The Rodney Dangerfield union

By Larry Sand
May 29, 2018

The United Teachers of Los Angeles claims its members “don’t get no respect.” 

The late comedian Rodney Dangerfield often used self-deprecating humor in his routines, and his catchphrase, “I don’t get no respect!” is legendary. And now the United Teachers of Los Angeles is channeling the great comic, as thousands of teachers took to the streets in downtown LA last week to demand respect for what they do.

And the respect the teachers union is seeking has a hefty price tag attached. The leadership is insisting on a pay raise, smaller classes, and has several other demands that won’t come cheap. But before we boost salaries, let’s look at what teachers who work in the Los Angeles Unified School District currently make. According to the salary schedule, starting teachers earn $50,368, while the average pay is $75,504, according to the Los Angeles Daily News.

These numbers by themselves are deceptive, however. First, using U.S. Department of Labor data, researcher James Agresti explains that benefits – health insurance, paid leave, and pensions – typically comprise 33 percent of compensation for public school teachers. Including these perks, the average compensation for a teacher in LA jumps to about $113,000 per annum. Not too shabby – but wait, there’s more. The old union ploy of comparing the pay of teachers to private industry employees is bogus. As Agresti points out, the latter work on average 37 percent more hours per year than public school teachers, and this includes the time that teachers spend on lesson preparation, grading tests, etc.

Additionally, the above LAUSD teacher income figures do not include certain underfunded pension liabilities and the district’s scandalously generous health care benefits. A report last month released by the district showed that the unfunded liability for retiree health benefits has risen to $15.2 billion, up from $13.5 billion in 2016.

Unless something is done soon, that $15.2 billion shortfall will seem like pocket change. Much of the problem has to do with retirees who receive exactly the same über-generous benefits as current employees. A good example is my 70 year-old friend Harry who began teaching in the district in 1985 and retired in 2009. According to the union contract at the time he entered the field, which hasn’t changed much since, teachers needed 10 years of consecutive employment, and age and years-of-service must have totaled at least 80 in order to qualify for retiree health benefits. Harry, who had 24 years in the system, was 61 when he retired and since 24+61=85, he easily qualified for free medical insurance for life. Well actually not quite free. When Harry gets his yearly medical exam, he has to fork over a $5 co-pay for the service. When he needed an ultrasound to check on some thyroid nodules last year, he paid nothing. When one of the nodules showed the potential of becoming malignant, he had a biopsy. Again, no charge. When Harry goes to the local drug store to pick up his monthly supply of blood pressure medicine, he gives a paltry $1.67 to the pharmacist for the pills.

But again, there’s more. Since spouses and domestic partners are also covered under the LAUSD health plan, Harry’s wife is also taken care of. Minnie, 68, is in mostly good health but did have a horrific cough a few months ago. She went off to the local emergency room where, after undergoing a battery of expensive tests, it was discovered that she had both pneumonia and bronchitis. The doctor said she would be fine with some medication and bed rest, and gave her a prescription for antibiotics and steroids. The total cost for the hospital visit, x-rays and other diagnostic tests, and meds was a meager $55.

Whatever the reality is, you will be hearing more blather about “respect” from UTLA in the fall, and if the union doesn’t get it, a strike could follow. In fact, the union’s President Alex Caputo-Pearl has not only threatened a work stoppage but has also talked about creating “a state crisis.”

One of the uglier aspects of a government-run education system is that no one is held accountable for runaway spending. Unlike a business that must be concerned with the bottom line – and in some cases shareholders – to survive, government bureaucrats and government unions can conspire against taxpayers without consequence. LAUSD is the poster child for this kind of abuse.

Enough is enough. Non-government workers and all taxpayers need to go to the polls, take to the streets, and start talking to the media, much of which have been going soft on teachers and other government workers for years.

It’s way past time for school districts and union leaders to show some love to the people who actually pay their salaries, the non-government workers who most definitely “don’t get no respect.”

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.