Sunday, February 17, 2008

Is the MEA a child of the UAW?

Here is an interesting piece:

Projo.com: Blue-collar teacher contracts work against the students (02/10/08)

It's a summary of comments by Ray Spears, a former superintendent in Rhode Island. He supported the idea of the unions in the mid-60's because data showed that the teachers were truly under-compensated. However, he feels that today they've worn out their welcome. Here are a few good excerpts:

Spear was “just a young kid of a superintendent” in Michigan when that state’s collective-bargaining law passed in 1965. “When I sat down at the bargaining table for the first time, their contract proposal looked more like a General Motors contract than an education contract. They’d gone to the automotive industry for advice. Those are the roots of the situation we’re in now.”

I was unaware that the MEA roots came from the UAW.

The article makes the case for the birth of the teacher unions, but goes on to illustrate how they are actually harmful today:

Currently, Rhode Island’s teachers’ unions are monolithically powerful forces that “fail to regard the needs of students,” according to Spear. These unions protect bad teachers, make a principal’s job nearly impossible, slow or stop educational reforms, and critically, in this fiscal climate, drive the cost of doing business through the roof.

And

In an unfortunate accident of history, the labor contracts that won decent pay for teachers also cemented into place a factory-model design for schooling. Blue-collar labor contracts spell out and limit a worker’s obligations on the factory floor, or in this case a classroom, as if teachers were as interchangeable as die-press operators.

The key here is that teachers are professionals, and should be treated as such. The union detracts from instead of enhancing their professionalism.


UPDATE: I just received a note that has me worried some might believe I am suggesting all teachers only "work to contract". I do not believe that is the case, and want to be crystal clear about that. I know MANY teachers who go far above and beyond on a regular basis. I repeatedly see it in Rochester Schools. These teachers are, quite frankly, the saviors of public education. Ironically, the union contracts prevent them from receiving the financial recognition they deserve. The important point I saw in the passage was that it spotlights how the structure of union contracts REMOVES professionalism by establishing absurd rules and minimums or maximums behind which some will hide.

I’ve posted the full article below in case the link doesn’t work.


Blue-collar teacher contracts work against the students

01:00 AM EST on Sunday, February 10, 2008


“I’m probably the only person in the room who was actually at the negotiating table in the mid-1960s when the first collective bargaining laws were being passed.” So said Ray Spear, former superintendent in Coventry and now a member of the Coventry School Committee, addressing the Board of Regents.

Recently, the Regents held a series of public meetings to hear creative ideas about how to prevent teacher strikes in strike-prone Rhode Island. The hearing I attended was packed to the gills with school administrators, school committee members and union officials.

Spear went on to wholeheartedly endorse “the granting of the initial bargaining rights for teachers.” Later, in an interview, he elaborated. “I was sympathetic with teachers because at the time they were not being paid at a scale comparable to other workers. I personally researched what other B.A.-level workers were being paid. Teachers weren’t even close. And they weren’t getting any benefits, no personal leave, maternity leave....”

But now, this elder statesman of the Rhode Island education community told the Regents, “It is my sincere belief that the teacher negotiation process has worn out its welcome and gone far beyond the purpose and intent which it was to serve.”

Currently, Rhode Island’s teachers’ unions are monolithically powerful forces that “fail to regard the needs of students,” according to Spear. These unions protect bad teachers, make a principal’s job nearly impossible, slow or stop educational reforms, and critically, in this fiscal climate, drive the cost of doing business through the roof.

The current problem is the result of flawed thinking back in the 1960s.

Spear was “just a young kid of a superintendent” in Michigan when that state’s collective-bargaining law passed in 1965. “When I sat down at the bargaining table for the first time, their contract proposal looked more like a General Motors contract than an education contract. They’d gone to the automotive industry for advice. Those are the roots of the situation we’re in now.”

Rhode Island, too, had robust textile and jewelry factories back then, and blue-collar unions to turn to. In an unfortunate accident of history, the labor contracts that won decent pay for teachers also cemented into place a factory-model design for schooling. Blue-collar labor contracts spell out and limit a worker’s obligations on the factory floor, or in this case a classroom, as if teachers were as interchangeable as die-press operators.

