Public sector, private choices

My mother started teaching in the Ohio public school system in the early 1970s. At the time, the national median salary for elementary school teachers was $6,439 for women and $8,013 for men.

Her school district didn’t have money to boost teacher salaries or buy supplies. Administrators handed out chalk three pieces at a time. But it seemed to the teachers that there was always enough money for sports facilities, administrative salaries, and other expenditures. The teachers had a union but were told they weren’t allowed to strike. Salaries stagnated.

Then the school board announced it was cutting 11 teachers, increasing class sizes for the remaining teachers, and extending the school day.

“Somebody had to do something,” my mom said.

So in February of 1976, the teachers decided to strike.

“It was a scary thing because we knew that some administrations would send in people to make sure there’s a lot of harassment to intimidate the strikers,” she said. “We had no idea what they would do to us or if the public would be hostile.”

It turned out that the public was generally supportive, with local parents bringing coffee and doughnuts to the picket lines or honking their horns as they passed in their cars. Some parents brought their children to visit their favorite teachers. No one targeted the teachers with violence.

But after a week the school board obtained a court order to force the teachers to return to work. The teachers didn’t. The next day, patrol cars from the sheriff’s office rolled up to the picket lines.

“This is illegal,” the teachers were told. “You’ll be arrested if you stay here.”

This standoff was not what my mom signed up for.

My mom had always wanted to be a teacher. As a child, she’d gather up neighborhood kids, sit them on a porch stoop, and pretend to be their teacher.

No one in her family had gone to college, so as a teenager she didn’t know what to expect when she told her father she wanted to be a teacher. My grandfather, a steel worker, borrowed money so she could get her degree. She eventually started her chosen career in public service.

But now she wasn’t teaching. She wasn’t even in a classroom. She and her colleagues were facing down the sheriff’s deputies.

She and the other teachers stood their ground. The sheriff looked around. He could do the math (probably thanks to a teacher): A few squad cars. Roughly 70 teachers.

But then the civic-minded teachers volunteered to drive themselves to jail. They formed a caravan to the sheriff’s department, where they waited several hours before being released.

After court hearings regarding issues on both sides, the school district and the teachers reached an agreement. The school year continued. But the divisive issue had taken its toll.

“The hard feelings between members of the staff lasted for years and years,” my mom said.

“When a coworker crossed the picket line, friendships were lost that never healed. There were a few scuffles when male coworkers tried to convince a friend not to cross the picket line.”

“The administration was really angry, and we didn’t know how they might try to reprimand us when it was over,” she said. “Friendships were lost between friends of the administration and friends of the teaching staff.”

Contrary to popular belief, teachers don’t enter into strikes lightly. Work stoppages can be emotionally, physically, and financially grueling. But managers of public workers have no reason to entertain the workers’ requests if there are no consequences for ignoring them. The public sector has, in a sense, a monopoly over teachers who want to devote their lives to helping children because most of those children are in the public schools. Unions are a way of balancing the power.

Are there school districts that would pay a good wage without a union? Of course. Are there districts that would take advantage of teachers without collective bargaining? Of course.

Currently, many teachers in Wisconsin are protesting Governor Scott Walker’s budget bill that would end collective bargaining for state workers. The proposed budget would also slash the education budget and prohibit school districts from raising taxes to meet the shortfall.

Each protester in Madison is someone’s mother or father, son or daughter, and each protester has a story. Other people have the right to disagree with the protesters on the issues. But to make sweeping declarations about “all teachers” or “all unions” or to criticize all the protesters for the actions of a few is to ignore the individual choices involved.

My mom is now retired after 35 years in education and has a suggestion for people who criticize the protesting teachers:

“If they cared about the students, they would participate in a group – a union or something – to keep teachers in the profession,” she said. “If they want good teachers, they have to have teachers who can live on $50,000 when they know they can be a doctor or a lawyer.”

To work for the public good, to join a union or not to join, to strike or not to strike, to protest against lawmakers or remain silent – these are all personal choices. Everyone has his or her reasons for making them.

Tough choices. Real people. Let’s treat them that way.

History of teacher salaries from the National Center for Educational Statistics, part of the U.S Department of Education:

“Teachers’ Hearing Drags Into Night.” Steubenville Herald Star 22 Feb. 1976: 1. Access Newspaper Archive. Web. 6 Mar. 2011.

I want my party back

Today a guest blogger, Marc Seals, offers another perspective on politics and the turmoil in Wisconsin:

After nearly two decades of being a Republican, I must face the reality that my party has abandoned me.

