Friday, October 12, 2007

A Few Words About Teacher Strikes.

Because of personal bias, I really didn't want to get involved in the timely debate over teacher strikes. But it appears that a legislator in the PA state Congress is gearing up to introduce another ban on such actions. Representative Todd Rock had introduced a similar bill earlier this year, and local union activity has brought the issue back to the forefront of public attention. It seems that you can't tune in to a television news program, read a newspaper, or listen to AM radio without hearing plenty of commentary. Of course the vast majority of citizens are not teachers (or closely related to one) and they are understandably most concerned about how teacher salaries affect their property taxes.

Discussions based upon willingness to pay increased taxes are going to naturally be one-sided. While millage rates are not always applicable to all contract negotiations, you can bet that every school board will use them as a hammer to shape public opinion. Regardless of the reality of a district's finances, and whether or not there is a budget surplus in the educational system, the threat of more taxes is always going to be invoked by management. Only when the prospect of higher tax rates is removed from the discussion can we get at the core of people's feelings and thoughts about teacher strikes. Perhaps the underlying cause of a lot of the current invective regarding teacher unions could be mediated by a reassessment of property taxes- which is the primary funding source of public education. However, that entails a deep examination that I am not prepared to initiate here.

So why are most residents concerned about teacher strikes? Is it the pervasive animosity society has been programmed to direct toward all unions and collective bargaining? Less than 12% of American workers are members of unions. Ideas about the "free market" and the private sector have poisoned this society when it comes to the topic of unionization. Because corporations have been so effective in guiding our government toward the disenfranchisement of labor, it is almost impossible to have a rational conversation about what rewards we can expect from our employers. "Free trade" agreements have lowered expectations even further. The average worker salary, adjusted for inflation, has steadily decreased since 1970. The game is all but over, and the robber barons are consolidating their victory.

Consequently teacher unions are among the very last organized groups of professional workers in the nation. They are also (not coincidentally) among the last salaried employees to have adequate health care and pensions built into their contracts. Is it surprising that the most widely educated segment of the American workforce has managed to hold on to these benefits? PA educators are required by state law to be life-long learners. In order to acquire a permanent certification, teachers must earn the equivalent of a master's degree in post-graduate credits. In addition they must accumulate 180 hours of further education every five years to maintain active status. Because of these requirements they have learned to value their worth and significant collective contribution to a progressive and functional society. Their expectations for compensation are commensurate with their role as leading figures in the development of an educated population. To maintain their position they have cultivated a system to ensure their just reward.

Exactly what leverage would teachers have in contract negotiations if striking became illegal? How would they maintain the type of salaries and benefits that attract the brightest minds to the field of education? Being a teacher is a great responsibility on multiple levels. In every way, they are the true role models of society. Yet when they strike, they are accused of using children as hostages for their own advancement. However, this charge is fallacious. Students in PA are mandated by law to receive 180 days of education every year. Every day that teachers spend on strike must be made up during holidays or at the end of the original school schedule.

Critics of strikes claim that teachers get paid despite the fact that they aren't working. This is completely false. Without exception, they still must fulfill the terms of their 180-day contracts. Students don't lose a single day of curriculum. Additionally teachers sacrifice one non-working day for every one they spend on the picket line. They are substituting demonstration for "vacation". And all of this is in the service of just compensation. While it may be "inconvenient" for parents to adjust their schedules to accommodate strikes, it is simply not true that it is the kids that make the ultimate sacrifice. In the end strikes are a direct communication with the population that teachers serve- the parents and taxpayers of a district. You get what you pay for, and teachers are providing for the future. What value do you place on that?

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