States reacted differently to the advent of collective bargaining. Connecticut’s law limited what could be negotiated, so school administrators never lost powers such as the right to hire and evaluate teachers. In its 1993 Education Reform Act, Massachusetts shifted key rights, such as hiring, back to management.

Rhode Island’s 1966 law, called the Michaelson Act, put “working conditions” on the table, which is to say everything that happens at a school. Spear echoed many of the speakers at the Regents hearing: “Our legislature should decide what’s out of bounds for the negotiation, and limit the scope of bargaining.” As it is, any administrative change can be a bone of contention, for which the union wants extra compensation, ever driving up costs.

Spear says, “So we’ve gotten way out of whack. The top-step teachers are getting $70,000, $80,000 a year. But the people paying the bills make $30,000 or $40,000. We need to find out what someone else, with a similar background, with a bachelor’s or master’s is getting.”

According to the Education Intelligence Agency, the average teacher’s salary nationally exceeds the average worker’s salary by about 25 percent. Rhode Island teachers are number one in the nation, by this measure, exceeding their average fellow worker by 47 percent.

Spear growls, “The unions are running this state into the ground. In fact, they’re running the whole country into the ground because they can’t get it through their heads that the reason for our financial problems is at least in part due to us trying to keep up with their demands. If you go out into the streets, you see a lot of foreign cars because they’re cheaper. They’re even better. I love the state of Michigan, but it’s going under because they’re in the same rut as Rhode Island.”

Those were the only two states to lose population last year.

The administrators at the Regents hearing were poker-faced through Spear’s tirade, probably because Rhode Island administrators are flat-out scared of the unions. Unions can make their lives miserable. If unions don’t get what they want, they call strikes, bury administration in grievances or, most perniciously, implement work-to-rule, which is when teachers do only what’s in the contract — as if a professional’s job could be described by a contract.

Spear was the only one at the hearing who had the nerve to say that the whole negotiating process, using a model designed for blue-collar jobs, is painfully obsolete, seriously impeding academic improvement and, most importantly, stealing resources from the kids.

Julia Steiny, a former member of the Providence School Board, consults for government agencies and schools; she is co-director of Information Works!, Rhode Island’s school-accountability project. She can be reached at juliasteiny@cox.net , or c/o EdWatch, The Providence Journal, 75 Fountain St., Providence, RI 02902.

8 comments:

Adam McLane said...

Thank you for sharing this piece. Whether you are pro or anti-union, perspective matters.

Personally, I think the time is approaching when management will take back some of the ability to negotiate appropriate contracts with the MEA.

Bill Milligan said...

This person is certainly entitled to his opinion. But as an opinion piece, it lacks substance. There are blanket assertions made without a shred of data to back them up.

We've already outlawed in Michigan a basic worker freedom for teachers: the ability to strike (though there are loopholes), and even that's not good enough. I've seen articles recently that say the entire collective bargaining process (er, freedoms) should be scrapped.

So this person is a super talking to a room full of administrators. So he used to be a union guy. Big deal: I used to be a Republican ;)

RightMichigan.com said...

Biggest strike against the MEA is MESSA. If they didn't keep a choke hold on that monstrosity for so many years, literally lining the pockets of union bosses with teachers' green...

We're talking hundreds of millions of dollars a YEAR that would have otherwise gone into the classroom and, potentially, into teacher benefits and salary packages.

But hey, gotta bow before the sacred cow.

--Nick
www.RightMichigan.com

Bill Milligan said...

Our school has had something like 3 or 4 different insurance carriers in the 7 years I've been there. Even though we're an MEA school, we came to have MESSA late. Once we switched to MESSA, we finally received stability. The problem before that was that we were treated like red headed stepchildren when it came to pooling from other carriers. We were left flapping in the breeze by these folks. MESSA put our small district into a very large pool and treated us with respect.

Have you had MESSA, Nick? Are you a teacher? I'm living it. I've been a teacher with non-MESSA insurance and I've been a teacher with MESSA insurance. Aside from you being jacked up by the political entities in your party, what direct experience do you have with this issue?

I'm happy to share mine. Anytime.

Clay Hufnagel said...

