Saturday, September 06, 2014

Teachers' Strike, and the Power of Unions

In my district, there hasn't been so much as a cost-of-living raise in about 8 years. Districts surrounding ours have all received significant raises in the past year, and some of those have even included small retroactive raises. Our district has received significant amounts of new funding, as have the others around us. Administrators tell us that our new superintendent told them that there will be significant raises for everyone, but just this week we got word that "impasse" will be declared soon in contract negotiation talks.

I'll leave off the table for a moment how weak, disorganized, and ineffective our local union currently is. When I joined this district 13 years ago, it was the district to work in. Now it's, well, not.

A friend told me that school hasn't opened yet in British Columbia, Canada, due to a teacher strike.  I think this article does a reasonable job of presenting obstacles on both sides:
Pressure is often necessary to break logjams in protracted labour disputes. And pressure is what will be needed for the B.C. government to end a teachers’ strike that has shut down the province’s public education system.

The B.C. Teachers’ Federation is betting the government will take enough heat from outraged parents struggling to make child-care arrangements that it will either cave in on some of its key demands or impose a legislated settlement. The government, meantime, is calculating that the union will receive enough grief from members having to borrow money to pay bills that it will capitulate on principal points.

It’s difficult imagining the government sticking to its pledge not to legislate teachers back to work if a negotiated settlement can’t be found. It has a statutory obligation to provide public education. There will come a point where the school year is irrevocably compromised if a strike is allowed to continue. It’s uncertain precisely where that point is, but it seems inconceivable the government could allow this dispute to drag on too far into October.

Conversely, it’s unthinkable the union would continue a strike that ultimately it can’t win...

At the moment, however, there isn’t the will to confront the biggest points of contention in this battle. Parents haven’t started getting really cranky about the inconveniences this dispute is inflicting on their lives, and teachers haven’t yet felt enough pain in their wallets. Both the government and the union are pretty comfortable in their positions at the moment.

This will change eventually and children will be back at school. And the relationship between the government and its teachers will remain as hopeless and dysfunctional as ever.
It doesn't have to be this way.   Oh sure, the u-bots will assume that only an adversarial relationship will resolve pay issues, but I point out that there are states all over the US wherein unions do not wield such power and amicable relationships exist.  My point here is that unions aren't always necessary to "protect your rights and paycheck" and lack of a union doesn't necessarily equate to penury.

An adversarial relationship, though, on the part of either side, pretty much by definition guarantees bad feelings, a bad environment, and bad faith.

Update:  Here's an "alternate" view from the World Socialist Web Site.  It would actually be cute if nobody took such people seriously.


maxutils said...

That really wasn't an article ... it was an op-ed piece. Teachers who join together as a union should be paid what they are worth, collectively, and that negotiation should be adversarial ... not antagonistic. The district wants to pay too little, the union wants too much, and they compromise ... at a value, ideally, that expresses both the worth of the job and what the government can afford to pay. Couching an unwillingness to negotiate because other groups of workers, whose value may not be the same will try to tag along with me-tops is a ridiculous argument IF you have a responsible government -- but you must have a responsible government, because you voted for them, right?
In your case, you said "I'll leave off the table for a moment how weak, disorganized, and ineffective our local union currently is. When I joined this district 13 years ago, it was the district to work in. Now it's, well, not." And I agree ... but you know WHY it's weak? As a many year union rep, I can assure you -- the primary reason is that a substantial group of members are not serious about union solidarity -- and that includes a very large group of people who take their job as being their family's secondary income, and don't care that much, and a very much smaller group of people who choose not to join the union. You have illustrated my point. The Canadians can't force the teachers to work ... they can fire them, like Reagan did to the air traffic controllers, but they can't make them teach. And, where would that leave them? With no teachers, just like now. And then, with presumably unqualified replacement teachers. Remember how great the NFL was when they tried to hire replacement players, and then replacement referees years later? Remember how long and how many Steroids it took to bring MLB back to popularity after it had to cancel the World Series?
In negotiations, both sides must operate in good faith, because they both have a vested interest in a satisfactory outcome. But if one side shows weakness, it won't work ... and I can assure you, that's what's happening in your district.

Anonymous said...

Why to teachers need a union? Is work dangerous? Without a union, would safety standards slip and teachers be maimed? Can't a school offer a teacher $xx,xxx for a salary and the teacher can either take it or try for more money down the road? Don't tell me teachers are underpaid. Legal secretaries live their lives without unions and survive quite least the good ones. The crappy ones leave the profession after getting fired. That's how real life works.

maxutils said...

anonymous ... you're presuming that the primary function of a union is to provide safe working conditions for dangerous jobs ... in fact, while that's certainly A purpose, it isn't the economic justification. If all schools were independent, and you could do exactly what you described? You would be correct. However ... in most areas, you have public schools which effectively act as a monopoly ... and therefore, can offer a below market wage. If I don't like the wage at one high school, I can't go to another in the same district and expect to make more. As a result, they can pay less than market value. Now, it's true that I could go to a private school ... but private schools are allowed to hire less qualified (non credentialed, non specialized teachers), so they have more applicants and can therefore pay less than the public schools, which have a smaller pool to choose from. By unionizing ... the worker says, you take us all or none ... just like the district is saying, you take our salary, or none. Bargaining then happens. It is imperfect ... but better than the alternative.

allen (in Michigan) said...

I thought I might be dealing with a pro, as well as, obviously, a dedicated partisan. As conversant as you are with union rationalizations and talking points it seemed unlikely that you were "just" an adherent of unions. That level of facility requires, in my humble opinion, a reason to maintain facility that goes beyond the demand created by belief.

This article, and situation, describes one of the central shortcomings of the modern concept of the labor union - the temptation to be obdurate to the point of self-destruction and the occasional situation in which the temptation becomes too great to resist.

The B.C. teacher's union seems to be willing to skate rather closer to the edge of self-destruction then are the other unions and we both know the most likely way that works.

At the top of the list would be the election of a new slate of union officials who made all sorts of promises in order to oust the old regime. Now they've got to make good because the old regime didn't just evaporate; they're sitting there pointing out every shortcoming of the "take no prisoners" new regime. So the new union negotiating team makes demands that aren't just adversarial but antagonistic. They're demands are going to show both the membership and the public who's in charge.

Right next to that would be a hard-fought election in which a slate of firebrands was barely turned back putting the current leadership under a magnifying glass because the next election's not that far off...

So the bias to self-destructive confrontation's built into unions and is held in check only so long as a union leadership can keep those very attractive promise-makers at bay.

By the way, Reagan didn't just fire the air traffic controllers, he replaced them. First with temps dragooned from where ever he could find them and later with a new bunch of employees who had the lesson of their predecessor as a salutary lesson in picking a fight with the wrong guy. I don't know if the B.C. school district has Reagan's option but if the do the glut of teachers should make replacing the current batch a pretty straight forward proposition.

I'll have to take your second post apart a little later. Ta.

maxutils said...

Allen, I am partisan ... just not the one you're assuming. My views about unions are not based on rationalizations, but rather hard, cold economic facts, provable with math ... Yes, it's true ... unions can overreach. But it takes two to make a deal, and frequently unions are on the less good end. Sometimes, not. As to the air traffic controllers? That's kind of a specific case, as their contract expressly forbade them from striking, but they did anyway. Do you really want to argue, though, that we were better served by having completely inexperienced newcomers replacing them? I recognize that it worked out okay, but ... if it had gone wrong ONCE Reagan would have been crucified.