The Wisconsin Stalemate and Memories of a Public NY Education

All of this stuff is Wisconsin is fascinating: the debate surrounding the new bill seeking to limit collective bargaining for public employees (and requiring them to kick in some money for their health care).  Why should the state be required to collect union dues for the union?  My own experiences growing up in union-terrorized Western NY are the roots of my support for the bill, but the “protestors” at the State House just make it harder and harder to sympathize with their cause: particularly the teacher’s unions, who are refusing to teach their classes until the bill is dead.

At my small public high school in Rochester, I saw first hand where the priorities of my teachers were: ensuring more pay for themselves, ensuring that they were required to do less for that pay, and ensuring that the rules governing public education were modified to safeguard their money and benefits.  My education was a distant second.

Some of my more senior teachers made around $80,000 per annum — a salary that I will probably never reach as a holder of a PhD in my field and a university professor.  Many of my teachers served as union representatives who were absent from school on union business for as many days as they showed up at work.  To fill the gaps, I had a revolving door of substitutes which meant there was little continuity in the curriculum of each course.  Many days we weren’t taught at all, but instead had “study hall.”  On days when my union-rep teachers did show up, it was not uncommon that I would have to sit through a lecture about why their work in the union was so important, why the public critics of the union were wrong (my teachers knew that my father was one of these critics during his brief tenure on the district school board), and why it was important (as we approached voting age) that we support the unions.  The troubles with the NY teachers’ union are well documented: try googling “rubber rooms.”

In the days before the internet, John MacIntosh, a family friend, published in the local paper the salaries of the teachers at my school.  They were outraged.  This struck me as strange even as at the age of 12: why should it be so outrageous that the taxpayers simply be aware of how much public employees earn?  With that move, John became a figure of local legend in union lore.  My dad pulled some similar stunts, but I don’t think he was ever viewed as the menace that MacIntosh was.

There was an interesting article in _Reason_ this month that shows that student performance has decreased very slightly (on the national level) since the 1970s…but generally, it remains unchanged.  We have this stasis despite an EXPLOSION of spending in public education since the 1970s.  Since that time, the teacher-to-student ratio has improved slightly.  And in the face of these findings, Obama’s State of the Union address insists upon the need to spend even more on public education and to hire thousands of new teachers.  In truth, we probably need fewer teachers, but more good ones.  Producing better teachers would involve instituting merit pay, revoking tenure for k-12 teachers (who are not required to produce research), and making raises dependent on student success as defined at the local and national level.  These are all measures that the unions vociferously oppose, not because they would limit their power to teach children, but because teaching might become a more demanding profession if we take education (rather than politics) seriously.


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3 Responses to The Wisconsin Stalemate and Memories of a Public NY Education

  1. Mike Duncan says:

    Unions right now are in a death spiral – enough of them got powerful to become rampantly corrupt, and as a result it is much harder to establish new ones where they are actually needed because of the negative public image of unions in general – which comes mostly from unions that interact with government entities- teachers, police, etc. As if the government they’re bargaining with is any less corrupt – the rhetorical manufacturing of current state budget deficits as spending problems rather than tax problems is a case in point.

    Unions and the concept of collective bargaining are not intrinsically evil. It is easy to forget that things like the 40-hour work week, medical benefits, workplace safety, etc across a wide variety of professions would not exist if not for constant collective bargaining pressure over the last hundred and fifty years. We’re been in the midst of a massive decline of middle-class jobs for years now, most of which were shaped through union pressure, with no sign of stopping. So I am suspicious of any law weakening collective bargaining power becoming a slippery slope that further accelerates the decline of other, more productive unions and allows workplace standards to be solely the dominion of the government and/or corporations.

    I was witness to a union drive once whose goal was simply to establish a union at several small assembly plants. The corporate response was vicious, breaking every labor law I know of – intimidating workers, threatening jobs, setting them against each other, misleading literature, maintaining enough temporary workers to manipulate the vote count – and destroyed it utterly. And that was before the non-existent union even took a position on wages or conditions.

    That said, you and I are professors with not inconsiderable teaching loads for our specialties, but our loads are a joke compared to secondary teachers at 5-6 classes every day, especially those that take their job seriously and therefore, necessarily, take it home.

  2. Adam says:

    Certainly, Mike, the IDEA of the union is a good one and a needed one. I can conceive of a good union and know of a few. But as you note, the big unions on the national scene now are so corrupt that they poison the very concept of the union. Some critics of the bill in Wisconsin publicly express their suspicion that the move is motivated by a will to check the political power of the left. This shocks me: it is tantamount to an admission that what the unions do is consolidate political power for the left, and if that is true, isn’t that even more evidence in support of the need to reform, reconfigure, or reduce union power?

    You are absolutely correct that there is a massive decline in “middle class” jobs (whatever that means), but wrong to suggest that unions are the answer to this problem. In fact, in many cases, they are the cause of this problem. See, for example, jobs in manufacturing, which have been steadily leaving America for two decades. This exodus is largely due to the disproportionate power that unions have in collective bargaining, making the cost of labor so expensive (e.g. GM, Kodak, etc.) that the companies have virtually no choice but to go overseas if they want to (gasp!) turn a profit.

    • Mike Duncan says:

      Oh, come now, Adam. You know as well as I do that corporate profits are through the roof. The chase for huge profit margins over long-term domestic investment is the primary reason for increased overseas labor. There’s a secondary benefit of having a generalized foreign boogieman, too.

      There is an absolute ton of available capital out there sitting on its hands because its holders demand short-term big returns instead of long-term marginal ones. They can afford to sit things out or buy bonds because inflation is so low. Venture capitalists are still a dime a dozen; they’re increasingly timid, however, wary of another bubble.

      I define a middle-class job as a job that provides enough income to change a individual or family’s primary concern from making the rent and putting food on the table to improving their quality of life.

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