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Tom | May 25, 2009

State of the Union?


By Tom


When I received my first public school paycheck over two decades ago, I looked it over carefully. Noticing that a large chunk of change went to my union, I asked around and found out that being in the union was optional. So I called the union office to see about "unjoining." Although happy to help, they also mentioned that, should I decide to opt out, I would instead be coughing up roughly the same amount for an "agency fee," paid to the union as compensation for reaping the benefits of the union's collective bargaining agreement.

I complained to my father, hoping for some sympathy. As a city manager, he had spent a career across the table from the police and fire fighter unions and it wasn't always fun. But instead of sympathy, he sat me down for a quick history of the organized labor movement in this country. Then he told me I was lucky to be in a union, and if I had any problems with it, I should get involved and make it better.

So I did. I can't say I've made the union "better," but after many years in many different roles I certainly have more respect for the union that represents us. 

I also worry about it. This has been a tough year for all of us, and the teachers' association has taken a lot of criticism.

First of all, teachers are angry about the budget recently signed by our governor. A governor that many feel would not have been elected without the support of the teachers' union. The budget stinks. Everyone will feel pain, especially those who depend on the state for health care, education, or a job. Teachers were hoping that their support would have resulted in a better return from the budget. Perhaps it did. Perhaps it might have been much worse. I wonder what we would be dealing with had Dino Rossi won the election.

Teachers are also upset about how the RiFs are being doled out. Many young, talented teachers are being let go while their older, burned-out colleagues remain. Or so it's been reported. While there are always exceptions, my experience has been that teachers do, in fact, improve over time. Experienced teachers are generally better than rookies. Besides, the union has absolutely no control over who gets riffed at this point. Each district has a collective bargaining agreement that spells it all out in black and white, and the union is charged with the task of making sure that the district follows that agreement, whether they like the result or not.

And then there's the third thing that's bugging teachers. The WEA ended up endorsing Randy Dorn. Most of us don't really know too much about him yet, but those who have had interactions with him are, well, unimpressed. Personally, I'm going to withhold judgment until I have more on which to base that judgment. I'd like to see how his "new and improved" testing scheme plays out, for example. I'd also like to hear how he plans to implement the new law, recently signed by the governor, that redefines basic education in this state. I had a lot of respect for his predecessor, I was sorry to see her lose, but I want to give him a chance.

So that's what I'm hearing from my fellow teachers. They aren't too high on the Association right now.

And I really only have one response. It comes right straight from my father, the smartest man I've ever met. Be glad you have a union, and if you have a problem with it, get involved and make it better. Believe me, there is no better time than right now for teachers in this state to pursue leadership positions in the WEA.


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Mark Gardner

To me, the importance of associations is apparent when I talk to a friend of mine who used to teach at a private school in another state, had no bargained contract, a pittance of benefits, and was expected to work double what a public school teacher would be expected to...for a wage amounting to about $14 per hour. Early in my career, I worked teaching four hours a day in the evenings for a private education program and was paid $10 per hour to do nearly as much work as I do for my public school position, even though my students were paying $65 or more per hour to be there. Since schools are not profit-turning entities and funding is ever shifting, I do value what the association has helped to provide. Do I agree with all the tactics? The political positioning? No. I do appreciate the pay and the benefits. While some claim all unions want is "more," I'm sure that is true in some places. But, as any teacher who has administered a department or program can clearly attest, if you don't arm yourself to fight just to maintain status quo, bit by bit all that which is offered will be gradually eroded away. I've watched programs and even whole departments wither because there was no advocacy. When done properly, a good association will do that advocacy for maintenance, not just for more.

So apparently it's true. The teacher unions aren't everyone's cup of tea. Which is pretty much the point of my original post. Like any institution that's been around for awhile, organized labor has its problems. And that's why my father (and his son) strongly suggest that those of us with a stake in education get involved and make a difference. Let's face it, the teachers' union remains one of the best tools we have to improve teaching conditions in this country.

The union did nothing positive for me in all my 26 years of membership; it just took more and more of my money every year. At the end, the union betrayed me. I advise all new teachers to NOT join the union. It's nothing but a huge, HUGE money-making scam.

OK, I just reread my last comment and it comes across as much snarkier than I intended it to sound.

Oh, and since I like this exchange of ideas, I just linked to your post.

I'm sorry; I was using a rhetorical flourish (not your father's Oldmobile), I understand that your father was not in a union.

My union dues are over $900/year. I get back over $300, which means, what--it costs the union $600 to hammer out my share of the contract? I don't think so.

I get better legal coverage than the union provides, through the Association of American Educators. Of that $300 I get back, about $140 goes to AAE.

