Unions, Politics, and the Wisconsin Recall

In historic recall elections in Wisconsin this week, Republicans held on to their majority by a narrow margin, sending the message that unions everywhere are in danger.

Unions serve a vital purpose in our society, a purpose most people won’t appreciate until unions are gone. The blame for Wisconsin voters’ feelings of apathy and even antipathy toward unions falls on two camps:

1. The unions themselves

After more than a hundred years of sacrifice to make sure workers were treated fairly, unions became arrogant. In general, unions pushed the envelope, asking a little too much in their contracts. And that little bit of excess led to a lot of bad public relations.

Which leads to another union problem: lack of good PR. Unions created the eight-hour day and weekend, forced employers to pay a fair wage, equalized pay between the genders, and provided safer workplaces. Those deeds done, unions have kept a vigilant watch on workplace issues, becoming politically involved any time worker rights are threatened.

But can you think of one warm and fuzzy story about any of the unions in your town? Can you think of one way they help your community? Can you name a charismatic leader who proclaims a positive union message far and wide?

Probably not.

And now unions — and society — will pay the price.

2. The Republican Party

The role of politics is unmistakable. Gov. Scott Walker demanded that Wisconsin’s public unions contribute more toward pensions and health insurance to help balance the state budget. Let’s assume that he is correct, that Wisconsin will be in financial ruin without these concessions.

Why, then, did he include provisions that will essentially destroy public unions in Wisconsin? Why did he make it harder to pay union dues and take away the power of the unions so no one would see a reason to pay those dues? Why did he take away the unions’ right to negotiate issues like workplace safety? Will eliminating discussions about working conditions help to balance the state budget?

No. But it will chip away at the unions’ financial and political power, power that traditionally goes to Democrats.

Of the top 20 largest political donors nationwide, 12 are labor unions, 2 are big corporations, 5 are industry groups, and 1 is a Democratic PAC. These donors represent $654 million in campaign cash. And unions heavily support Democratic candidates:

Data source: OpenSecrets.org. Represents contributions from 1989 to 2010.

The union money is a hefty chunk of the total contributions:

Source: OpenSecrets.org

So in the end, Scott Walker’s union provisions are, indeed, about money. But not the kind of money that balances budgets. The kind of money that wins elections.

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The future of unions: A primer

Union membership is on a steady decline: only about 12 percent of the workforce is unionized, compared to 20 percent in 1983 and higher numbers in earlier years before statistics were tracked.

Numerous theories have been proposed for the decline:

  • Less need for unions due to government interventions like the ones listed in a previous post
  • Increasing number of immigrant workers with a cultural ambiguity toward unions and/or a willingness to work below union wages
  • Increasingly aggressive corporate anti-union tactics, including moving jobs overseas or, in the case of Walmart, closing departments or stores that vote to unionize
  • Increased apathy toward unions as a result of fewer households promoting union ideals to their children
  • Perception of unions as corrupt after scandals involving kickbacks, mob connections, misuse of dues, and pension mishandling in a few private unions
  • Anti-union legislation like “right to work” laws that give incentives for workers not to join unions
  • Less recruiting of new members by unions for financial or political reasons (unionizing large numbers of minorities, for example, could threaten the power of white union leaders)
  • Lack of public relations savvy and strong spokespeople to present a positive image of unions to the public
  • Perception of union workers as lazy and/or overpaid because of a few overly generous or overly protective clauses in some contracts.

Theorists often focus on one as the cause, but all of them contribute to the problem. In addition to addressing those issues, I recommend that unions take these steps:

1. Get rid of the “us versus them” mentality

Two unions in different sectors have shown it’s possible to put aside past grievances and work together:

In October 2009, teachers and administrators in New Haven, Connecticut, agreed to a new contract that included language making it easier for the administrators to fire bad teachers and reward good ones. The contract was spurred in part by a change from the top: Randi Weingarten, national president of the American Federation of Teachers, said, “This is the time to shed the old conflicts and come together. This is the time to forge a new path for our public schools and change public education for our changing world.”

She had her union members’ support. The previous year they had been polled on this question: “When your union deals with issues affecting teaching quality and teachers’ rights, which should be the higher priority—working for professional teaching standards and good teaching, or defining the job rights of teachers who face disciplinary action?” AFT members chose teaching standards as being more important by a margin of 4 to 1.

