Sunday, February 27, 2011

On Teachers Unions

I've been watching the whole episode up in Wisconsin and have been fairly amused by the happenings across the board.  This has been the most entertained by political drama that I think I can remember being.  I've largely stayed out of the debate, as I have with much of anything for a while, as I've been incredibly busy with both work and in my personal life, and haven't sat down to formulate my thoughts on the matter.  I ventured into the fray a little bit over at my favorite leftwing lunatic blog, d r i f t g l a s s, and admittedly made an ass of myself, mostly because I felt like stirring up the rats nest.

While the post itself is fairly inane nonsense attempting to tie Walker to the Koch brothers (driftglass is one of the more vehement "vast right wing conspiracy" bloggers I know of, and of the general Liberal ilk of "everyone on the Left is smarter than everyone on the Right, so every idea on the Right is stupid, and I never have to prove it so I'll just be snarky"), three of the comments were fairly instructive to me.  The first was from a commenter called "double nickel" who informed me after I expressed my thoughts that I see no reason for teachers unions to exist, that I am an asshole.  Touche to that.  Well argued and a very reasonable way to carry on a conversation.

A more important comment to me, however, was one from "zombie rotten mcdonald" who responded to my assertion that I find it nonsensical that there should be a public sector union for anything, least of all for the white collar professions.  His response:

It used to be that white collar professionals were protected by demand for their services; good working conditions and wages were necessary to attract decent employees. But In our new, exciting Republican Wage-slave economy, employers are perfectly happy to hold people hostage to employment and most especially, health care. 
Unions created the middle class. And that aggravates the Koch brothers no end.

First of all, I will largely agree that unions created the middle class.  I agree that history bears this out, and vehemently agree that private sector unions were, and remain, necessary to bring stability to wages for workers, and prices to the end client.  An organization like UAW over history has been indispensable to bringing good wages and benefits to auto workers.  They have vastly overreached of late and continue to do so at the peril of the industry itself, but they have been immensely important in bringing a voice to the working class against a small group of employers that collectively can tip the scale of an entire economy.

This comment, despite the commenter not intending it, makes a very strong argument for privatization of most any service that is currently monopolized by the government.  Services such as firefighting, law enforcement and teaching, for example, have little or no private sector equivalent, and are therefore compensated at a rate that is determined only by the local government that oversees them.  I will set aside the professions of firefighting and law enforcement where individuals put their lives on the line in service to the safety of the public and focus on the the collective bargaining of the white collar governmental professions.

White collar professionals in the private sector are indeed protected by demand for their services.  This is the reason that there is not a union for say, civil engineers or project managers.  There is a general ceiling to what the market will bear compensating those positions, to be sure, and one is unlikely to rise above that ceiling unless he or she has management potential and can eventually command some form of percentage bonus structure or profit sharing, but since there are always many different employers willing to compensate these positions they are always likely to garner good salaries and benefits.  Private companies continue to require the best and brightest to remain competitive in the quality of service their clients expects, for what their clients will pay.  The constant demand for high level performance yields a relatively constant supply of well compensated positions.  But this is not the case in white collar government work because there is only one possible major employer: the government.

White collar government workers and the supporters of their union, might be quick to make the elementary observation that this is all the more reason for public sector unions.  Somebody has to negotiate for better wages and benefits, because they've got nowhere else to go!  Ignoring the fact that many governments cannot afford what they are currently paying the positions, hence the current dilemma, this qualifies as a monstrous distortion of the marketplace by the government.  This is the argument for something like a school voucher program.  Put money back into the hands of the people, and the market would self regulate to more of a balance of people sending their kids to private schools.  More private schools offsetting the public schools would create a better market for teachers, allowing compensation for teacher positions to be driven by the market, rather than by political lobbying by the union.

This brings me to driftglass commenter, "CC," who left this impassioned comment (while taking me hugely out of context):

Paul K said "'s teachers working 9 months a year in pleasant conditions..." 
Yep. Pleasant conditions. 25-30 kids an hour each day in a room with no windows with intermittent heat/air, especially at the change in season; outdated equipment; kids that come to school sick; high stakes tests; being shit on (I mean advised) by asshats (I mean concerned citizens) like you; chalk dust; white board markers; poor lighting. Yep conditions are perfect. 
I'd agree that I only work for 9 months of the year. Can I remind you that I plan and grade on my own time (also on the weekends) bringing my weekly hourly work time to somewhere in the area of 70-80 hours a week. So if I spread that over the entire 52 week year (with no time off ever) I would put in about 48 to 55 hours a week. Sounds like a great job for $70K a year...oh wait, it will take me 25 years to reach that pay. 
Couple that with the fact I'll take a month in the summer to take a required class (on my own dime) as well as run classes for other dedicated teachers--correction--brothers and sisters. 
Teachers unions, while we fight for better pay for teachers, also fight for better conditions for students, better teaching materials, better administrators and school board officials. All of this in addition to trying to provide a quality education for students. 
The job is so difficult and stressful that more than 50% of teachers don't make it past the first 5 years. But you're right, screw it, get rid of unions so that you can pay teachers $8 an hour to balance the budget. 
I love the work that I do and I do my job well. But try to tie me to my job by my love of it and I'll walk and many of my counterparts will do the same thing. Guess what? We are good at other things. Private sector beware. Teachers will take your jobs.

I'll throw a little irony on the fire here by taking the "I have black friends" approach to defending against being called racist, and say that one of my best friends is a teacher.  I know quite well how hard she has to work to keep pace with the paperwork end of things, and she's teaching early childhood, so there's not even homework to deal with.  It was stressful enough at one point when she was preparing for the beginning of the school year that several of us got together with her for big group preparation sessions, helping her prepare materials for her classroom, deep into the night.  This was just preparing for the beginning of the year.  She's been one of the busiest people I know since the year started, besides.  She always is.  The amount of work that teachers do on their own time is phenomenal, and it's absolutely the unfortunate tragedy of our lifetime that they are not paid better than they are.

But when we look at the relationship between the teacher and the employer, the perception among the unionized is that there is only one way to achieve better wages and benefits, and that is to support the union.  The flaw in this idea, however, is that, as FDR knew, the relationship between government and its employees is fundamentally different from the relationship between the private sector and its employees.  Government has always paid its employees less than the private sector, and offset that by providing vastly superior benefits.  This grew out of the nature of working for the government being one of serving the public.  Government workers were assumed to be people who were sacrificing their private earning potential to serve the public for a certain amount of time, before going back to their own lives.  Only when the government monopolized certain industries, such as education, and working for the government necessarily became a career pursuit, did a union also arise, the view being that falsely espoused by CC, that the government would pay teachers $8/hour just to balance the budget.

This is nonsense because the government also sets values like the minimum wage and the cost of living allowance.  These are meant to be guideposts for the private sector that the government sets in its role as referee.  If the government didn't also at least follow these guideposts, its legitimacy as referee would be reduced to zero.  Also making this nonsense is that when government does need to hire white collar positions that are not unionized, they are not paying people $8/hour to do them.  The aforementioned civil engineers and project managers are positions that the government also hires, and that are hired by the government at compensation packages that rival that of the private sector.  If they did not rival those of the private sector, the people simply wouldn't go work for the government.  This would also be the case in a privatized, open market teaching industry.

What would not be the case in a privatized, open market teaching industry is what we see today:  a gigantic, overly-bureaucratic employer attempting to balance its books, that's wound up in a ludicrous political showdown with a gigantic, overly-bureaucratic employees union that is pitching the biggest sore loser shit-fit this side of Kanye West simply because it no longer has the employer in its hip pocket.

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