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Thursday, February 24, 2011

You Say You Want a Revolution

Once in a great while, I get to pat myself on the back for being correct in an analysis, and oh-boy was I right on, brothers and sisters, about how public education would become a whipping-person for the republikan party. I also outed the republiko-yapping-mouths (fill in any- Buchannan, Scarborough, Limbaugh, Beck, Walker, etc. Pick one; none escape being ignorant) for their being Katzenjammer Kids when they stir up absurdisms about funding public education. In the news is the current flap about Wisconsin’s governor’s attempting to abolish collective bargaining to balance his state’s budget. As usual, the republikan is totally ignorant of and abysmally hypocritical about teachers’ unions and about public education in general.

First, let me repeat that the republikan use of the word “union” when referring to teachers’ associations is disingenuous at best and scurrilous at worst. In the majority of states, teachers have no right to walk off the job; they do not have any constitutional right to walk away from their contracts and if they do, they do not get paid and usually leaders of such radical movements end up in jail. To suggest that the NEA or the AFT operate like the UAW is ridiculous. It is also completely hypocritical for the repulikan-ilk to praise the revolutions in the Middle East while condemning teachers who assemble to protest a governor’s attempt to make collective bargaining a scapegoat for financial ills. To be brief- teachers do not, DO NOT, have REAL bargaining power. In case you don’t know, let me give you a quick primer on “collective bargaining” as I experienced it over thirty years educating our children and in representing local associations in over a dozen bargaining sessions.

Each state is unique in the manner in which it operates the business of “bargaining” between the state and the state’s teachers. For example, in Maryland, the bargaining is conducted at the county level and at the state level because funding for teachers’ pay and resources comes from accounts governed by both. In most cases, the National Education Association (NEA) is the national, state and local support for teachers and in some states for administrators as well (at least, when I served in Maryland, the teachers and “building “administrators were lumped, awkwardly, in my opinion, into a unit.) The NEA is not alone in representing teachers; the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) known when I taught as a more radical unit earned toe-holds in urban areas and was in addition to supporting and representing its members, able to gain rights to strike in some locations. In Delaware, the Delaware State Teachers’ Association (DSEA), an NEA affiliate, bargains at the state level with members elected by the associations in the state, and each district’s DSEA unit bargains with "local school boards" with support from the DSEA. To form a bargaining unit, five interested people sign a secret ballot indicating that desire to the Public Employees Relation Board (PERB) which then notifies the district and state that folks have requested the right to develop and organize a collective unit for developing a contract which governs, usually in a two year deal, pay and working conditions.( In the last 20 year custodians, office staff, and cafeteria workers have formed units for bargaining, sometimes with teachers, sometimes as individual bargaining units.) Dues paid by the members of the unit go to the national and local associations and that money is used to promote teaching, to lobby for teachers, and to assist local associations in their efforts to do better for themselves. However, teachers are not required to pay dues but MUST BE recognized by the bargaining unit and are due full representation. Local and state associations could not deny a teacher’s request for assistance based on his or her paying dues to the organization. (An employee organization certified as the exclusive representative of an appropriate bargaining unit has the duty to represent all bargaining unit employees without discrimination.)

PERBs require that both parties engage in “good faith” negotiations and assist both parties in disputes that arise in reaching fair and open compromises for language and pay scales covered by contractual agreement. In Delaware, in the early 90s or so, the Delaware PERB used an Appoquinimink District’s contract to illustrate to what degree parts of a contract were required to be negotiated under Delaware law. Consequently, each section of the contract was labeled with regards to negotiability by: mandatory, allowable, not required. It has been a while since I studied the Appoquinimink decision, but I feel comfortable in saying that the “allowable” and “not required” sections far out-numbered the “mandatory” sections. Boards of education were required to negotiate salaries and working conditions BUT were never required to meet any requests submitted by the teachers’ negotiation team. Language proposed by teachers had to be considered, but the boards have the ultimate power to accept or reject the proposal. The same goes for requests for salary and benefits . Therefore, in states lacking rights for teachers to strike, the negotiating unit is basically on bended knee when requesting improvements in working conditions or in pay. When republikans suggest that collective bargaining fetters governors and school boards, they simply do not know what they are talking about. In reality most teachers that you know have no rights whatsoever other than a right to negotiate and take whatever a board wants to pass out. Under PERB regulations, while boards are “required” to bargain “in good faith,”nowhere in Delaware law does PERB define what "good faith" requires. For example, I negotiated heatedly for a simple “just cause” statement to be included in contracts, most unsuccessfully. A board does not have to state that it will not fire an individual without just cause; most do not allow such a statement without gaining some concession in wages, conditions, and/or benefits. I have seen other weird actions by boards during negotiations that also defy the sense of “in good faith.” One board pulled over 150 thousand dollars from the "bargain-able funds" by creating a brand new administrative position days before negotiations opened. Furthermore, under the law they were able to refuse to discuss with us why the position was necessary to the school. I still think that was not in good faith to the teachers that our unit represented, but that board, knowing full well that it could do what it wanted, went right about its business. I will not provide any more examples of how obnoxious state and local boards can be in exercising their power, but I could. Really, any statement that collective bargaining is somehow weighted toward teachers is fallacy.

At present, school districts and states are broke for lots of reasons: failed investments in pension plans, reduced personal and property taxes caused by the deep recession the country is in. But I can guarantee you that no district is in trouble because teachers are greedy, and I can guarantee you that police officers' and firemen's (firepersons'?) pensions and benefits are just as rigorous (usually more so) than teachers. Yet, during every economic downturn, teachers get the whip quicker and harder than any other public unit. For republikans it’s OK for Wall Street and investment bankers to pay out 20 billion in contracted bonuses after tax payers made sure their businesses did not fail. However, for that political group, it is not OK for teachers to fight for their contracted packages. Teachers historically have settled for low pay in a swap for job security and solid retirement and benefits, all earned in bargaining sessions completely controlled by politicians. For any politician to claim that collective bargaining is the cause of a state’s economic problems is a lie. (On a personal level, I am one teacher who refuses to feel guilty that I worked for the public to earn a decent retirement and health insurance. I can’t feel guilty because I never forced a district into a pay or benefit package; maybe I should have been allowed to, but contrary to republikan disinformation, I was never allowed, by law, to force anything on the Boss.)

Tons of stuffs are wrong with public education, tons to be fixed, and tons that will never be under the current attitudes about educating our children and about how we treat those with the guts to step in to teach, discipline, and manage 130 students a day. With the deep lack of respect that the republikan party and society in general has for them, I am amazed that teachers stay on the job. One thing for sure: it ain’t the teachers who caused our current economic misery, no way, no how. Another thing for sure: teachers ought to save up a bit and all go home for a while and let the republikans get to taking care of schools.

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