Swinging in the wind

The 2012 presidential campaign is in its infancy, but both parties already have a poor showing among swing voters like me.

We don’t follow a party or pundits. Syndicated columnist David Brooks wrote, “Independents are herds of cats who find out what they think through a meandering process of discovery.”

But the independent or unaffiliated vote is vital to candidates: According to a 2010 Gallup poll, 38 percent of voters self-identified as Independent, besting the Democrats (31 percent and slumping) and Republicans (29 percent).

The Republicans have an uphill battle for capturing the swing vote because of several issues:

1. The rhetoric

The first Republicans to test the field spent more time talking trash about Obama than explaining their own solutions to the nation’s problems. Donald Trump got the campaign off to a bad start for the GOP by being outspoken in questioning the president’s birthright – despite official statements from Hawaiian officials that Obama was indeed born there, despite the presence of birth announcements in local papers the week Obama was born (which Trump said were surreptitiously placed by the grandparents to enable the baby to have benefits, as if the U.S. government counted a birth announcement as a legal document), and despite the fact that numerous news organizations and political adversaries who would benefit greatly from uncovering evidence of fraud have failed to do so.

Some news stories about birther impact on the GOP:

http://abcnews.go.com/US/wireStory?id=13438146

http://news.yahoo.com/s/yblog_theticket/bloomberg-warns-republicans-to-knock-off-birther-talk

Just behind Trump in the polls was Mike Huckabee, who has said he believes Obama is a natural-born citizen yet frequently emphasized Obama’s foreign ties, clearly indicating Obama is not “one of us.”

Now the frontrunner – and actual declared candidate – is Mitt Romney, who immediately called Obama “ineffective” and a failure as a president. Not as bad as the birther debate or the pundits who drop fear bombs like “Socialist,” but not what I want to hear. I want to hear how Romney will craft policies about taxes and roads and jobs and health care. But there’s still plenty of time.

2. Unions.

Republican governors in Wisconsin, Ohio, and New Jersey have set off a firestorm by restricting the rights of public union workers. Here in Wisconsin, I’ve heard numerous Independents say they will think twice – or three times – before ever voting for another Republican governor. In fact, I’ve heard Republicans say they will be scrutinizing candidates from their own party more closely before supporting them.

Even Mama Grizzly Sarah Palin came to Madison and supported Walker, a dangerous position for someone who claims to speak for common folk. Many of her followers are laborers who are either in a union or acknowledge the idea that unions can give a voice to people who don’t have the money to participate in our political system, a system where money is clearly power.

But the Democrats also have a union problem. As a candidate Obama vowed, “If American workers are being denied their right to organize when I’m in the White House, I will put on a comfortable pair of shoes and I will walk on that picket line with you as President of the United States.” Obama apparently lost his sneakers and offered little support to union workers who desperately needed it. The state Dems in Wisconsin were the only ones to stand up for organized labor.

Recent news stories show the strain between Democrats and unions:

http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-503544_162-20036133-503544.html

http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2011-06-01/union-enthusiasm-for-obama-re-election-fades-afl-cio-s-chief-trumka-says.html

But most of all, Obama has a credibility problem: he made promises he didn’t keep and set deadlines he couldn’t meet. Even his health-care bill, which makes incremental improvements to our system, hasn’t addressed the health-care crisis as promised. And Guantanamo Bay is still open — a subject of debate, true, but still a promise unkept, which could leave unaffiliated voters wary to trust his promises.

So until the candidates settle into positive rhetoric and real solutions, independent voters will be swinging in the wind.

References

The David Brooks column about Independents:

http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/opinion/2010219383_brooks08.html

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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.

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.

References
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.)
http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/16/nyregion/16rubber.html?_r=1

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.

References:
Link to the Gallup stats:
http://www.gallup.com/poll/122744/Labor-Unions-Sharp-Slide-Public-Support.aspx

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:
http://www.epi.org/publications/entry/6759/
http://epi.3cdn.net/9e237c56096a8e4904_rkm6b9hn1.pdf

Other information:
To see how both sides are stretching the truth, check out the Truth-O-Meters from PolitiFact.
http://www.politifact.com/wisconsin/

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:
http://www.bls.gov/news.release/pdf/union2.pdf