I stand by my statement that forced unionism (California is a "fair share" state, not a right-to-work state) is legalized extortion.

With all due respect, I have to take issue with both of your paragraphs.

First of all, my father was never in a union. He sat across the table from union officials every year. In that capacity, just like school district officials and state legislatures all across the country, he would try to get as much value as possible from the public funds, knowing full well that the other side was working to get as much compensation as they could for the work that they did. Each side was trying to get more. If either side stopped working to push their agenda, the other side wouldn't hesitate to push the balance to their favor. That same balance exists today. The compensation, benefits and working conditions (such as they are) that you and I enjoy only exist because our union keeps up the fight. If you don't believe me, travel to other states with weak unions. Take Utah; for example, where teachers not only make less, they don't have paid planning time during the school day.

And yes, teachers' unions do want more. They want us to be better paid for the important work that we do. They want better working condition for teachers, which are better working conditions for our students. They want teachers to be paid well enough to stay in the profession and they want our precious time in the classroom to be divided among 25 students, not 30.

So your agency fees are too high? Have you considered what they go toward? The collective bargaining agreement, that's what. It's the document, hammered out by your local bargaining team that ensures that you're treated fairly by your employer. The government does not ensure that you have one. Talk to a Wal-Mart employee and see what the government ensures by way of working conditions.

And by the way, you would be well advised to spring for the whole union dues instead of the agency fee. One thing you don't get without paying union dues is legal protection. The cost of hiring an attorney to fight a false accusation would make your dues look like bus fare.

Unions today are *not* your father's unions (with apologies to Oldsmobile commercials). What unions did 100 years ago is fine, what they do today is not fine. Over 100 years ago unions fought for a 5 day work week, for overtime pay, for safety regulations, etc--all of which the *government* now ensures. What are unions to fight for today? MORE!

I get about 1/3 of my union dues refunded to me, meaning my agency fee is 2/3 of ordinary union dues. Since I'm required by law to pay that 2/3 if I want to be a teacher, it amounts to legalized extortion.

And before someone even says it, about 10 years ago I was a union site representative.

I came across the bumper sticker that Tom uses in the opening of this post just the other day on a run. Timely. As such, I found myself rereading the post and the comments several times. Unions are an interesting topic and I choose "interesting" on purpose to show that I have mixed feelings.

In my time as a teacher, the building reps have done a great job keeping me informed or the issues as well as taking my issues to the larger body. At some point, I would like to be more involved in this aspect of the system. However, I feel that I can only do so much at this point.

On another note, I have found the teacher's union, when compared to unions for those in painting, electrical, or longshoremen work, to be a union without much strength. This is part experience and part second hand from my friends in these jobs. I would love to learn more about this aspect of education, Tom. You bring up a good topic for teachers to consider.

That is truly sad, Kim. I guess I'm fortunate to belong to a far more forward-thinking local. It's important to note, however, that the first thing my father did was put things into an historical perspective. What might seem like extreme behavior to someone coming in from the outside might just be people trying very hard to protect what they worked very hard to secure. I'm willing to bet that some of those "old boys" in your association were also some of the "heroes" who helped bargain such things as duty-free lunch, paid planning time and classload relief for larger class sizes. I'm willing to make that bet because that's exactly what I learned once I got to know the "old boys" (and girls) in my association.

I have to agree with Brian on his point that our union is essential in regards to job security. Yes, it would be nice if all the bad teachers went away and all the good teachers stayed. The problem, of course, is putting that into practice. And this not the time to make that up as we go along. Each district has a procedure to follow when riffing and a different procedure to follow when firing poor teachers. They are printed on different sheets of paper. Let's keep it that way. Confusion between the two will lead to disaster. Which is exactly what is now happening in the Seattle School District. Liberal Democrats are (ironically) starting to mobilize against the local teachers union because the union wants the district to abide by the collective bargaining agreement in regards to how they RiF teachers. Check it out:

I came to teaching in my 30's. I worked my way through college with a union job in a steel mill. After college I worked several jobs that were non-union. The difference was stark: in the union I had rights, without the union, just a job.
My dad was management too, but his dad was a miner, and when a miner got too old to compete with a young man they let him go. My dad told me that the union was a good thing, that it balanced the equation between work and profit. He helped my grandfather get out of the mines at age 52, and get a union job.
So I agree with Tom. When I started teaching I volunteered to be a Building Representative. Then I got on the Bargaining Team. I'm still at it, trying to make my union better.
Because, even if you don't like the individuals in your local, the union is not "they" or "them"; it is "us".

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