What is going down in Wisconsin with the teacher’s union is a Category 5 hurricane. In order for us to really “win the future” we must be smart and collaborative. We cannot declare war on public employee unions and think our future would be brighter. It will not.
We need strong public employee unions now more than ever. In my Jan. 25 column I wrote, “The perfect storm is brewing right off our coast. Union leaders, superintendents, board members and community leaders must step it up if we are going to be able to thrive after the storm hits. Our children deserve nothing less.”
I am not naïve enough to think what is happening in Wisconsin, Ohio, New Jersey and Tennessee cannot happen in the Golden State some year soon. Many individuals who post comments to this weekly column show a propensity to dislike teacher unions and blame them for the crisis in public education.
For certain there is enough blame to go around for the ills of public education, but to blame the unions is a travesty. Teacher unions (CTA and CFT), California School Employee Associations (CSEA), and Service Employee International Union (SEIU) play an important role in representing the needs of their members. I fear the future of public education if unions are eviscerated of their collective bargaining rights.
Where I diverge with the unions is when they demonstrate a belief that things can stay just as they have been for 30 years in this unceasingly changing world. Change is the new constant. Charter schools are here to stay and are funded with our tax dollars. They do not have unions, with the exception of a thin contract at Green Dot in Los Angeles. Charter school teachers do not receive tenure protection or seniority employment rights—for the most part they are “at-will” employees. Many local charter schools pay for teacher performance, and do not use the traditional “step and column” (years and units beyond a BA degree) to determine compensation.
Teacher unions and other public employee unions play a very vital role in representing the middle class workers in America. Robert Reich, the former Labor Secretary now at UC Berkeley, wrote on Feb. 23: “Demonizing of public employees is not only based on the lie that they’ve caused these budget crises, but it’s also premised on a second lie that public employees earn more than private-sector workers.
They don’t when you take account of their education. In fact, over the last 15 years, the pay of public-sector workers, including teachers, has dropped relative to private-sector employees with the same level of education—even including health and retirement benefits.”
As Reich points out, the Wisconsin state budget crisis was not caused by the unions but by the Great Recession, which was caused by illegal gambits by Wall Street traders and hedge-fund managers. Their bailout was financed by us, they middle-class taxpayers. According to Reich the top thirteen hedge fund managers in the US earned an average of $1 billion each last year. The average teacher in Wisconsin is compensated at $52,644 per year.
The time for Silicon Valley school leaders to start talking collectively and cooperatively about a 2011-and-beyond version of a collectively bargained contract is right now. Unfortunately, I see or hear of no local leadership willing to risk the dialogue. It is my hope that the teacher unions will lead the way and not wait any longer. The time to look at negotiated contracts relative to tenure, seniority and pay for performance is now.
So far what I see and hear is local superintendents and school board members who are too sheepish to bring these topics up in their initial proposals. We must be in front of the curve on this one and not behind the curve otherwise we will be taken down by an angry revolt of the public. We cannot let that happen if we care about the future of public education and what is best for our children. In fact, many comments here have indicated a willingness to vote for increased funds for public education if these aforementioned reforms are implemented. Many of you have said you will not vote for another dollar for public schools until they are.
President Obama and Governor Brown must continue to give strong voice for the important role unions play in keeping American strong with a vibrant middle class. The top 1 percent of Americans’ net worth is 35 percent of the total net worth of all Americans. Twenty percent of Americans hold 85 percent of the nation’s total net worth. Without strong unions to represent middle-class jobs, we will continue to migrate inextricably toward an oligarchy and away from our democratic roots.