In the early 1990s, I became a registered Republican. I was a public school English teacher in Georgia who felt betrayed by the leftward shift of the Democratic Party; it seemed that there was no longer room for moderate or conservative Democrats. I took the call for the Republican Party to be a “big tent” at face value and jumped ship.

I was strongly opposed to the idea of teachers being unionized. Unions were for blue-collar workers, I thought. Unions create an antagonistic relationship between employees and management, I thought. In fact, I was the campus representative for two non-union teachers associations– the Professional Association of Georgia Educators and the Professional Educators’ Network (in Florida). These organization existed to provide an alternative to the teachers’ unions; even so, I never heard anyone within those organizations say that the unions did not have a fundamental right to exist.

Even when I returned to graduate school, I stuck by my conservative principles. This was rather lonely at times, I will confess, but I believe that education should not be a partisan issue. I have never voted straight party line, because I agree with the Clinton-era Republican mantra that “character counts.” Nevertheless, I have voted for far more Republicans than Democrats over the last two decades.

I finally earned my PhD in 2004 (after ten years of college), and I moved to Wisconsin to take a position on the faculty at the University of Wisconsin-Baraboo/Sauk County. The pay here was quite a bit lower than in other Midwestern states, but the benefits package helped make up for that. We were paid less because the benefits were more generous. I fell in love with Wisconsin and the Baraboo community. I have become a die-hard Packers fan. I root for the Badgers (unless they are playing my alma mater). I have endured the coldest weather in decades (2006) and the snowiest winter on record (2007) with my smile intact. In short, I have made this my home.

Every year that I have lived here, we have not received even a cost of living increase; we accepted this because we were told that it was the only way that we could keep our benefits package. When the economy sunk into recession, we had a legislatively approved raise taken away and replaced by furloughs that amounted to a 3% cut in pay. We have endured this pay cut for each of the last two years. When people ask what I make as a professor, I ask them what they think I make– they usually guess a sum that is at least twice my salary. In addition, we accepted larger class sizes (and thus a larger grading burden) to help the state balance the budget.

Now the governor says that it is time that state employees pay their share. After years of flat salaries and even pay cuts, to hear that we have not sacrificed is insulting and disingenuous. I teach 100 students a semester in classes in American literature, film, and composition. I am the faculty sponsor of the Navigators Christian Fellowship, the faculty sponsor of the UW-BSC Disc Golf Club, and the Director of the Honors Program. I work about sixty hours a week (because that is how long it takes to do my job well). In short, I work hard and (I think) do a good job (as may be evidenced by the fact that three times in four years, the students have selected me as “faculty member of the year”).

The so-called Budget Repair Bill will represent a reduction in my take-home pay of somewhere between 8 and 13 percent, depending upon whose figures you believe. A cut like this will be devastating to my family. I fear that we will need to sell our home. We may even need to seek employment elsewhere. This prospect would break my heart, because I really do love it here. Governor Walker has said that we are the “haves.” A comment to a recent Baraboo News Republic letter to the editor suggested that all the professors drove Jaguars and Mercedes. No one on our campus drives anything like that. (I, for the record, drive a 2003 Honda with a check-engine light that has been on for six years, a broken door lock, and a malfunctioning interior light.)

Even so, I find it most distressing that the bill takes away the right of workers to have collective bargaining. Wisconsin was the pioneer of workers’ rights 75 years ago; it is disheartening to watch this reversed. The United Nations’ “Universal Declaration of Human Rights” (to which the United States is a signatory) asserts “that recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world”; this declaration lists as one of its articles “Everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his [or her] interests.” The faculty at UW-BSC are not unionized. In fact, very few of the 26 institutions within the University of Wisconsin system have voted to unionize. This may very well be because we wanted to avoid an antagonistic stance toward administration and the legislature. That antagonism is, sadly, now a foregone conclusion.

I will not revisit in any detail the arguments that show the absurdity of Governor Walker’s arguments. It has been well-documented that Governor Walker is misrepresenting the fiscal crisis for political gain; regardless, he has clearly overplayed his hand. A poll released this week shows that the majority of Wisconsinites agree. Governor Walker does not seem concerned, insisting that he is backed by a “quiet majority.” If he valued education enough to listen, I could teach him about the Greek concept of hubris—excessive pride or self-confidence to the point of dismissive arrogance. Hubris was the downfall of many Greek heroes, and it will likely prove to be Governor Walker’s downfall as well.

The recording of the prank phone call released Wednesday demonstrates that the governor is willing to engage in dirty political tricks, duping Democratic senators into returning to Madison. Even more damaging was the confession that he considered planting troublemakers in amongst the peaceful demonstrators. Finally, he agreed to accept an illegal trip to California. If this administration is what the Republican Party has become, then I must wonder where that leaves me. I know where it leaves Walker– poised to hand the state back to the Democrats in the next election cycle and become a footnote in state history.