Similarly, in one of General Electric’s largest manufacturing plants, union workers and managers worked together to receive the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s Voluntary Protection Program Star status, granted to only about 550 of the country’s 6 million work sites. The Erie, Pa., facility – which makes locomotives and employs 5,600 people – is one of the largest union sites to receive the distinction. Workers and managers put aside previous tensions and worked together to develop ideas for a safer workplace.

The result? Injuries dropped by 80 percent, GE’s bill for workers’ comp dropped, and productivity quadrupled, with the plant setting records for product output. “The relationship we have with the union leadership is the cornerstone of our entire system,” said Gary Quinlan, manager of human resources and production operation.

2. Take individual responsibility.

Members of large unions with national membership need to look at their individual, local situations when working with employers. For example, workers at Kohler, a large plumbing company in Wisconsin, were making some of the highest wages in the country for that sector, to the point where the company was concerned about its viability. The company’s flagship plant employs 4,000 members of United Auto Workers Local 833.

The result of months of negotiation was a five-year contract that asked workers to freeze their wages and contribute more toward healthcare premiums. National UAW leaders disapproved of the plan. But UAW Local 833 voted to accept it anyway, 62 percent to 38 percent.

UAW Local 833 president Dave Bergene, who attended protests in Madison earlier this year against Scott Walker’s plan to strip public union workers of collective bargaining rights, said, “We did that deal with collective bargaining…We don’t mind negotiating healthcare premiums.”

Even members of small unions have a responsibility to speak out if the agenda being driven by union leaders doesn’t match their own. With the negative political attention being given to unions, members must examine their own contracts to make sure they are above reproach in every way.

3. Expand unions’ purpose and visibility

Most unions focus on contract negotiation and political participation to improve the lives of their members. But in “Making Unions Matter Again,” author Jane McAlevey says unions need to evolve out of the mindset that sharing links through electronic media constitutes meaningful dialogue. For example, many union workers are caught up in the housing crisis, but she says union leaders have taken the attitude “That’s someone else’s problem. We only do workers’ issues in the workplace.” She calls for more direct action:

Unions need to start connecting with workers face-to-face through house parties and worksite and home visits to ask what’s keeping them up at night. Then unions should plan direct actions with workers that respond to the issues facing them. … The housing crisis ties directly to the wage crisis, which ties directly to the jobs crisis. … Union organizers—paid staff and rank-and-file workers— should begin to take to the doors and begin to meet hundreds of thousands of workers and galvanize a movement to demand economic justice. If unions do this with unorganized workers and together they win campaigns, it’s more likely these same workers will consider unionization to be a good option in their work life. With a ratio of one organizer for 1,000 organizing conversations in neighborhoods nationwide, just 2,000 union organizers could engage 2 million people—and that’s plenty to create an untenable crisis that the elite will have to deal with.

4. Realize that it’s about perception.

Some people with anti-union sentiments are making an honest mistake, one I made myself. When I started working as a news reporter fresh out of college, the newsroom employees weren’t unionized, but the composing room and press workers were. Our deadline was noon. This was back in the days when the composing process was done by hand – paper strips were pasted onto a large sheet of paper based on a sketch given to composers by the newsroom staff.

I needed a last-minute change on a story. I went back to the composing room to notify the composer assigned to the page.

He wasn’t there.

He was taking his break right before deadline, the most crucial time of the day. His union contract specified that he was entitled to a 15-minute break and that no one could dictate when he took it. So he routinely took it when he was most needed so someone else would pull his weight.

I made a mistake, immediately forming a negative impression of all unions based on an isolated incident. That bad impression stuck with me for years. I didn’t stop to think about how all the other union workers performed their jobs in an efficient and dedicated manner. I didn’t think about how unions prevented many employees in workplaces across the country from being unfairly dismissed or underpaid or harassed. I didn’t consider the contributions unions made toward workplace safety and equality.

It’s an easy mistake to make. But seeing how easy it is to create a negative impression of unions, union members need to make other workers realize the value of unity. If union members don’t garner more support in the face of the current political firestorm, unions as we know them will cease to exist.

References

Baldwin, Robert E. “Labor Unions are in Decline.” Rpt. in Labor Unions: Opposing Viewpoints. Viqi Wagner, ed. Detroit: Greenhaven Press, 2008. 22-28. Print.

