This big deal appears to have big holes.
Over the hour or so that leaders of New York City and its teachers' union triumphantly discussed their new tentative contract agreement with reporters at City Hall, two things became evident.
First, it clearly marks an ambitious first labor pact for Mayor Bill de Blasio which, if ratified, would cover an eye-popping nine years, cost the city several billion dollars, allow procedural changes in the school system, and backdate wage increases to 2009.
Second, it leaves unanswered key questions -- such as, exactly how more than a billion dollars' worth of promised health care savings agreed on by city negotiators and the United Federation of Teachers will come about.
De Blasio aides spoke vaguely about choosing from a "menu" of new efficiencies to bring about the desired savings in the years ahead. But the teachers appeared to escape making contributions to their health insurance plans.
Skeptics may point out that under this administration, a smaller plan -- also ballyhooed in the same ceremonial Blue Room -- collapsed within weeks: A path toward saving Long Island College Hospital in Brooklyn as a health facility, now in a murky state.
But for all the lack of detail, the teacher contract moves the narrative along. During last year's mayoral election, retroactive pay increases for the several years that municipal employees worked under expired contract terms looked like an iffy proposition. That's no longer the case.
One veteran budget professional who declined to be identified noted that two weeks ago, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, with Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's approval, agreed to a contract with city subway and bus workers that in the end provided modest retroactive raises.
"That didn't set a pattern," the source said. "But it did set a floor."
"Pattern" becomes key to the story.
The 4 percent retroactive raises for the UFT, for 2009 and then 2010, reflect pay hikes that other unions got before the last administration stopped negotiating contracts. This back pay is projected at $4 billion.
"Pattern" is also important because other unions -- notably the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association -- express reluctance to accept the zero increases for 2011 and 2012 that the UFT accepts in this pact. (The city counts only one year of the UFT pact as a "zero" because it pays a $1,000 lump-sum bonus in addition to base wage hikes).
Because of the deal's size, the rhetoric ahead will likely follow the expected form -- with some union activists calling it less than marvelous and fiscal hawks crying up alarm at its expected cost, questioning where all the funds will come from.
Under the proposed UFT contract, retroactive pay would go to employees over the period 2015 to 2020.
In one sense, the deal puts off, or spreads out, a major cost for years. In another sense, it could be seen as helping pay liability left behind when City Hall changed hands.