The DivIdes of March

My latest battle against a teacher union leader….

Last month, Rebecca Friedrichs, lead plaintiff in a lawsuit against the California Teachers Association that was recently heard by the U.S. Supreme Court, and I were invited to talk about her case on Inside OC, a public affairs TV show in Orange County. Rebecca was given the first half of the show solo and the second half would see me debating her case against an unspecified union representative. I agreed to participate and was stunned a few days later when the show’s host, Rick Reiff, told me in an email that my sparring partner would be none other than CTA President Eric Heins.

After years of debunking teacher union spin, it’s always a pleasure to go face to face with these folks and expose their distortions. My first opportunity in this realm came in New York City in March, 2010 when Terry Moe, Stanford professor and expert-on-all-things-teachers-union, captained a debate team which included former Secretary of Education Rod Paige and me. Our opponents were Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, a school superintendent from Southern California and a teacher from Massachusetts. In the town where the modern teacher union movement was hatched, we won the debate handily; in fact we clobbered them. In a review of the debate, University of Arkansas professor and esteemed education reformer Jay Greene referred to it as a smackdown.

Three years later in March, 2013, I shared a stage in Mountain View with Moe again, former California State Senator Gloria Romero, who regularly battled the teachers unions during her time in Sacramento, and Heins’ predecessor at CTA, Dean Vogel. Though not a debate, the event sponsored by the Conservative Forum of Silicon Valley, saw sparks fly at various points as the three of us refused to let Vogel get away with any of the usual union bromides.

Now, three Marches later, I am going face-to-face with yet another union leader. The always articulate Rebecca kicked things off, talking for 15 minutes about the lawsuit – the tragedy of Justice Scalia’s death, her hope that the case will be reargued, the problems she had trying to make her dissident voice heard as a union member, the immorality of teachers unions protecting bad teachers and the fallacy of the free-rider argument.

Then Heins, who had a dislocated shoulder and had flown in from Burlingame to be a participant, got five minutes which he used to note what he claims to be the positive aspects of teachers unions – how teachers like Rebecca benefit from collective bargaining, that teachers unions benefit kids, etc.

At about 20 minutes in, I appear and do my best to refute Heins. I asked him why, if the union is so beneficial to teachers, they must be forced to pay dues. He claimed that it is because the union must represent all teachers. I had to remind him that exclusive representation is something demanded by – not foisted on – the unions.

When Heins again glorified the value of collective bargaining, I was tempted to rebut him, but refrained, and emphasized that the case is not at all about collective bargaining but rather about teachers’ freedom of choice. Heins then brought up the old “labor peace” argument, which to me is akin to Al Capone negotiating with Elliot Ness, with the Mafia Don explaining that, “You want peace? Let us partner with you.” Bad argument, because it makes the unions sound like extortionists, but then again….

The subject of tenure came up, and of course Heins immediately used the softer sounding phrase “due process,” though he did let its accurate name “permanent status” slip in once. He then extolled the virtue of the three man panel that considers and decides the fate of teachers accused of wrong-doing. But I countered that the panel is made up of two teacher-union members and an administrative law judge – all hand-picked by the union. Hardly a fair process.

At the end of the segment, Heins just had to dredge up the Koch brothers, signaling that the discussion has jumped the rails. The program came to an end at that point and there was only time for me to respond with an eye-roll. Fortunately, however, we were able to continue our discussion for another nine minutes, which is available on YouTube. We picked up on Heins’ Koch-bashing and I pointed out that the biggest political spender in California is not the Kochs or some large corporation, but rather CTA, whose political gifts are about double the second largest spender, also a union – the California State Council of Service Employees, a branch of SEIU.

Heins then veered into how democratically union decisions are made and that they respect minority views. I asked him if the union respected a Republican minority view and he assured me it did. I mentioned that his predecessor claimed that CTA membership was about 65 percent Democrat and 35 percent Republican. I asked Heins what proportion of their political giving goes to Republicans. He insisted that all their spending “is based on education policy” and that they support some Republicans. This is mostly a crock, but I did not bring up the following to refute him as we got side-tracked. What I wished I had said, was that about 97 percent of CTA political spending goes to Democrats, with the remaining crumbs going to the GOP. More importantly, I did not bring up where so much CTA spending goes. Despite Heins’ insistence that it based on education policy, it is not. For example, CTA has spent millions on initiatives to get drug discounts for Californians, to regulate electric service providers, to raise the corporate tax rate in the Golden State, etc. (The last one is especially hypocritical as CTA doesn’t pay one red cent in taxes.) The union also spent well over $1 million of teacher union dues fighting for same sex marriage.

I suggested that the union regularly buys politicians at which point Heins smiled and said that my comment was “cynical spin.” Hardly. We then discussed seniority which Heins thought was quite fair, while I, along with many other reformers, think it is an abominable way to make staffing decisions.

At the end of the session, Reiff said, “We needed an hour!” and he was right. There was way too much ground to cover in such a brief time. The following day I sent a message to Heins telling him I would be willing to do an hour with him anytime, anywhere. I have yet to hear back.

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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