A Kinder and Gentler Teachers Union?

The unions are trying to take the “we’re in it for the kids” shtick to a new level by declaring that they now collectively bargain for “the common good.”

Last week, The American Prospect posted “Teacher Unions Are ‘Bargaining for the Common Good,’” which claims that unions across the country are “expanding their focus to the broader community.” All this is code for, “We don’t want to come off as selfish, so while we are still going to push for our typical me-first (and only) union agenda, we are going to try to deceive the public into believing that we really care about kids and taxpayers.”

According to the piece, public employee union leaders and community organizations gathered in Washington, D.C. in 2014 and came up with a 3-point plan: use the bargaining process as a way to challenge the relationships between government and the private-sector; work with community allies to create new, shared goals that help advance both worker and citizen power; and recognize militancy and collective action will likely be necessary if workers and citizens are to reduce inequality and strengthen democracy.

The lofty but ultimately meaningless verbiage led the writer of the piece to conclude that “The time had come, in sum, to politicize bargaining.”

Politicize bargaining?! That’s all collective bargaining in education is and ever was – pure, unadulterated, no additives, not-made-from-concentrate – politics. The union sits at a table with school board members and hashes out contracts that, more often than not, are detrimental to students, good teachers and taxpayers. Collective bargaining agreements inhibit creativity and treat teachers as interchangeable widgets. Additionally, the taxpayer gets to foot the bill for goodies like Cadillac healthcare plans that the union – and frequently their bought-and-paid-for school board – collude on and ratify.

There is a ton of evidence that the cuddly, kind and caring teacher union concept is a fraud. Here are just a few recent examples:

In last week’s post, I wrote about a situation in Yonkers, NY where a union president and vice-president are both caught on video trying to help a teacher who claimed to have physically abused a child while using a racial epithet, and subsequently fled to Mexico, unannounced, for two weeks. (It was actually staged by investigative journalist James O’Keefe.) As all concerned parties investigate the union leaders’ responses, the Yonkers Federation of Teachers has asked the taxpayer subsidized school district to continue paying Paul Diamond, the union vice-president, his salary while he performs his union duties for the 2016-17 school year. Not unique to Yonkers, this phenomenon, known as “release time,” goes on all over the country and is an absolute outrage. It’s a practice that allows a public employee to conduct union business during working hours without loss of pay, all the while giving the union a free worker. The employee’s activities include negotiating contracts, lobbying, processing grievances, and attending union meetings and conferences. Diamond will not spend one minute teaching. No evidence of “citizen power” here.

Next, a school district in Illinois just awarded its teachers a 10-year contract that includes a 40 percent salary increase over its term, preserves a pre-retirement, 6 percent yearly pay spike to boost teachers’ pensions, an increase in sick-days from 15 to 24 per year, and a freeze on health insurance and prescription drug costs for district employees for the 10-year period. “Shared goals?” In what universe?

On the state level, we have a situation in California that doesn’t involve collective bargaining but certainly calls into question whose “common good” is being served. Contra Costa Democratic Assemblywoman Susan Bonilla’s AB 934 would change both seniority and tenure as we know it. The bill includes a provision that offers ineffective teachers extra professional support. If a teacher receives a second low-performance review after a year in the program, they could be fired via an expedited process. It would also increase the time for a teacher to attain tenure (or more accurately “permanent status”) from two to three or four years, depending on their performance. Additionally, seniority would no longer be the single most important factor in handing out pink slips. This is hardly radical stuff and would certainly make for a more effective teaching profession in the Golden State.

But the most powerful special interest group in the state, the California Teachers Association, is fighting the bill. Blithely casting the needs of kids aside, the union first claimed the bill “would make education an incredibly insecure profession.” (Yes, just like every other profession in the world.) In a subsequent post on its website, the union went bonkers, claiming, “Corporate millionaires and special interests have mounted an all-out assault on educators by attempting to do away with laws protecting teachers from arbitrary firings, providing transparency in layoff decisions and supporting due process rights.” And that was just the beginning. To read the rest of this bizarre rant, go here. But in any event, we know whose posterior CTA is trying to protect, and it has absolutely nothing to do with “reducing inequality.”

And then there is the pension situation. In California, the state teachers’ retirement system is currently experiencing a $70 billion shortfall. Is CTA willing to accept some responsibility and work to make adjustments for the common good? The union’s response to the nightmare that will ultimately fall on the shoulders of the already beleaguered taxpayer is to try to kill any reforms, maintain the miserable status quo and blame Wall Street and “corporate greed.” “Strengthening democracy?” Hardly.

Finally, last week in National Review, former Florida governor Jeb Bush laid out a plan to save America’s education system. His excellent piece included such basic ideas as letting parents choose from a marketplace of options, including traditional neighborhood schools, magnet schools, charter schools, private schools, and virtual schools, with education funding following the child. He wants to weed out failing schools and reward good and great teachers for hard work and results. But each of these ideas is fought on a daily basis by the teachers unions, since they would lose much of their power and income if Bush’s ideas were to be implemented on a grand scale.

“Bargaining for the common good” is just a touchy-feely catchphrase which shouldn’t fool anyone. The teachers unions are not acting in anyone else’s best interest. And there is little good about them, common or otherwise.

Larry Sand, a former classroom teacher, is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network – a non-partisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers and the general public with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues. The views presented here are strictly his own.

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