Fitch, Robert. “Labor Unions Are Corrupt and Exploit Workers.” Rpt. in Labor Unions: Opposing Viewpoints. Viqi Wagner, ed. Detroit: Greenhaven Press, 2008. 36-47. Print.

McAlevey, Jane. “Making Unions Matter Again.” Nation 291.25 (2010): 12-14. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Web. 26 Mar. 2011.

Sarkis, Karen. “Safety in the union shop.” Occupational Hazards 62.3 (2000): 45. MasterFILE Premier. EBSCO. Web. 26 Mar. 2011.

Schachter, Ron. “Toward a More Perfect Union.” District Administration 46.3 (2010): 28. MasterFILE Premier. EBSCO. Web. 26 Mar. 2011.

Wagner, Viqi. “Introduction.” Labor Unions: Opposing Viewpoints. Viqi Wagner, ed. Detroit: Greenhaven Press, 2008. Print.

—“Chapter Preface: How Have immigration and Globalization Affected Labor Unions?” Labor Unions: Opposing Viewpoints. Viqi Wagner, ed. Detroit: Greenhaven Press, 2008. 59-61. Print.

http://www.bls.gov/news.release/union2.nr0.htm

http://blogs.forbes.com/monteburke/2011/02/23/is-herbert-kohlers-union-deal-a-possible-blueprint-for-wisconsin/

http://blogs.forbes.com/rickungar/2011/02/21/public-employee-unions-failing-badly-at-public-relations/

Do we still need unions?

Wisconsin and Ohio have stripped public workers of their collective bargaining rights. Other states threaten to do the same. Many Americans have the same response: Who cares? We don’t need unions anymore.

Have unions outgrown their usefulness in the modern workplace? Definitely not. In fact, in today’s unbalanced economic climate, they’re more important than ever. Let’s examine some of the benefits traditionally associated with unions to see why they’re still vital.

1. Wages. Fair pay was one of the first union battlefields.

My paternal grandfather was a coal miner. He didn’t know when he walked into the mine each day whether he’d walk back out. One day he was “covered up” — crushed under a cave-in at his section of the mine.

For all his hours of intensive labor, my grandfather received 25 cents per ton of coal. He didn’t get paid for the time spent laying track for the coal carts, clearing debris, or putting up safety structures.

He and the other miners fought for a union. After a tense battle, the miners won and got a raise. The first thing the new union bosses did was to inspect the scales. They discovered the scales were weighted — the company was wringing every last penny from the already underpaid miners.

Greed is a strong force: every dollar that doesn’t end up in the worker’s pocket ends up in the owner’s, so there’s a clear motivation to pay workers as little as possible. Unions help to balance the playing field.

However, many people think unions aren’t needed because the government has stepped in. The Fair Labor Standards Act established a federal minimum wage – currently $7.25/hour — and dictates that workers receive even higher overtime pay.

But the law established only a minimum wage, not a fair wage for the work being done. Because of the ample supply of workers, companies don’t have to think of employees as human beings but as line items on a budget sheet. Union advocate Michael D. Yates explains:

If we are honest we must admit that our employers have real power over us. Some of them may be nice and some of them may be nasty, but none of them will spend money just because it will be good for one of us. They know that as individuals we are less powerful than they are. We have only our ability to work to sell, but they have the jobs. In our economic system, these jobs belong to them and not to us, and they can do with them whatever they want. It is a simple but powerful truth that working people and their employers do not face each other as equals. Their employers have the jobs they need, and workers are replaceable.

Union workers receive higher wages than their nonunion counterparts. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, median weekly wages for private sector union workers were $838 in 2008 versus $680 for nonunion workers. The numbers for the public sector were $900 versus $753.

A common argument is that unions force companies to pay excessive wages and benefits to workers, above what the company can afford. Although it’s true that some companies agree to generous wage packages only to find themselves in a sudden economic downturn, in those cases unions usually make concessions to keep their companies afloat.

And most companies can certainly afford to provide a fair wage. Walmart, one of America’s largest employers, has revenue of $101.95 billion and net income of $3.44 billion. A wage study between 1992 and 2000 showed the negative impact of Walmart’s nonunion wages: For each new Walmart store that opens, wages in the general merchandising sector drop 1 percent. Grocery store wages drop 1.5 percent. In states with an average of 50 Wal-Mart stores, the average retail wages are 10 percent lower than in other states.

