Monday, November 10, 2003

Look For The Union Label

After two years of deadlocked negotiations, accusations of bad faith on both sides, and a union chief busted for embezzling union funds, the Miami-Dade County School Board has reached a tentative agreement for a three-year contract with the United Teachers of Dade (UTD). It includes pay raises of nearly $42 million and increases in health benefits for family coverage. That may sound like a lot, but Miami-Dade is the fourth-largest school district in the country with an annual budget of $4.3 billion, over 367,000 students and 47,000 employees.

It’s been a long battle, and not without some strange things to make the road a bumpy one, including a federal investigation of UTD president Pat Tornillo for living high on the hog on the dues of the teachers. The FBI raided the UTD headquarters last April, seizing hundreds of records, and it was revealed that Tornillo (which in Spanish means “screw” – God, I love irony) was living the life of Ken Lay. Hundreds of teachers resigned from the union, and last summer it looked like the union was about to collapse. But then, timing is everything. Several of the school board members are up for re-election next fall, the school system is the largest employer in the county, and those employees vote. Running for re-election with no contract would be as welcome a campaign issue as a wet dog at a wedding. In addition, Merret Stierheim, the superintendent of schools, announced last week that he would leave his post at the end of his contract in June 2004, leaving the School Board hanging with no contract, no superintendent, and angry teachers demonstrating outside every school board meeting (this is their only recourse – Florida law prohibits strikes by teachers). They realized that they’d better get on the stick, and today they did. Since the four other bargaining units, including AFSCME, will use the UTD contract as a template, whatever raises and benefits the teachers get, everyone gets…including li’l ole me!

This is the first job I’ve had under a union contract. (Well, yes, I do belong to The Dramatists Guild, but that’s not like a real union…I mean, the worst thing we can do to protest unfair producers is get writer’s block.) I grew up near a union city, though, and I know that labor unions are an important part of protecting workers and their rights. And in spite of the bad rap that unions get, and in spite of Mr. Tornillo’s $27,000 trip to India and his gold-plated biffy, I’m proud that in the end things worked out so that teachers – who should get paid ten times what they earn as it is – can concentrate on teaching. After all, it’s all for the kids, and you can’t do better than that.