Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The State of the Unions

The demonstrations in Madison, Wisconsin, have brought the question of public-sector employees being covered by unions to the forefront: should people who work on behalf of the taxpayer have the right to organize?

The Republicans have taken the view that all unions are greedy, corrupt, and intimidating to management, which translates into the fact that unions are usually supporters of the Democrats. The GOP talking heads are prone to say that the most powerful group in the country is the teachers’ unions, which, according to them, has the public education system in every state by the throat and is holding everyone, including the children, hostage. That’s a nice bit of hyperbole, but if that was really true, than why is it that teachers are among some of the lowest paid union workers in the country — in Wisconsin, a teacher’s salary is below the median income for the state — and in some states, including Florida, it is illegal for them to strike? If that’s a demonstration of the unions’ power, they’re doing a lousy job of wielding it. Now imagine what they would be like without it. That’s exactly what the Republican governor in Wisconsin would like.

The mythology of how easy a teacher has it — they only work nine months out of the year and only work six hours a day — has long since been disproved, but you still hear it among those who don’t know what teachers do. In many states the school year has been lengthened to ten months; several years ago in Miami, school ended the first week of June and began again the last week in July. During the summer recess, many teachers must take classes to maintain their certification or earn a supplemental degree to keep their job. Those courses are not free and the school district does not pay them for them, neither do they help pay off the student loans the teachers incurred while earning the minimum degrees that the state requires to get the job in the first place. During the school year, most teachers report to work several hours before the first bell, remain in the classroom long after the last student has left, and quite often must return to the school in the evening or on weekends for events and additional coaching or club duties. Then they take work home with them. On the job they have more than their share of duties, and for which they give up some pretty basic things most people in another workplace take for granted, such as going to the bathroom whenever they please, or getting a cup of coffee. Taking an hour for lunch or leaving a little early to go to the dentist is unheard of. Try enforcing those workplace rules at Goldman Sachs.

No one goes into the teaching profession to make a fortune; they do it to make a difference. A lot of people in the public sector work as hard as teachers do, and a lot of them put their lives and well-being on the line for a median salary and a pension that does not include a golden parachute. They don’t ask for six-figure incomes, but the least they can expect is to be represented and protected by organizing and have the right to the same bargaining rules as the guy who installs the seats in a Chevy. And in a time when people on Wall Street are making huge bonuses for crunching numbers on a computer, now is not the time to be calling the people on the front lines of education and public well-being greedy.

PS: Ezra Klein has a good post on how you can’t separate public and private unions.