A follow-up study at U.C. Berkeley refuted Walmart’s claim that if it raised wages, prices would increase, hurting low-income families. The study took a hypothetical scenario where Walmart had to pay a minimum of $10 per hour to its workers. Some workers would earn approximately $1,000 to $4,600 more each year, with nearly half of the higher wages going to families whose incomes are below 200 percent of the poverty level.

Researchers examined the effect on prices if the company passed on 100 percent of the added wage expense to consumers – an event that researchers claimed was unlikely in the “real world” because Walmart would absorb the increase by reducing other salaries or by accepting lower profits. Researchers noted two financial gains from the higher salaries: increased productivity from more satisfied workers and the opportunity to expand into urban areas, where Walmart stores are often blocked because of wage issues.

But in the worst-case scenario where Walmart didn’t accommodate for any of those issues and passed every cent onto consumers, an average shopper would pay only $9.70 per year more at Walmart. Since low-income people were the focus of Walmart’s claim, researchers studied that group in more detail and discovered that they would end up paying only about $1.47 more per shopping trip, about $90 a year.

Despite the furor about “overpaid” union workers, American laborers aren’t the highest paid. When comparing total compensation packages in manufacturing – a common area for unionization – we don’t even crack the Top 10:

Source: Handbook of U.S. Labor Statistics, Table 10-10, p. 422. Figures adjusted to U.S. dollars

It’s true that workers in countries like Taiwan, Mexico, and the Philippines (where wages are, respectively, $8.15, $3.91, and $1.37 per hour) would love to receive American wages, union or otherwise, but I like to think America can set a higher standard for its workers.

The lower ranking on the international scale doesn’t mean our workers don’t work hard: they rank well in productivity, measured in output per hour by the Bureau of Labor Statistics:

Source: Handbook of U.S. Labor Statistics, Table 10-9, p. 417. 2007 figures.

2. Working conditions. This issue is the other hallmark of early unionization. Laborers had to work six long days or be replaced. In 1881 in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, lumber workers went on strike with the rally cry, “Ten hours or no sawdust.” Along with protesting the required 12-hour day, the strikers wanted to be paid with money, not due bills for the company store (any balance was paid in cash, but not until the end of the season, and of course the company controlled prices at the store.)

Even though the strike was peaceful, the governor sent in state troops, and sheriffs arrested the union leaders. With workers in disarray, the strike ended. After a decade of strikes, the lumber workers finally achieved the 10-hour workday but still struggled with wage issues.

Reducing hazards in the workplace was another victory for early unions. Once again, however, the government has stepped in:

  • The younger miners who replaced my grandfather are protected by the Mine Safety and Health Act of 1977 and the Black Lung Benefits Act.
  • For all workers, we now have the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) that enacts guidelines for safe workplaces and inspects work sites for violations.
  • The Fair Labor Standards Act also specifies strict guidelines for employment conditions for those under 18 — they can’t work too many hours or in dangerous working conditions.

But in 2007, OSHA had only 6.5 compliance officers for each million American workers. Unions fill the gap, adding an extra measure of safety. Unions frequently distribute information about OSHA regulations to workers who otherwise might not know the rules their employers are supposed to follow. Here are two examples of how unions disseminate safety information and lobby for improved safety regulations:

http://www.cwa-union.org/pages/health_and_safety_links

http://www.aflcio.org/issues/safety/

Unions also have contract language regarding procedures employees can follow to report unsafe working conditions without being fired or harassed by management.

These measures pay off. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette investigated the issue of safety in union vs nonunion coal mines and discovered that of 265 mine fatalities between 2002 and 2010, only 30 occurred in union mines. That means nonunion mines represented 89 percent of the fatalities.

Despite government regulations, workers are still concerned about safety. A 2007 poll found that improved workplace safety was the main reason workers joined unions, and over 40 percent said that unions created substantially better working conditions.

3. Benefits. Once unions tackled the more crucial issues of wages and safety, they went after “fringe” benefits like health-care insurance, pensions, and paid vacations. Of course, now even nonunion jobs have such benefits, but unions work hard to promote their members’ financial security in these areas.

According to a CDC survey, 23 percent of uninsured adults surveyed were employed. Having workers with health benefits provides significant rewards for our economy and the individual:

  • Unpaid medical bills are the top cause for personal bankruptcies in the U.S.
  • A person without health insurance is 25 percent more likely to die than an insured person.
  • An uninsured person is more likely to use the emergency room for medical care, and those unpaid bills are passed on to the rest of us in the form of higher rates.

