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/

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.