Monday, November 05, 2007

Report From the Line. Part 5.

I have now officially entered the fourth week of a labor strike. As time progresses, the terms of the debate get progressively muddier. A couple of years working in the marketing department of a public relations department taught me the lesson that there exists an almost infinite amount of ways to manipulate numbers in order to make a point. Unfortunately everyone involved in this dispute seems to be applying this concept. It's difficult to translate the various offers that are getting tossed about. I can only imagine the confusion of someone who isn't watching very carefully. There are some eerily Orwellian concepts at work here- apparently 1 + 1 is not always equal to two. The meaning of 4% (obviously) changes depending upon the figures we are applying it to. It's a shame that there's not much clarity to the definitions. People don't even know what they are fighting about. Like so much in this society the argument gets reduced to "us vs. them".

I'd be disingenuous if I tried to claim that I did not know what I was getting into when I took this job. I knew that the area was jammed packed with conservative Republicans. I also knew that people of that political stripe generally bristle at the idea of "public education". When it comes to taxes, they certainly don't want to spend their money to solve "other people's problems". Apparently it's one thing to invest hundreds of billions of dollars in a war and occupation aimed at liberating an oil-bearing nation, but quite another thing to fork over hard-earned cash to educate the neighbors' kids. While that may be a shame, it's not likely to change anytime soon.

You might suggest that the best decision would be to pull up the stakes and move to a more favorable ground. However, there is a common perception among teachers (at least in the region of the state that I live in) that it becomes progressively more difficult to transfer to a new district once one has several years of experience. Apparently school boards prefer hiring new teachers because they can pay them less salary. Whatever collusion exists between boards on this issue serves to depress overall wages. That makes it much more difficult to upgrade to a better situation when you are undervalued where you are. People are fond of comparisons to the private sector, but things work quite differently in the taxpayer-funded segment of the workforce. You tend to get locked into the position that you start in. There simply isn't as much opportunity for mobility. So you just try to make the best of things and pick your battles.

I don't see any imminent end to this particular struggle. We'll be forced by the state to go back to the classrooms in a couple of weeks, and we'll be doing so without a new contract. The board has expressed absolutely no interest in negotiating a compromise. And once we are back at work they will have no incentive to continue to bargain. It serves their interests to drag it out, and without overwhelming pressure from that part of the community that is inconvenienced by the strike, there will be no reason or them to change their offer. So it looks like we are going to be in the same position next fall. The only thing that will ultimately affect a change in the situation is a school board election that replaces the one currently in place. Despite the strong preference for a legislative ban on teacher strikes among the board members, there seems to be little political traction for such a direction in the state capitol. Unfortunately... you don't go into negotiations with the opponent you want- but rather the one that you have.

If it were up to me, I would be pushing for 'final offer' binding arbitration. I've heard from a trusted authority that such a strategy has worked in similar strike situations in the state. Such a resolution carries risks for both sides. Everyone puts their best offer on the table, and a 'neutral' arbiter decides the contract. There are no votes on the decision, but rather all parties must live with the final outcome. In this case we already have a fact finder report and it looks certain that we will be forced into non-binding arbitration. Unfortunately that's only going to result in yet another stall in negotiations. Both sides will reject the compromise, and we'll be back to where we are now. At this point, with the amount of acrimony building in the community, binding arbitration seems like the most 'fair and balanced' option. Still, I haven't heard either side express any desire for this solution. All I see is all players digging in their heels for a long fight.



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