So unions still make a difference in the areas of wages, working conditions, and benefits. Of course, unions aren’t perfect. Some unions fight for unrealistic clauses and benefits, sometimes dragging down efficiency in the workplace.

But a few bad incidents shouldn’t make us forget the overall value of unions. Think of unions as the safety pads that NFL players are required to wear. From time to time, the safety equipment limits the mobility of the players. But the game is fairer and safer with the extra protection.

REFERENCES

Some sources about issues of coal miner pay and safety:

http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/10108/1051388-455.stm

Boal, William M. “The Effect of Unionism on Accidents in U.S. Coal Mining, 1897–1929.” Industrial Relations 48.1 (2009): 97-120. Business Source Premier. EBSCO. Web. 4 Apr. 2011.

Elegant, Simon. “Where The Coal Is Stained With Blood.” Time 169.11 (2007): 32-34. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Web. 26 Mar. 2011.

Sources for government regulations:

http://www.dol.gov/compliance/laws/comp-flsa.htm

http://www.dol.gov/compliance/guide/index.htm

Sources for the Walmart studies:

Clifford, Stephanie. “Growth Overseas Lifts Wal-Mart Profit.” New York Times 17 Nov. 2010: 2. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Web. 26 Mar. 2011.

Jacobs, Ken. “Living Wage Policies and Wal-Mart.” Social Policy 38.2 (2008): 6-10. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Web. 26 Mar. 2011.

O’Keefe, Brian, and Doris Burke. “Meet the CEO of the Biggest Company on Earth.” Fortune 162.5 (2010): 80. MasterFILE Premier. EBSCO. Web. 26 Mar. 2011.

Health-care issues:

http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/nhis/releases.htm

http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/nhis/earlyrelease/insur201103.htm

http://iom.edu/~/media/Files/Report%20Files/2009/Americas-Uninsured-Crisis-Consequences-for-Health-and-Health-Care/Americas%20Uninsured%20Crisis%202009%20Report%20Brief.pdf

http://www.nytimes.com/2008/12/09/business/09emergency.html?_r=1

http://www.pnhp.org/new_bankruptcy_study/Bankruptcy-2009.pdf

Galambos, Colleen. “The Uninsured: A Forgotten Population.” Health & Social Work 30.1 (2005): 3-6. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Web. 9 Apr. 2011.

Gladwell, Malcolm. “The Moral-Hazard Myth.” New Yorker 81.25 (2005): 44. MasterFILE Premier. EBSCO. Web. 9 Apr. 2011.

Sources regarding safety issues:

“Workplace safety top reason workers join unions.” Industrial Safety & Hygiene News 41.6 (2007): 14. Business Source Premier. EBSCO. Web. 4 Apr. 2011.

http://www.aflcio.org/issues/safety/memorial/upload/_29C.pdf

http://osha.gov/OSHA_FAQs.html

Here are two examples of how unions disseminate safety information, from the Communications Workers of America and the AFL-CIO:

http://www.cwa-union.org/pages/health_and_safety_links

http://www.aflcio.org/issues/safety/

Other union references:

Ozanne, Robert W. “Lumber Industry Strikes: Eau Claire, Marinette, Ashland, LaCrosse.” Workers and Unions in Wisconsin: A Labor History Anthology. Ed. Darryl Holter. Madison: State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1999. 22-25. Print.

Yates, Michael D. Why Unions Matter. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1998. Print.

Additional reading

Here’s a well-researched paper that goes into far more detail than my simple blog. “How unions help all workers”:

http://www.epi.org/publications/entry/briefingpapers_bp143/

And a post about unions as a safety net

http://www.michiganfuture.org/04/2011/the-saftey-net-and-unions/

How much is a teacher worth?

Greedy. Selfish. Overpaid. Riding a gravy train.

These comments have been directed at teachers since the uproar began over Governor Scott Walker’s budget repair bill that eliminates most collective bargaining rights for Wisconsin public workers.

National news commentators fan the flames by citing studies showing that teachers make more than the average American worker – without pointing out that “average American workers” include high-school dropouts working minimum-wage jobs.

Many pundits and citizens are spouting criticism about teacher salaries, but not one has stated his or her answer to the obvious question: Exactly how much do you think a teacher is worth?