Personally, I pray that Governor Walker listens to the voters and sits down with the opposition to negotiate. Regardless, I want him to know one thing—I want my party back.

Why people don’t like unions, Part II

When I first moved to Wisconsin and started teaching in the state technical college system, I didn’t join the union.

Previously, I had seen workers in private unions abuse their contract language: taking breaks at inappropriate times, getting paid for doing nothing because their contracts contained job descriptions so narrow that they couldn’t be asked to work until their specific services were needed.

I had also heard rumors: Incompetent union teachers can’t be fired! Workers are forced to join unions through strong-arm tactics!

So I was reluctant to be associated with a union. I waited for my coworkers to bully me into it.

No one mentioned it.

I eventually learned that my anti-union sentiments were the result of misinformation, misconception, and sadly, some truth.

After taking an active stance to discover the truth behind my union, I discovered that the core of union representation is contract negotiation. Any contract governing union workers is agreed to by both sides: the workers and the administrators. The contract outlines terms for both sides to live by.

In addition, I realized that for every union horror story, there are hundreds of positive union stories that no one ever hears about. Who wants to gossip about a workplace where union workers and managers coexist in peace and productivity?

I also realized that all my workplaces, union or otherwise – from retail to journalism to academia – have had slackers.

But do unions make it harder to fire the slackers?

In most nonunion jobs, a boss can say “You’re fired,” and the employee is gone. The worker can file a lawsuit if he or she thinks the dismissal violated laws regarding discrimination or whistle-blowing and can possibly be reinstated.

Most union contracts specify a longer firing process, so yes, it is harder but clearly not impossible.

Most teachers go through a probation period of several years during which they can be fired at will. It’s up to the administrators to evaluate instructors during this period and weed out the bad ones. In some schools the term tenure is used to show that the instructor has moved into a more protected position.

Once “protected,” teachers can still be fired, but now the employer has to give a reason and follow a process. This process varies wildly from union to union. Here’s the one for my union:
1. The employer must give the instructor written notice of dismissal, including a cause for the firing.
2. The instructor can appear before the school board within thirty-five days and ask the board to reconsider.
3. If the board says, “We still want to fire you,” the instructor has ten days to ask for outside arbitration, which is resolved in five days. The arbiter’s decision is final.

So it’s not an endless or impossible task. True, the administration has to have a good excuse for the firing, a reasonable system that prevents firings based on personality conflicts, political differences, and other circumstances that previously were abused by unethical employers.

Of course, some unions have far more rigorous dismissal requirements. Those are the ones that make the news, like the “rubber rooms” where New York teachers sit and get paid for months and years as they await a hearing.

The most important lesson I learned about unions was that each one – public or private – is different, and each contract is different. And the more I explore the issue, the more I see that most contract language in most union contracts is good and fair. So to judge all unions because of a few bad ones is like blaming all Muslims for 9/11 or all gun sellers for the events at Columbine.

But the ugly union labels stick: Union workers are lazy. Greedy. Overpaid. I’ve heard them all and unfortunately seen examples of each.

However, I’ve also seen how unions give a voice to workers that otherwise would be silenced, give fair wages to workers who otherwise would be underpaid, provide a safer workplace and saner schedule to workers who otherwise would be disregarded.

And so I finally joined my union. It’s not perfect – show me an organization or workplace that is! But my contract guarantees I will be treated fairly – even if I get fired.

Here’s a story about the plan to eliminate New York’s “rubber rooms,” the focus of a documentary, numerous news stories, and countless anti-union commentaries. (It sounds like additional negotiations are needed.)

Why people don’t like unions, Part I

A 2009 Gallup poll showed that only 48 percent of Americans approve of labor unions, the lowest percentage in the 65 years that Gallup has polled on the topic. The number slid 10 percent from the previous year.

As I read national news stories online about the protests in Madison over Scott Walker’s union-busting budget bill, I scrolled down to the comments from readers and found remarks like these (with their original spelling and punctuation):

“Hey teachers and Public employees, Here that noise? that’s the GRAVY TRAIN leaving the station.”

“we need more Scott Walkers”

“Does this mean that the UNION bosses will have to move out of their million dollar homes, sell their $350,000.00 yachts, their vacation homes, and $200,000.00 sports cars. @#$% they might have to get a real job.”

These remarks show the main reason people oppose unions: the misconception that union members are making more than they’re worth. Also, people fail to make any distinction among different unions, lumping them all together.