In my ten years' experience with the MEA as both a principal and a superintendent in Michigan, I have found that much depends on the quality and character of the Unviserv director. Three of the four that I dealt with over the years obviously stood up for their teachers, BUT they also were aware of the needs of kids and the circumstances of the districts. And when push came to shove, I believe they were as much interested in what was good for kids as they were in the teachers they represented. They believed that a briefer contract was a better contract, as it gave more opportunity for mature human intereaction between administration/board and staff. Also, when some type of action needed to be taken against a staff member, once the situation was explained to them, their reaction was: "I understand. Just make sure you do it right; otherwise, we'll have to take you on." I appreciated that, as it made me do my job better.

The fourth one was a different story. When I took action against one staff member, he swore to "get me." He misrepresented the law and the tenure act to board members that he knew on a personal basis. And he did not want the union exec board to put anything in writing because, as one of them told me, "We've been told that, 'If it's in writing, you can't deny it.'"

From my experience it's that type of Uniserv director that contributes to the negative perception of the MEA, which then impacts on the perception many have of unionized teachers.

Fair? To quote someone: "It is what it is."

Anonymous said...

Clay, that's one part of it. It takes two to tango. The other dance partners are folks like yourself. Our school went through a rather lengthy contract negotiations two contracts ago--lots of bad feelings--under "administrator A."

Last year, in pretty much the same economic environment, we settled a contract in about one month (don't have the exact figure...it was somewhere around 4-6 weeks) under "Administrator B."

Unfortunately, it often gets personal and administrators are just as capable (to say the least) of being that way as any union member or Uniserv director example you might care to cite.

I'm glad, though, that you admit that collective bargaining as worked out for you and your district and been a positive experience a vast majority of the time.

Anonymous said...

Where in any of this is any link between MEA and UAW? I'm lost here folks. The question in the title leads one to believe that a link exists. I's like asking if you have stopped beating your wife yet.

Further many proud union members such as IBEW, steel, or construction will consider this attempted linkage to be fighting words. Yes I too held a union card at one time in construction. I left Michigan in 1981 for Texas a Right to Work state. My Rochester Hills based employeer saw fit to cut my pay after 90 days in Texas rather than deliver on the raise and the benefits promised to get me to go there.

I did not like the forced union membership in Michigan and sure didn't like the screwing in Texas. Same job half pay and no benefits. It would have been nice to have some recourse.

So are we proposing to strip teachers of their right to collective bargaining and do the same just because there might be a link to the UAW? Frankly I just don't trust many employeers anymore.

I'm also surprised that Mr. Reno would knowingly post both the article and his comments with the negative connotations. Does he know that Walter Ruther was a resident and tax payer within the Rochester district? The district even named a school after him.

So while we pump up the choir with what appears to be anti union rhetoric, some employees and their families will feel intimidated, insulted, and possibly threatened.

Yes contracts can be costly and limiting to both sides. Yes MESSA is and was a huge waste. RCS went away from MESSA a while ago.

Blog posts in the last school election looked like a union inquisition or the House Committee on Un American Activities turned upon anything possibly and or remotely union.

Yes most contracts can lock bad teachers in good schools and good teachers in bad schools. Contracts can have all sorts of silly and wastefull clauses.

They fact is that they don't have to.

So while Mr. Reno clings to his big political party dogma, the other side has some real influential lobby efforts and crafty negotiators. While we parents watch them fight, our kids still come up on the short end.

So once again rather than construct a strategy to work with the union, Mr. Reno has chosen to stirr up resentment.

Bill Milligan said...

The key is mutual respect. And quite frankly I don't see a lot of it given by the folks Mike hangs around with (re: EAG and Kyle Olson). Teachers and taxpayers are called "thugs" by these entities--or we're inferred to be stupid because we're obviously being abused by our union handlers.

Clay listed a few examples where things worked out well when there was respect given. There was no need in those situations for secret-handshake-backroom-meetings, name calling, and hate. But it has to happen both ways. And it's not.

I'm more than willing to put my head together with anyone else and talk if I feel I'm being respected. But I will philosophically stand firm and challenge a group like EAG with every fiber of my being until my last breath on this Earth--and their disrespect and hatred spewed will do nothing to solve a single, darn thing (except make teachers and union members even more resolved, like I have become since my listing on "thug watch").

It's a shame. But it is what it is, as my dad would say.

So keep rallying the troops, guys--on both sides.