My mother – a former teacher – recently remarked that a teacher could make more money managing a fast-food restaurant. I thought she was exaggerating.

She’s not. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics and U.S. Census Bureau, the jobs are comparable:

Average salary for an elementary/middle school teacher: $52,004
Average salary for a food service manager: $57,258.

You may cry out, “But teachers don’t have to work during the summer!”

True. But food service managers aren’t required to have college degrees or in some cases advanced degrees. They aren’t required to take classes to maintain certification, something teachers often do during the summer. And many teachers work more than the minimum required hours per week.

Justifications, you say? Then let’s adjust the numbers by hours worked. According to a BLS compensation chart, teachers make $37 per hour, the same rate as financial analysts and construction supervisors.

Doesn’t seem excessive to me.

Apples to oranges, you say? Different industries? OK, let’s find something on the chart comparable to teaching.

A worker in private-sector training and development – someone who teaches the skills needed for a particular industry – makes $7 per hour more than a public school teacher. And from personal experience, I can tell you that teaching a workshop full of adults is easier than teaching a class of 8-year-olds.

Still not close enough? Let’s use the rate for someone who cares directly for children. According to several online charts, adults who are experienced babysitters earn $12 to $18 per hour with an additional $1 to $2 per extra child. I’ll split the middle and use $16 per hour with $1.50 per each additional child.

The average student-teacher ratio is 15.8, so a babysitter working with those students for 6.7 hours per day and 179.6 days per year, the national averages, would be compensated $45,966.

Of course, this isn’t a strong analogy. Babysitters aren’t required to have college degrees or certification. And they are simply watching the children, not preparing lesson plans, leading educational activities, giving lectures, or grading papers. Yet the similarities in the two salaries and the outcry related to the higher teacher pay suggest a disturbing conclusion: People think teachers are glorified babysitters.

No, no, it’s not that, you insist. It’s all those benefits! Teachers get health insurance and pension plans!

Here’s where the discourse goes even further off course.

Every man-in-the-street interview I’ve seen with a Wisconsin taxpayer and every letter to the editor against teachers has used the same argument: If I don’t have it, why should they? Let’s examine the logic behind that argument.

OK, we’re done. There is no logic. It’s a purely emotional argument, filled with jealousy and displaced anger. Other workers shouldn’t resent that teachers have a pension. They should be angry that their own employers don’t provide one.

The number of private-sector workers participating in an employer-based retirement plan hasn’t changed much in 30 years: about half of all workers have had such a plan through the years. The difference is that more workers now contribute all or part of the funds themselves, as shown on this chart:

Of course, some small companies can’t bear the burden of employee pensions. But giant corporations with booming bottom lines have no excuses, especially since companies have had enough money to boost CEO compensation:

Worker pay has increased 7 percent from 1980 to 2004. CEO salaries have increased 614 percent. But the pundits who decry teacher pensions don’t mention that.

Not the same, you say? Is it different because taxpayers are paying for the teachers’ benefits?

If so, that means taxpayers are saying, “We taxpayers are the employers of the teachers and have the right to set benefits, and we choose to be stingy employers who pay workers as little as possible.”

If that’s your opinion, fine. But admit it! Don’t say, “Teachers don’t deserve it.” Say, “We want a cheap bargain.”

But not all teachers deserve benefits, you claim. Of course. We all have stories about an awful high school English teacher or an eighth-grade social studies teacher with boring lectures. Every job has substandard workers.

But bad teachers keep their jobs and pensions, you say. Yes, it’s true that more bad teachers keep their jobs than workers in other professions. Let’s look at the reasons:

1. Administrators. Almost every school district has a three-year period where teachers can be fired without a reason. If the principal doesn’t like the way a teacher dresses, the teacher can be fired. However, some administrators don’t bother to evaluate new teachers, and some don’t even have the skills to know a good teacher from a bad one. Also, like in any other profession, some administrators hire and retain teachers based on nepotism or favoritism. However, even quality administrators can end up with bad teachers. In some underfunded districts, administrators are saddled with so many other responsibilities that they don’t have time for classroom observations to weed out bad instructors.
2. Unions. Particularly in big cities like New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago, where the teacher unions are larger and more aggressive, strict contract language for firing teachers after three years makes the process time-consuming and expensive – tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees – so those school districts would rather save their time and money and keep the bad teachers.
3. Necessity. Because of poor pay, location, or other factors, some school districts have a hard time recruiting new teachers and have to keep bad ones until they can find replacements.

