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Wisconsin Collective Bargaining Rights Battle: Scott Walker and Teachers Unions Need Common Sense Solutions

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Spearheaded by the budget fight in Wisconsin made by Republican governor Scott Walker and teachers unions, the past few weeks have seen massive media attention wisconsin collective bargaining rights protestspaid to teachers unions and how they affect state budget deficits.  Pennsylvania’s Tom Corbett recently announced in his budget address that he would cut one billion dollars from public education.  Now, twenty-four states are considering making changes in teacher and other public employee pension systems.

So who is right—the Republican governors, like New Jersey’s Chris Christie and Tom Corbett, who claim they are simply trying to deal with a budget crisis or the teachers unions who say they are only defending union  rights, like collective bargaining and right to a professional and fair wage?

As a public school teacher who has some libertarian/conservative viewpoints, I have mixed feelings about these struggles.

Why the Unions Are Right

The labor movement in this country has been responsible for safety standards, the minimum wage, fair employment practices, and more.  For educators, collective bargaining rights allow teachers to raise concerns about class size, school safety, and other important teaching and learning conditions.  A recent poll shows most Americans support union bargaining rights.

In addition, states in which teachers have limited or no bargaining rights also have lower graduation rates, lower student achievement in math and reading, and fewer students who go on to college, said PSEA spokesperson Wythe Keever.

Collective bargaining has been responsible for raising teachers' salaries to a more respectable level. I can recall the testimony of recently retired teachers who started teaching in the 1970’s who were being paid a paltry salary of 6,000 dollars a year. In 1997, my first year teaching salary was $28,000 per year. Now, teachers in Pennsylvania start around $35,000 per year.

Teachers should be paid a professional wage and have the security of a good benefit package.  Most have high student loans to pay off shortly after graduating. They are required to continue taking college courses after being hired, often resulting in hundreds of dollars a year not being reimbursed. Additionally, teachers spend hundreds of dollars a year in out of pocket expenses for school supplies, snacks/ rewards for students, etc.

Thanks to more emphasis on standardized testing, there is more pressure than ever for teachers to perform and to be accountable for student learning. Teachers are required by law to attend IEP meetings and make several different versions of the same assessment in order to comply with individual student accommodations. Teachers spend hours after the school day is over grading assessments, answering e-mails, contacting parents of students, writing letters of recommendations, developing new lessons plans, and modifying existing ones to keep them current.

Teaching is an honorable, demanding, underpaid profession. 46% of teachers leave the profession within 5 years. Teachers cite lack of planning time, workload, and lack of influence over school policy among other reasons for their decision to leave the profession.

This turnover has a terrible price--estimates put the costs of teacher attrition at $7.3 billion a year. Now many governors want to make it even less appealing for teachers to make teaching a career. This makes no sense. Whatever money is saved on benefits and higher veteran salaries is lost in recruitment, training, and other expenses associated with high turnover.

Besides, it is disingenuous to make drastic cuts in public education, when some of these governors continue to give tax breaks to corporations and tax loopholes for the wealthy.

In Pennsylvania, liberal columnist Will Bunch blasts Gov. Tom Corbett in the Philadelphia Daily News for his new budget proposal, both for the things it includes (substantial higher education cuts) and the things it doesn't (fracking taxes).

Finally, some union supporters feel that this battle isn’t rally about budget deficits—it’s about union busting. Walker and other Republican governors want to crush unions so they are no longer able to raise money to support Democratic politicans.

Why Reformers like Christie, Walker, and Corbett are Right

The numbers do not lie—the state fiscal crisis is real.  A simple cursory examination of state and local staffing cuts reveal this. Across the country, cash-strapped states and local governments are cutting jobs, services and benefits because of budget shortfalls caused by declining tax revenue.

"The most alarming thing about the state issue is the level of complacency," Meredith Whitney, one of the most respected financial analysts on Wall Street and one of the most influential women in American business, told correspondent Steve Kroft during a recent 60 Minutes interview.

State pensions, including teachers' pensions, have contributed to this mess. According to a report issued last year by the Pew Center on the States, as of 2008 there was a $1 trillion gap, conservatively speaking, between what the states have promised in pensions and benefits for their retirees and what they have on hand to pay for them. Here are a few good examples.

California, which faces a $19 billion budget deficit next year, has a credit rating approaching junk status. It now spends more money on public employee pensions than it does on the state university system, which had to increase its tuition by 32 percent.

Illinois spends twice much as it collects in taxes and is unable to pay its bills. New Jersey has the highest taxes in the country, a $10 billion deficit and a depressed economy when first-year Governor Chris Christie took office.

Indeed, the numbers are staggering.

