertheless, Ms. Moskowitz pressed forward, and the result was a municipal rarity: A series of confrontational_public hearings that attracted reporters and produced headlines. City Council hearings generally pass with little or no notice in the media. Not these.

In publicly airing the work rules that many education reformers have criticized for years, Ms. Moskowitz earned praised from Republican colleagues,_Mayor Bloomberg and editorial boards, but also garnered the undisguised ire of Randi Weingarten, the powerful head of the U.F.T., and Brian McLaughlin, another ambitious Democrat who is both an Assemblyman from Queens and the head of the Central Labor Council. Ms. Moskowitz’s supporters invariably describe her as brave; her detractors say that she was simply grandstanding to further her political ambitions.

Whatever the case, there’s no question that Ms. Moskowitz, who chairs the Council’s Education Committee, was Topic A at City Hall for a few days in mid-November. She loosed a storm of chatter when she accused the U.F.T. of intimidating potential witnesses into not testifying. And she brought a rare aura of intrigue to the hearings when she used witness-protection-style tactics, including voice-distortion technology, to conceal the identities of several anonymous witnesses.

Ms. Moskowitz’s confrontation with Ms. Weingarten was particularly memorable. Frustrated by what she later called a “filibuster” by the union leader, she referred to the stack of papers on her desk-a copy of the union’s contract. “I’m trying to get to the bottom of a really simple question,” she told Ms. Weingarten. “I’m just trying to understand what’s in the document and what the document says.”

Ms. Weingarten responded in kind, clearly not pleased with the Councilwoman’s line of inquiry. “This contract is not the management straitjacket some claim it to be,” she said. “It is being used as a scapegoat by those who wish to explain away their own managerial failures. We will not make progress in our schools by demonizing teachers, and I will not stand for it.”

As political theater, it doesn’t get much more dramatic than this-at least not at a City Council hearing. The next day, several news reports portrayed the confrontation as a mud-slinging match between sharp-tongued rivals. But it was more than that: Rarely has a Council member so directly challenged the head of the teachers’ union.

Until the hearings, Ms. Moskowitz was best known as an ambitious but second-tier Council member with close ties to Speaker Gifford Miller. She had carved out a respectable niche for herself as the chair of the Education Committee and made no secret of her desire to run for Mayor someday. But she, like most Council members, was hardly a household name. That may have changed, thanks to her determination to ask tough questions about school-union contracts. She has become a lightning rod for praise and rage: the patron saint of parents and the pariah of the unions. And while it may take months for this gamble to play out, it’s clear that Ms. Moskowitz has become a politician to watch.

The Council’s minority leader, James Oddo of Staten Island, said Ms. Moskowitz “deserves a tremendous amount of credit for having the courage of her convictions. I think she’s taken the Council to a different level by taking on these political third rails. I have nothing but admiration and respect for her.”

Mr. Oddo is part of a large and unlikely group of admirers that has praised Ms. Moskowitz for daring to scrutinize public-school labor contracts. Mr. Bloomberg singled her out for praise on his weekly radio show, and parents have flooded her with grateful e-mail messages. The editorial boards of the Post and Daily News have hailed her “moxie,” and even The Economist has applauded her for tackling such issues as seniority hiring, teacher and principal tenure, and arcane work rules that, for example, allow custodians to change light bulbs but forbid them from changing ballasts (the starter that gets the electricity flowing).

These rules, according to Ms. Moskowitz, stand in the way of everything from firing incompetent teachers to making sure kids aren’t reading in the dark. They contribute to chaos in the schools by barring teachers from monitoring hallways and lunchrooms, and exacerbate the teacher shortage by preventing schools from offering competitive salaries to attract experienced math and science instructors. These subjects were all but taboo until the Education Committee’s hearings.

But not everyone was pleased to see this taboo broken, and Ms. Moskowitz has made powerful enemies who aren’t likely to forget the unwanted attention she brought to their contracts. She has also alienated several colleagues on the Council and the Education Committee, who have said that the hearings unfairly blamed unions for management failures and risk overshadowing other problems facing the schools. And she has angered a natural Democratic base-the unions-who have accused her of meddling in the collective-bargaining process and playing footsy with the Bloomberg administration, which is currently in negotiations with all three school unions.

