Wednesday, March 30, 2011

A few thoughts about the teacher’s unions

Only a fool would deprive working men and working women of their right to join the union of their choice.
— Dwight D. Eisenhower

Recently I’ve been a bit disturbed at the slashes, cuts, and layoffs many states have made to deal with the budget deficits.  Personally, I do not believe that decreasing corporate taxes and taxes on the über wealthy can be justified at the cost of cutting funding for education, public safety, and public works.  However, if this strategy proves to be successful in stimulating the economy in a long-term and sustainable way, I’m willing to re-evaluate my economic and political assumptions.

In the meantime, I have been very concerned at the preoccupation some governors have had at attacking unions, and public sector unions in particular.  Unions are groups of individuals who join together to work as a group for a common cause.  As defined by Merriam-Webster, a union is “an act or instance of uniting or joining two or more things into one,” “a confederation of independent individuals (as nations or persons) for some common purpose.”

I will be interested to see what the court system does with Wisconsin’s law, for example.  The recent news is that a court has postponed the implementation of Scott Walker’s ban on most public unions, which I believe is the constitutionally right thing to do if one looks at the 1st and 14th Amendments, for example:

Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.  (1st Amendment)

No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States. (14th Amendment)

Isn’t a public union nothing more than a group of individuals expressing their right to peaceably assemble and petition the government?  Public unions are not funded by the government, but by an individual member’s income.  Does the fact that their income comes from their public sector work mean that others have a right to restrict what it can be used for?  Where does a governor like Scott Walker find justification in taking away an individual’s ability to join forces with their fellow coworkers to improve their working conditions?

If unions are banned, then it is only natural to ban all lobbying organizations.  Unions are essentially groups who lobby on behalf of their members.  If citizens can no longer unite to improve working conditions, then business and corporate lobbies(remember, the Supreme Court extended the rights of individuals found in the first amendment to corporations in Citizens United) can – and perhaps for the sake of fairness should – also be banned because lobbiest firms do basically the same thing but for businesses and industries.

Never in my life did I believe that it would be possible to demonize teachers to the extent that some people have done to the teachers in Wisconsin and around the country.  Yes, our country has struggled to find an effective education system.  It’s incredibly hard for a country as diverse as ours to create a program that can work for all – the rural and the urban, the rich and the poor, the students from stable families and those from broken homes, the safe and the “unsafe” neighborhoods – but I am shocked that the answer for many states is to cut teacher’s pay and increase class sizes.  At the same time, most of these states are declining to look into ways to increase state revenue meaningfully because revenue increases will likely require more taxes, and even if it’s for the children and the long-term success of our country, tax increases must be avoided at all costs.  At least, that is the rationale as I understand it. 

I do remember having a few “lazy” teachers in high school.  The two I can remember fit the unfortunate stereotype of the teacher who prefers their coaching responsibilities to teaching.  However, I can list at least a dozen of teachers that went above and beyond and were engaging, tough but fair, encouraging, and responsible.  Most teachers don’t work just during school hours, they take it home, they prep for classes on the weekends, they go above and beyond the basic requirements to make the classroom a positive, meaningful experience for their students.  They all have a college education, and many go on to get their Master’s or even Doctorate, and yet asking to be paid $40,000 a year is being greedy?  The highest average –not beginning – teacher’s salary is about $55,000 in California, while South Dakota ranks close to last (or last, depending on the year) with the average salary in the $30,000s range.   In 2005, the average income for all Americans over the age of 25 was $32,140.  The average American doesn’t have a bachelor’s degree, and all teachers have that as a minimum.  

Is it really an injustice for teachers to be paid as much as they are?  Is it really a problem if teachers pay dues to a union who works on their behalf?  Can we deny teachers, postal workers, police officer, firefighters, and all public employees the chance to join together to petition the government for better working conditions, fair treatment, and whatever else might be relevant to their profession?

I most definitely will be following the progression of the challenges to Wisconsin’s law in the court. Due to recent Supreme Court rulings like Citizens United, I am worried about the future of unions.  If unions fade into obscurity on their own or naturally cease to be, that is how things go.  However, states should not be banning unions simply for the sake of making a political statement. Right now, I can only hope that the outcome is one that protects the rights of individuals.

Where free unions and collective bargaining are forbidden, freedom is lost.
— Ronald Reagan

The labor movement means just this: It is the last noble protest of the American people against the power of incorporated wealth.
— Wendell Phillips

All that serves labor serves the nation.  All that harms is treason.  If a man tells you he trusts America, yet fears labor, he is a fool.  There is no America without labor, and to fleece the one is to rob the other.
 — Abraham Lincoln

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