No wonder Governor Chris Christie has become a rising star by attacking teachers unions in town hall speeches-- “Now, do you really think that your child is now stressed out and unable to learn because they know that their poor teacher has to pay 1½ percent of their salary for their health care benefits?

Christie and other Republicans have struck a nerve when discussing generous retirement pensions and the low health insurance premiums paid by teachers compared to workers in the private sector.  One only has to open up the local Op-Ed columns to read some of the contempt and the jealously felt by members of the private sector.

Take Wisconsin. The union concessions--- requiring employees to contribute 5.8 % of their pay to their pensions and 12.6% of their pay to their healthcare costs indeed make a far better deal than almost any private sector job.  Very few private sector workers get old-fashioned, defined benefit pensions anymore. Government pension plans are far more lucrative generally than private sector 401(k) plans.

Also, virtually all full-time state and local workers get retiree health subsidies. So, the typical worker state-local retires at, say, age 55 or 56. Then they get 10 years of health care subsidies before the federal Medicare kicks in. That's the type of benefits that people in the private sector simply don't get.

Another point of disagreement is the idea of collective bargaining.  Collective bargaining for government employees is fundamentally a corrupt practice--- unions contribute financially, with the help of union dues, and vote in a huge block to elect the same politicians who are charged with negotiating salaries and benefits for the union members. The taxpayers aren’t at the table. The taxpayers aren’t even in the room. Even the progressive darling, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt understood this when he said, “It is impossible to bargain collectively with the government.”

Here is why. Thanks to collective bargaining, unions can insist on laws that serve their interests – at the expense of the common good.  Union contracts make it next to impossible to reward excellent teachers or fire failing ones. Everyone is treated the same, regardless of performance.  Union contracts give government employees outstanding benefits – at the cost of higher taxes and less spending on other priorities. The alternative to Governor Walker's budget was kicking 200,000 children off Medicaid.

It is easy to see why collective bargaining does not exist for federal employees.

Conclusions

Unions have been respected in America forever, and public employee unions have reaped the benefits from that respect. There are two reasons for this. One is that unions always stood for the little guy. The other is that Americans like balance. We have management or administration over here and the union over here--  they’ll talk and find balance; it’ll turn out fine.

But with the public employee unions, the balance has been off for decades. And when they lost their balance they fell off their pedestal.  In New York, it is nearly impossible to fire a teacher — even one accused of a crime, drug addiction, or flagrant misbehavior. The miscreants are stashed in "rubber rooms" at full pay, for years, while the union pleads their cases. Yes, Americans are furious with reports like New York’s infamous rubber rooms, rising property taxes, and teacher tenure, which protects many incompetent teachers.

I believe the irresponsible behavior of some of the Wisconsin protestors and pro-union supporters further tarnished the union label. The fourteen Democratic senators who fled Wisconsin neglected their legislative responsibility, looking childish. Many teachers called in sick to protest at the capitol in Madison, forcing schools to close—some even convinced doctors to cover their butts by writing fraudulent medical excuses. Late Wednesday night, demonstrators crowded the capitol in a wild scene, reminiscent of a junior high cafeteria food fight. Protestors may have also caused thousands if not millions of damage to the capitol during the last few weeks. Outside the Capitol Thursday, police found live ammunition. Officers say 41 rounds were found morning scattered at a number of spots. Is this Greece or Wisconsin? Heaven forbid if Tea Party protestors behaved in such an uncivil fashion; the media would have crucified them. 

If union leaders had been wise, they would have held a private meeting and said, “Look, the party’s over. We’ve done great the past 20 years, but now taxpayers are starting to resent us, and they have reason. They’re losing their benefits and footing the bill for our gold-plated plans. They don’t have job security that we do. Their property taxes have gone up year after year and are too high. We have to back off and make some reasonable concessions."

If not, public sector unions will end up like many private sector unions. Look how private unions bankrupted the U.S. auto industry, stubbornly refusing to make necessary wage and benefit concessions. Now government workers face the same problem.

Now Some Solutions

First, grandfather older public union employees, but make younger public employees settle for a 401k plan rather than a traditional pension plan. States like Alaska and Colorado have done this, and they have rapidly diminished their budget shortfalls

Second, teachers unions must accept some new measures of accountability. Nothing infuriates the public when tenure and seniority are abused, making it impossible to punish the bad teachers or failing to reward the good ones. Unions must accept some modifications in seniority and tenure protection.

Lastly collective bargaining should be modified, not eliminated. Teachers unions could accept binding arbitration, like many firefighter and police unions have been using for years.

I think these three sensible solutions should be considered. State budgets need to be fixed, but we should not return to the times when everyone agreed teachers were underpaid. Our nation needs qualified public servants who can earn a good living in our communities in this new, post-recession economy.

The system just needs common sense to become a little more common.

Contact Erik Uliasz at euliasz@philly2philly.com

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