I don’t know much about private unions, but I suspect any “union bosses” being threatened with selling their yachts don’t lead a teachers’ union. I have yet to be invited to party on a teacher’s yacht.

So let’s focus on public unions, the targets of Scott Walker’s bill:

A study by Jeffrey H. Keefe for the Economic Policy Institute found that Wisconsin public workers make 4.8 percent less than workers in the private sector with comparable working hours.

However, the study found that the public workers have more education than the higher-earning private workers, with 59 percent of public workers holding a four-year college degree compared to 30 percent of private employees.

True, public workers earn more of their compensation in “nonwage” areas like insurance and retirement benefits than private workers.

But when all the benefits are converted to a monetary value, the fact remains: public workers are making 4.8 percent less than they would if they would dig out their resumes and move into the private sector.

That’s the overall average. The more education a public worker gets, the more the income gap widens, according to the report: “State and local workers with a bachelor’s degree make 28 percent less in salary and 25 percent less in total compensation, while those with a professional degree make 38 percent less in salary and 36 percent less in total compensation.”

So the private sector workers making nasty comments online are likely making more money than the public workers they are criticizing for protesting a loss of income and loss of bargaining rights.

Go ahead – ask any of the public workers protesting in Madison where they keep their yachts. They need a good laugh.

Link to the Gallup stats:

Jeffrey H. Keefe holds a doctorate from Cornell University and is an associate professor at Rutgers University. Links to his report summary and complete report:

Other information:
To see how both sides are stretching the truth, check out the Truth-O-Meters from PolitiFact.

To learn more about who is represented by unions and the affect on salary, check out this news release from the Bureau of Labor Statistics:

In school we call it bullying

Let me say this up front: I hate politics. Always have. It’s a boring subject that never affected me anyway.

So why am I writing a political blog?

Because our political system is breaking down into something embarrassing, a divisive, two-party system fueled by partisan politics and warring words. The idea of serving the country has been lost. Now it’s all about winning — and only one of two parties can win. Other voices are lost. Like the voice of reason.

I also want to get my political views out of the way: I’m not a Democrat. I’m not a Republican. I use the label Independent because people find it somewhat acceptable, and it’s quicker than saying, “I’m a fiscally conservative, socially liberal person who is on rare occasion fiscally liberal and socially conservative.”

The current situation in Wisconsin is the last straw. I can’t stand by and watch people take sides based on political parties and not on facts.

Here’s the deal: Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker is pushing a budget bill that would require state workers to contribute more to their health-care and pension plans to help balance the state budget. Great! It sounds fiscally responsible and not unreasonable considering that state workers currently pay far less in those areas than workers in the private sector. I’m an instructor in the state’s technical college system and a member of a union, but I’m willing to pay a little more.

However, that’s the extent of union-related provisions that would help balance the budget. The other provisions amount to an attack on organized labor.

The bill would eliminate the rights of the public unions — except public safety unions like firefighters and police — to bargain collectively over issues like hours and working conditions. Only base wages could be negotiated.

This provision makes no sense. Why is Walker afraid of negotiations? Is he afraid of paying a fair wage and providing agreeable working conditions?

Also, the bill would require unions to undergo a tedious voting and reporting process for a new “annual certification.” How will that measure save the state money? It will simply cost the unions money and make them harder to maintain. In addition, the bill prohibits union workers from having union dues deducted directly from their paychecks. Again, is that measure going to save the day for the state budget? Or simply make it more difficult for unions to maintain cohesive membership?

This bill isn’t based solely on fiscal responsibility. It smacks of politics.

Maybe you’re still not convinced. Maybe you’re thinking that desperate times call for desperate measures. After all, we’re in a recession. Many states are falling into a financial crisis.

Serious issues, yes. The type that require serious debate. Why, then, did Walker propose the bill on a Friday and want it to be passed within a week?

Maybe extreme measures are the only solution for balancing the budget. But why not spend time debating Walker’s proposal? Looking at other options? Working with the unions? A new state budget doesn’t have to be in place until June.

Walker proposed the bill – which he knew would be unpopular among public and private union workers – and pushed it through the legislature with minimal debate and compromise. He didn’t try to work with the unions, most of whom had already said they were open to negotiating the health-care and pension issues. He set up a situation where he used sheer political force to get what he wanted.

A sign at the protest rally said it best: “In school we call it bullying.”


Text of the actual bill

Additional information:

Some people claim that the state isn’t really in crisis. A good article debating that subject:

Others claim that Walker is paying back the police and fire unions that backed him in his election bid. An article containing opposing sides of that issue: