Wednesday, February 23, 2011

A Union Teacher's Thoughts on Senate Bill 5

By now I’m sure you’ve heard of Senate Bill 5 and understand that it is causing unrest among public employees. The following bullet points are proposed in a sponsor testimony by senator Sharon Jones (R):

• Eliminates collective bargaining for state employees and employees of higher education institutions
• Existing collective bargaining agreements (CBAs) covering those employees expire according to their terms
• Eliminates salary schedules and step increases and replaces them with a merit pay system
• Eliminates continuing contracts for teachers after the bill’s effective date
• Eliminates teacher leave policies in statute and requires local school boards to determine leave time
• Eliminates seniority as a sole criterion for Reductions In Force (RIFs)
• Removes healthcare from bargaining and instead permits school boards to govern healthcare benefit plans for employees
• Requires employees to pay at least 20% of their healthcare costs
• Allows public employers to hire permanent replacement workers during a strike
• Limits bargaining for local government employees (including school districts) to issues of wages, hours and terms and conditions of employment
• Eliminates binding arbitration for police and fire
• Abolishes the School Employee Healthcare Board
• Prohibits school districts from picking up any portion of the employee’s contribution to the pension system
• Allows a public employer in “fiscal emergency” to serve notice to terminate, modify or negotiate a CBA

Now, the proposal that has most teachers I know up in arms is the proposal to eliminate the right of unions to engage in collective bargaining with school administration. If teachers in the state of Ohio were to lose collective bargaining and the right to strike, we would be subject to the absolute rule of the administration and local school boards. There are some people out there who think this isn’t such a bad idea. Most of these people are employees in the “private sector,” or members of the Tea Party. They think teacher unions are responsible for providing laundered union dues money to fund Democratic campaigns. They also think these union dues go to pay for “stand-in” hired protesters at political rallies. They think this bill will help balance the state (maybe even the national budget), because, their logic is, if the state can cut teachers’ (and other public employee’s) bloated paychecks and cushy benefits packages, not to mention organizations like NEOEAs teacher retirement package benefits, we might just balance the state and national budget. Ohio Tea Party members believe that their income tax dollars are squandered to provide a luxurious lifestyle for teachers who only work 184 days a year and, for all intents and purposes, “coast” in their professions.

My father worked as an Ohio educator for 32 years in the classroom.  He paid into STRS (state teacher’s retirement system) his entire life, every paycheck. He is now receiving that money (his money) in the form of a pension in retirement. My parents pay for their health insurance. That is they pay for their health care premium. They’ve done the math and pay any dental and vision expenses out of pocket reasoning that the cost to fill an odd tooth or the cost of glasses is less than a monthly premium. And they’re right. Their “luxurious” lifestyle involves a senior priced cup of McDonald’s coffee.

My grandfather was a policeman, and to this day I remember him sitting in his recliner sporting duct taped slippers and getting up to unplug the microwave because he saw the odd penny of electricity used to power the digital clock as a horrific waste of money. Now, to be fair he behaved this way not necessarily because he was penniless, but more likely because he lived through the Great Depression and had stories about standing in lines for sugar and flour. I suppose the portrait I’m trying to paint here is of two men who worked hard their entire lives serving the public and that certainly did not, or do not, “live in the lap of luxury.”

My parents aren’t starving in the street, and they have been able to enjoy their retirement unlike some Goodyear retirees I know that had to go back to work in their old age because of pension cuts and now paint houses well into their late sixties and seventies in order to make ends meet. So there’s the private sector for you and all the good it’s done the gentlemen I used to sell paint to when I was in college and worked at an independent little paint store long since run out of business by big boxes like Home Depot, who by the way aren’t union either, but at least they sponsor the homosexuals. Anyway I had to carry these five gallon buckets of paint to their cars and trucks because they’d had rotator cuff surgery for the sixth time from the debilitating effect of the brushing motion involved in painting houses, and couldn’t lift the weight.