Unions Fight Back

“The hearings will definitely have a negative impact on negotiations because of the way in which [Ms. Moskowitz] held them,” charged Ms. Weingarten. “She misportrayed a lot of issues that are management issues as contractual issues, and that really poisoned the atmosphere.”

Custodians’ union president Robert Troeller agreed, adding that “it’s very apparent from the focus of these hearings that she is completely out of touch with working people and the things that affect their lives. Just about every item she pointed out [from the contract], she either misunderstood or misrepresented,” he said, explaining that the ballast rule, among others, came about as a worker-safety initiative to protect custodians from performing work they either weren’t trained or licensed to perform.

“I think Eva Moskowitz has gotten a lot of publicity,” said Jill Levy, president of the Council of School Supervisors and Administrators, echoing others who had accused Ms. Moskowitz of holding the hearings as a publicity stunt. “It was very clear that Eva Moskowitz’s issues and the Mayor’s issues and Joel Klein’s issues are right on the same line.”

Ms. Moskowitz bristles at these accusations. “Certainly there are easier ways to get fame or publicity than this,” she said. “Usually politicians do photo ops. But this is much more work. I mean, I spent months and months preparing, as did my staff. I’m looking at this topic because I honestly believe that parts of the contract affect children in a negative way …. I just didn’t feel that I could be chair of the Education Committee and knowingly ignore a topic that affects kids.”

As Ms. Moskowitz tells it, public education has been important to her since childhood. Her grandmother was a longtime public-school teacher and teachers’ union delegate, and her parents both went to public high schools and public universities and went on to become college professors at SUNY and CUNY. She herself is a product of the city’s public schools, having attended P.S. 6 on the Upper East Side and Stuyvesant High School. “You know, I was the kind of kid [who] played teacher when I was 5,” she said. “I didn’t play house; I played teacher. I have always found this issue incredibly compelling.”

And even romantic. “My husband [Eric Grannis] and I are high-school sweethearts, and we’ve been talking about education for 22 years,” she said with the trace of a smile. They have two sons, 5-year-old Culver, who attends a public school on the Upper East Side, and 9-month-old Dillon.

Ms. Moskowitz herself spent eight years as a teacher, working as a history professor at Vanderbilt University, the University of Virginia and the City University of New York, as well as the director of ReadNet, a children’s literacy program. She was also the public-affairs director of Prep for Prep, a preparatory program for gifted minority children. She made the leap into politics in December 1995, when she volunteered to work on Mr. Miller’s first City Council campaign, eventually becoming his field director. The campaign, she said, “really made a deep impression on me. I had taught feminist theory, I had spent a lot of time encouraging young women to follow their dreams, and I said: ‘Look, I’m really interested in these issues-why wouldn’t I run for something?'” She did exactly that in November 1997, taking on the Republican incumbent, Councilman Andrew Eristoff.

She lost, but when Mr. Eristoff resigned his seat in 1999 to take a position with the Giuliani administration, Ms. Moskowitz won a special election to fill the vacancy.

She has until 2009 before term limits will end her tenure in the Council. It’s very likely, however, that she will pursue higher office sooner rather than later. She is thinking about running for Manhattan borough president in 2005, or perhaps for City Comptroller if the incumbent, William Thompson, decides to run for Mayor. Eventually, she’d like to be Mayor. “To me, managing the city services is an incredibly important job,” she said. “It’s important that the garbage is collected, that our public-health system works well, that we provide the best bang for the educational buck …. I really like ensuring high-quality services at the lowest expense possible.”

Whether she succeeds could depend, among other things, on how the union contract hearings play out-whether the support she gains from parents, editorial boards and others outweighs the anger she has earned from the unions and their allies. “She is taking a big gamble,” said Brooklyn Councilman David Yassky, another member of the Education Committee. “But, ultimately, I think this is a boost for her career. It shows that she has courage.”