Teacher Unions Should Act Now

The California Teacher’s Association and its parent, the National Education Association, must pay close attention to the will of the voters from last Tuesday’s election. The election results on a local and national level tragically predict that middle-class jobs will continue to erode in America. This is primarily due to the public assault on public employee unions.

The teaching profession is one of the strongest and largest categories of public employee unions and middle class jobs in the nation, especially for women. The profession must win back the voters’ sympathy with immediacy and urgency.

The widening gap in income disparity and the vanishing middle class is potentially catastrophic for America. Many economists argue that middle class consumers create jobs by their ability to spend their discretionary income. The safety of health care, job security and retirement plans have been at the core of middle-class jobs, with the teaching profession leading the pack. Public employee unions and collective bargaining have been the scaffolding to keep America and its economy strong.

President Clinton’s first labor secretary, Robert Reich once said, “… [P]ublic employees are being blamed for budget crises. Unions didn’t cause these crises—revenues dropped because of the Great Recession. … 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.”

And yet, public employee unions are being blamed for the budget crises in each state. San Jose and San Diego’s pension modification votes garnered national attention. CNN’s John Avalon said on the evening after the vote that what occurred in San Jose and San Diego is more important than the unsuccessful recall of Scott Walker in Wisconsin.

In March 2011, I wrote: “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 a January 2011, I wrote: “The perfect storm is brewing right off our coast. Teacher 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.”

Well the storm hit on last Wednesday with the ferocity of a Category 5 hurricane. Public employee teacher union leaders must start rebuilding the levies now. This can only begin as we rebuild the trust of the electorate, which sadly was only about 25 percent of registered voters in San Jose and California on Tuesday.

Where I diverge with the public employee teacher unions is when they demonstrate a belief that things can stay just as they have been for 40 years in this ever-changing world.

Charter schools are funded with our tax dollars and here to stay. For the most part, they do not have collective bargaining or unions. Charter school teachers do not receive tenure, are provided opportunities for performance pay, and are not laid off by seniority dates without effectiveness measures being used. Performance pay in charters is based largely on value-added measures to their students’ achievement and individual teachers value-added to the school’s culture.

This should also be the norm in traditional public collective bargaining agreements. The public wants these changes and if not done at the collective bargaining table or in new legislation, the voters will have their say.

The time for Silicon Valley school leaders to start talking collectively and cooperatively about the results of this latest election is now. It is my hope that teacher unions will lead the way to reform tenure, seniority hiring/ layoffs, and performance pay. Unfortunately, I see or hear of no local leadership willing to risk starting a dialogue yet. Are we too sheepish to begin the courageous conversation?

If so, waiting for another two or three years could be calamitous for teacher public employee unions. 

Lastly, getting the word out to the public that California teachers contribute 8 percent of every paycheck toward their pension is critical. The fact that career teachers are not entitled to receive social security is a relevant point of discussion that must public voters do not know.

The fact that 70 percent of retired teachers are women and the average monthly pension benefit is $3,300 dollars, without any social security eligibility, should be considered. Teacher pensions are moderate and help the purchasing power in the retirement years of life to help contribute to the health of the economy.

The perfect storm has hit our coast and country. Now is the time to rebuild for the future safe haven, before it is too late.

Joseph Di Salvo is a member of the Santa Clara County Office of Education’s Board of Trustees. He is a San Jose native. His columns reflect his personal opinion.

7 Comments

  1. More than 800 words to say what could have been said in less than 100.  Windy epistles obscure the message, Joseph.  Try being succinct and you won’t lose 90% of your readers before the 2nd paragraph.

  2. Joe,

    you state “Lastly, getting the word out to the public that California teachers contribute 8 percent of every paycheck toward their pension is critical. The fact that career teachers are not entitled to receive social security is a relevant point of discussion that must public voters do not know.”

    I was a teacher for five years, and yes, it is true that teachers have the OPTION to choose either Social Security or STRS.  Whichever plan one chooses, one pays into that plan.  Of course teachers who choose STRS won’t receive Social Security – they didn’t pay into Social Security.  They pay 8 percent (I assume your figures are current) into STRS, and they receive (hopefully) whatever STRS promises, according to the payout and vesting schedules.  If they chose to pay into Social Security, they would receive SS benefits.

    I just wanted to set the record straight.  I see language like you have used here in many online articles to suggest that public-employee union members who are eligible for a defined-benefit pension plan are somehow being mistreated since they won’t receive Social Security. 

    As a previous, and current, private-sector employee, I pay both Social Security taxes and contribute to my 401k.  Not sure I will ever receive any Social Security benefits, however.

    Mike

  3. > The fact that 70 percent of retired teachers are women and the average monthly pension benefit is $3,300 dollars, without any social security eligibility, should be considered.

    Good grief, Joe!

    Do you know what you’re saying!

    A teacher pension of $3,300 per month is FAR, FAR better than social security.

    One of the privileges of being a government employee is you DON’T have to rely on the sucky, bankrupt social security system like the poor, ignorant masses do.

    Would you trade your “social security eligibility” for your Cadillac teacher retirement benefits?

    OF COURSE YOU WOULD!  IT’S A NO BRAINER!

    • I want to know where teachers are receiving that as an “average.”  In my district, you have to have taught at least 30 years, reached the age of 62, and met one other requirement (I’ve forgotten what it is) to receive that amount, pre-tax.  There are plenty of teachers that do not end up working the full 30+ years and/or retire before age 62.  So I am not convinced this is an accurate “average.”

      If it is, then I’m working in the wrong district!

  4. One of the most striking results of the Wisconsin reforms was that it ended the automatic collection of union dues.

    Do you know what happened once people had a choice?  The union lost half its membership, instantly.

    Are California teachers forced to join the union?

  5. I think in general the compensation of school teachers are not considered that extreme.  School administrators are another story. (why aren’t you trying to do something about that?)  You only have to look at the education parcel taxes that pass to see that.

    I think the two state tax measures this November will have problems though.  Not because people have it in for school teachers, but because people are starting to feel it’s a bait and switch.  Take the two areas that will garner the most support and hold them hostage so that you can pay for things that voters don’t want to pay for.  That’s what the anti-tax folks are going to go after, and it’ll be hard to refute.