Sadly, the problem of bad teachers is getting worse because of the vicious cycle caused by teacher pay. When my mother went to college, women didn’t have an open door to careers as engineers, doctors, lawyers, or corporate executives. The brightest women became teachers.

Now, however, women are choosing more lucrative careers. A 2010 study by McKinsey & Co., a global consulting firm, reports that only 23 percent of American teachers come from the top third of available graduates academically. Half come from the bottom third. Finland, the world’s top-ranked system, draws 100 percent of its teachers from the upper tier.

The report quotes the former president of the American Federation of Teachers, one of the nation’s largest teacher unions: “You have in the schools right now, among the teachers who are going to be retiring, very smart people. We’re not getting in now the same kinds of people. It’s disastrous.” That was in 2003.

The report surveyed college students in other fields about why they didn’t choose teaching as a profession. Low salary and low prestige were main reasons.

I don’t blame them. Public school teachers have to constantly defend their salaries – and their very profession – to a largely unappreciative public. As fewer quality graduates are drawn to teaching, more criticism and less money will be directed to our schools. And our children will pay the price for these flaws in our social and educational systems.

My mother retired in 1999 after 25 years of teaching and another 10 years as a principal. She had earned a bachelor’s degree and two master’s degrees. Her final salary was $46,500.

But she has no regrets.

“I’d do it again because I really loved my job and the children,” she says. “But you have to want to do it for the job – the caring for children and wanting them to learn. You can’t want to do it for the money.”

“I think it’s a noble profession,” she says. “The rewards are more than money. The reward is seeing the results you get from your students.”

Teachers know that they will never be rich, and many of them delight in the intrinsic rewards of teaching.

But it would be nice if, along with those rewards, they also got respect.

References:
Please read this fascinating study about our teachers and our schools:
http://www.mckinsey.com/clientservice/Social_Sector/our_practices/Education/Knowledge_Highlights/Closing_the_talent_gap.aspx

Salary data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (Search for nctb1346.pdf because the site’s pdf files don’t open as links):
http://www.bls.gov/eci/

Link to pension data:
http://www.ebri.org/publications/benfaq/index.cfm?fa=retfaq14

Some well-researched sources studying CEO pay trends. The first one features interesting charts comparing our CEO pay to other countries:

http://www.bls.gov/osmr/abstract/ec/ec980060.htm

http://www.vanderbilt.edu/econ/sempapers/Frydman1.pdf

http://www.forbes.com/2009/04/21/executive-pay-ceo-leadership-compensation-best-boss-09-bosses_map.html

http://www.forbes.com/lists/2010/12/boss-10_CEO-Compensation_Rank.html

Bogle, John C. “Reflections on CEO Compensation.” Academy of Management Perspectives 22.2 (2008): 21-25. Business Source Premier. EBSCO. Web. 11 Mar. 2011.

Kaplan, Steven N. “Are U.S. CEOs Overpaid?.” Academy of Management Perspectives 22.2 (2008): 5-20. Business Source Premier. EBSCO. Web. 11 Mar. 2011.

My assertion that some teachers work more than the minimum hours required is based largely on observations of teachers I know personally, but here are a national survey and some teacher blogs to support the idea:
http://nces.ed.gov/surveys/sass/tables/sass0708_2009324_t1s_06.asp

http://drpezz.wordpress.com/2010/03/23/lets-do-some-math-and-make-a-promise/

http://bangthebuckets.com/?p=1

Stories on the issue of firing teachers:

http://www.newsweek.com/2010/03/05/why-we-must-fire-bad-teachers.html

http://articles.latimes.com/2009/may/03/local/me-teachers3

Student/teacher ratios and other education stats came from this site:
http://nces.ed.gov/programs/coe/2010/section4/indicator31.asp

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.

References
History of teacher salaries from the National Center for Educational Statistics, part of the U.S Department of Education:
http://nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d00/dt075.asp

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

Show me what democracy looks like

No matter what your opinion is about labor unions, public sector benefit plans, or Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, you have to agree on one thing: America is a great place to be unhappy.