I remember standing on the picket line with my father while he and the other teachers he worked with were on strike. I was eight years old and warming my hands on the fire they had going in a steel drum. I was not to go to school during the time the teachers were on strike, and many of my friends and neighbors supported the teachers by keeping their young ones at home as well. Keep in mind this was during the 1980s when inclusion was in full swing. When I asked my dad why the teachers were on strike, he told me that the administration wanted to count disabled students as ½ a student. I remember feeling that this was fundamentally wrong. I remember his stories of these disabled students, his eyes usually watery behind his big bifocals. Whenever my father spoke of Victor, a child bound to a wheelchair due to some horrid disease I can’t remember that killed him in his twenties, or the story involving a child that ate his lunch every day with my father and his colleague, his eyes (even now twenty years later) are usually watery. I don’t know what particular disability this latter child suffered, but I remember my father telling me that it took them nearly an entire year of question and answer to teach him that the capital of Ohio is called “Columbus.” The administration wanted to count special needs children as ½ a child. I could only sense that this was wrong from a moral standpoint. My father explained how it was also wrong from a labor standpoint. “Most of those little boys and girls (he taught sixth grade) need more help than the average child. If they appear as ½ on my class rosters, on paper I could have 25 students, but in reality I could have near thirty, and many with special needs.” At the age of eight, I sensed that the teacher strike was for a just cause, and I was proud to be on the picket lines with my father. “Why would the administration want to do something like that?” I asked. My dad rubbed his thumb against the fingers of his right hand: his universal gesture for “money.” And not just money. My father uses this gesture now and forever with scorn to mean ill-begotten money. I came to understand that if the school was able to “hide” student numbers on paper, they could give teachers bigger class loads and hire fewer and fewer teachers.

Senate Bill 5 is designed to take away a teacher’s right to strike. I read today that now they (the Republicans in the Ohio senate) want to allow us to keep collective bargaining, but only in order to negotiate wages. I truly believe that most school administrators are good people who want to do a good job. Unfortunately “doing a good job” for district superintendents means saving the district money. I foresee that if this bill passes schools will indeed begin saving money. However, at what moral cost? At the expense of student learning? Most school administrators were once teachers but only a few years out of the trenches can cause them to forget what it was like. If this bill goes through, and we lose our right to strike, I think all school administrators as well as the boards of education must be held accountable for spending a certain number of hours in the classroom.

There’s a lot of comparing private sector to public in this debate, and quite frankly it smacks of a pissing contest to me, and the best advice I ever received regarding pissing contests is: once you realize you’re in a pissing contest, get out. So I will keep this brief. As it stands I agree with Thoreau: “Education should not be a mass process.” Can you imagine what a mess education will become if we run our schools like businesses in the private sector? School should be a place of ascetic learning and ideas, more like a monastery than a place where young people learn to become only what the corporations can use to make a profit. I just wrapped up teaching the novel Feed to my seniors. You should read it. I hate the idea of one day sending my boys off to School 

Being a relatively young teacher, the idea of merit pay amuses me. What kind of system would these folks have to create in order to evaluate student learning? Test scores? The state is doing away with the Ohio Graduation Test, and they’re putting it in our hands to create a high school exit exam for our students. So, they propose to put us in charge of our own salary? Okay. I guess I can deal with that.

Eliminating seniority as sole factor in Reductions in Force doesn’t bother me so much either. But now I’m a young cocky teacher with high efficacy who is well liked for my youth and connection with my young students. Now, I’m over thirty but still pretty hip. What about when I’m a crusty old man, “a tattered coat upon a stick”? Will I be the first to go because I pull down a big paycheck? Not because of a bloated union pay scale based on seniority (they’re doing away with that, remember?), but because I’m such a master teacher my students’ performance is off the chart. Could we ever see a day when administrators value the mediocre teacher over the excellent teacher simply because they have to pay them less?

Many folks have concluded that this bill is more about union busting than balancing the budget. So, okay, the Republicans want to destroy unions. Is this really such a big surprise? The “Haves” want to make “Have-Nots” labor cheaper. Big bloody shocker. Some folks are indignant that we’re calling SB5 a class issue, but that’s what Marx was going on about in that little Manifesto, the likes of which I can’t even mention in print because most Americans think it’s a dirty word. What aggravates me most, I suppose, are state employees that align with the Tea Party. I can’t imagine the amount of loathing these individuals have for themselves and their profession. By all means, go join the private sector, but leave our unions intact. And to all the rest of you out there sitting on a fence. We teach your children. We watch you while you sleep. Don’t you think we should have a voice?


Karen Schubert said...

Thanks, John.

Chris said...

My dad works at Home Depot, which made that seem funny to me.

Jason McKee said...

We don't know each other at all, but it sounds like we're around the same age and really share a lot of the same views about this. Thanks for posting!