Sunday, February 27, 2011

Teachers Unions and the Flight from Ambivalence

Teachers unions are much in the news of late. I confess to a profound initial ambivalence. On the one hand, the anecdotal evidence of incompetent teachers being retained largely due to union agitation is both compelling and troubling. I’d have to agree that in that particular area, the unions are more part of the problem than of the solution. But the problems faced by the American education system are hardly attributable to a single cause, and the situation is at least as bad, if not worse, in states and municipalities with no unionization at all.

First off, just as the Koch brothers may exercise far too much influence on elections in this country, they do so because the rest of us let them. We elected Ronald Reagan and the Bushes, who in turn nominated to the Supreme Court such corrupt idiots as Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia, who gave virtually unfettered power to their cronies in the Citizens United case. The Kochs and their ilk can now pour millions of dollars into the political process, and to do so anonymously! So can I, by the way; it’s just that $1 million checks from me aren’t likely to be honored.

And when the Democrats, hitherto champions of the little guy and transparency (in their rhetoric, at least, if not in their actions) had a chance to make a major campaign issue out of the situation, they punted. One speech by the President, and then back to cowering in the corner when the lazy and compliant corporate media—who, after all, were making mountains of money on those anonymously-funded and seldom honest campaign ads—didn’t immediately grant “traction” to the story. (Hey, the check cleared, why should they care about anything else, right?)

Similarly, it wouldn’t matter what outrageous things the unions demanded if the folks on the other side of the negotiating table—school boards, city councils, state legislatures—would show the ability draw themselves up on their hind legs and utter that most damning of indictments: “No.”

It is reasonable that teachers be paid better than soda jerks. (My first teaching job, at the college level, when I had an MA and an honors undergrad degree from an Ivy League school, worked out to less than minimum wage once you counted up all the time spent in prep, grading, advising, committee work, rehearsal, etc.) It is reasonable that teachers have protection against being fired by a principal who didn’t like the fact that the bumper sticker on their car supported the “wrong” candidate. (This actually happened, by the way, in a right-to-work state a couple of years ago. The courts upheld the dismissal and, legally, were right to do so.) It is reasonable for teachers to have a brief respite sometime during the school day when they’re not surrounded by 30 or 40 (or more) of somebody else’s misbehaving children. It is reasonable for a benefits package—insurance, a retirement plan, etc.—to be part of a teacher’s contract. All of these things are the product of negotiation, whether it is an individual or a union who is doing the negotiating.

So are things like sabbatical leaves, tenure procedures, and sick leave guidelines. And so are standards for dismissing “bad” teachers. If a school board or whoever is on that side of the negotiating table doesn’t like some provision in a union contract, negotiate a better deal. If the union threatens some sort of job action, let ‘em. If what you’re fighting for is the right to dismiss an incompetent teacher, you’ll win the rhetorical battle in the minds of the public, and the situation will be resolved fairly quickly.

But because the negotiators on the other side failed to do their jobs, unions have been demonized. Don’t get me wrong: there are a lot of procedures in place right now, procedures wanted by unions, that work against the common weal, both in the classroom and on the bottom line. It’s difficult to blame a union, however, for seeking to provide the best possible deal for its members. And the current furor about teachers' not paying into their own retirement systems is just silly, even on the rare chance that it’s technically true. What’s the practical difference between a). a salary of $40,000 a year with $4000 going into a retirement fund, $2000 paid by the state and $2000 by the worker, and b). a salary of $38,000 with a $4000 retirement contribution all paid by the state? Both cost the state $42,000; both give the employee $38K in pre-tax income. (I suppose there might be a small but extant difference in states with income taxes if salaries are taxed and benefits not, but surely this isn’t a significant issue, right?)

I have never been a member of a union; I’ve turned down the opportunity twice, and I’ve also resisted (but been tempted by) the Union-Lite American Association of University Professors. Because I perhaps arrogantly believe that I’m at least average at my job, I’d like to think that I might make out better with merit pay increases than with something across the board. But I also realize two things: merit pay can very easily go to those who are the most compliant to the administration (or who are good friends with someone on the Board of Regents, or who teach the “right” subject, or who go to the “right” church, or…), not necessarily the best people; and, especially in a field like theatre, merit pay militates against the cooperation and teamwork that ultimately make the whole operation run—the lighting designer should be my colleague, not my competitor for a couple hundred bucks in merit money.

But what is happening to union workers across the country right now is scary. In Wisconsin, the budget problems are real, but just as the recently-instituted corporate tax breaks are irrelevant to the current crisis (they don’t kick in until next year), so, too, the savings generated by cutting into the de facto wages of thousands of state employees won’t solve the problem, for precisely the same reason. The goal is—must be—just as the union leaders are telling us: to break the unions, who have, after all, long since agreed to wage and benefits concessions. The current battle is all about collective bargaining rights: nothing more, nothing less.

Cue the Ronald Reagan quotation about Solidarity: “one of the most elemental human rights—the right to belong to a free trade union.” Or cue the Ronald Reagan quotation about PATCO, declaring that union’s strike “a peril to national safety,” and then proceeding to have under-trained air traffic controllers installed at many of the country’s largest airports. That he got away with it doesn’t change the cold-blooded disregard for… erm… national safety just so he could earn some machismo points. Good thing about ol’ Ron, he could be pretty much counted on to have no core values that required any intellectual consistency: he could wrap himself in the flag as well as any man who ever lived, but the 21st-century conservatives who kneel at his graven image would be sore disappointed if they really had any sense of history.

Perhaps not so coincidentally, unions tend to endorse (and write checks to) Democrats, whereas business groups and corporations tend to back Republicans. Note: I know this is an over-simplification, but it is only that, as opposed to an untruth. And while if I were a union member I wouldn’t be thrilled that some of my dues were going to candidates I wouldn’t necessarily support, I can’t say that I’m jumping for joy that my cell phone company is supporting Rand Paul, either.

Of course, in states where there are no teachers unions, teachers are still the enemy, both underpaid and essentially despised. How dare that mere teacher give my little cherub a richly deserved failing grade that might keep him out of the big game? I’d better call the principal to get that bitch fired. [I am, by the way, becoming increasingly convinced that principals are, as a group, the single most craven and stupid group of people this side of the demolition derby.]

And no, we can’t possibly expect Billy Bob the oil trust baby to pay a few extra bucks in taxes. It’s those damned teachers (and cops, and nurses, and similar blights on society) who are destroying the state’s budget balance. Well, that and the fact that the federal stimulus money I screamed about (but took, in abundance) ran out. It’s all Obama’s fault. Well, his and the teachers’ who voted for him. They only work, like, 30 hours a week for 30 weeks, right? [For the record, because some people are stupider than skunk shit irony-challenged, I am fully aware of the absurdity of the foregoing.] The one thing everyone agrees on is that there are too few good teachers at every level. Gee, I wonder why…

I have a friend, also an educator, who is convinced that the real goal of Scott Walker and his ideological brethren isn’t to destroy teachers unions, but to destroy public education altogether. I really wish I could argue with him.

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