I joined more than 70,000 protesters circling the capitol in Madison on Saturday, Feb. 26, to protest the bill that would cripple public sector unions in Wisconsin. A steady snow fell as the temperature hovered at 15 degrees. Drummers tapped out beats in rhythm with the protesters’ chants.

But the scene wasn’t threatening. A few couples pushed babies in strollers. Other people brought their dogs. Union groups lined the road and offered the shivering protesters free coffee, water, pizza, and sandwiches, all given with a smile and a cheery comment: “Thanks for coming here today.”

“No, thank you,” each protester responded.

It was the politest mob I’ve ever seen.

No riots. No fear of being shot. No fear of being arrested just for being there.

Tens of thousands of people concentrated within a few city blocks marched slowly, carrying signs that were clever or poignant or downright funny. Only a few signs held extreme words. There was a sense that this was a cause worth fighting for but that the fight should be peaceful.

In some other countries, elections and votes are marred with violent protests – in some, disenfranchised citizens aren’t allowed to protest. But here in the United States, we can march on the front steps of a government building without being shot. We can inundate our leaders with e-mails and phone calls without being targeted for retribution. We can shout at our lawmakers without being arrested.

Of course, some people in WIsconsin have been arrested when their protests stepped outside the bounds of the law or threatened public safety. But the arrests weren’t vindictive.

Because Scott Walker is a democratically elected leader and because the democratically elected state Senate is predominantly Republican, it’s likely the protesters’ efforts will be in vain. In fact, the state Assembly – also with a Republican majority – has already passed the bill.

But it’s not the end of our democratic options. In future elections, we are free to vote against legislators we disagree with. We can donate money to their opponents and put up signs on our front lawns declaring our affiliation with our favored candidates.

And we’re free to keep marching.

So I disagree with some TV commentators who have negatively characterized the Wisconsin protests as “temper tantrums” or “creating chaos.”

This is what democracy looks like.

Citizens pay for costly political games

Wisconsin politicians suffer from amnesia. Their malady is costing taxpayers millions of dollars as members of both parties forget the consequences of raiding public funds.

In 1987 Republican Governor Tommy Thompson raided $230 million from the Wisconsin Retirement System to balance the budget. The Wisconsin Education Association Council and other organizations filed a lawsuit, claiming the raid was illegal. Eight years and lots of legal wrangling later, the state lost the case and had to pay back the money plus legal fees.

Attorneys don’t come cheap. And the money didn’t come out of the politicians’ pockets.

Apparently the Democrats thought they could get away with a similar raid because in 2007 and 2008, Governor Jim Doyle took about $200 million from the state’s Injured Patients and Families Compensation Fund. This is a fund that doctors are required to contribute to in addition to paying their malpractice insurance premiums. It compensates malpractice victims when a doctor’s insurance coverage isn’t adequate.

The Wisconsin State Medical Society hired the same law firm that the other organizations hired in 1987 and took the dispute to the Wisconsin Supreme Court. In the summer of 2010, the court ruled that the state has to pay back the money plus interest and legal fees.

Now Republican Governor Scott Walker’s new budget bill proposes taking money from the Public Employee Trust Fund and using it to pay health insurance bills.

Yet when the resolution of the lawsuit against Doyle’s raid was announced, Walker – then a gubernatorial candidate – released the following statement:

“The raids enacted by Governor Doyle are inexcusable and have wreaked havoc on our state budget, and now the taxpayers are yet again on the hook for his misguided policies. As governor, I’ll find ways to do more with less to fill the $2.5 billion gap created by Governor Doyle, and support an amendment that will protect funds like these from future raids.”

How quickly they forget.

References
Scott Walker’s statement from his campaign site:
http://www.scottwalker.org/press-release/2010/07/scott-walker-statement-patient-compensation-fund-ruling

The reference to the transfer from the trust fund in Walker’s current bill is on p. 125:
http://legis.wisconsin.gov/2011/data/JR1AB-11.pdf

Summary of the medical society lawsuit:
http://www.wisconsinmedicalsociety.org/files/Lawsuit_summary_for_web_07_22_10.pdf

The actual Supreme Court decision:
http://www.wicourts.gov/ca/cert/DisplayDocument.pdf?content=pdf&seqNo=44477

The lawsuit filed by the WEAC and other groups regarding Thompson’s retirement system raid:

http://www.wicourts.gov/ca/opinion/DisplayDocument.html?content=html&seqNo=7803