NOTE: I started writing this before Japan was struck by earthquake and much of its coastline inundated by tsunami resulting in a human and technological crisis unlike any we have seen. In addition, since I began writing this, the Wisconsin legislature and Wisconsin’s governor have succeeded in their attempt to curtail union power in their state. I’ve left this post half-written for weeks, now. I’ll give a quick read-over and maybe add a couple of thoughts before publishing it, knowing it isn’t one of my best efforts, but knowing also that the subject matter merits even inadequate treatment.
My wife works as a public school teacher. It is the only remunerative employment she has ever held, except for part-time work in high school and college. The formulae applied as a result of the disastrous “No Child Left Behind” legislation and now the equally absurd federal (I think it is) scheme of “Race to the Top” indicate some schools are lagging because, already at or near the top, test scores do not indicate much in the way of gains. It is additionally absurd to expect any amount of competent classroom instruction by highly qualified teachers to offset the effects of bad parenting, absent parenting, or organic intellectual/developmental disabilities that in many instances (except in cases of birth defects attributable to the actions taken by the parent or parents) have nothing to do with quality of parenting.
Diatribe, Rant, or Something
Lately, conservative talk-radio hosts and people who strongly agree with their talking points have been at odds with socialists, advocates of government social-engineering through compulsory education in the public school system, and educators over something referred to by political conservatives as “collective bargaining.” From what I’ve been able to gather by reading interactive discussions, listening to talk-radio, and talking with conservatives is that there is no place in a free-market economy for collective bargaining, and that this is especially true regarding government workers among whose number they count public school teachers.
The crux of the matter is, according to a friend I respect and like, that government workers, among them teachers, waive their rights to associate with one another to lobby or bargain for their mutual interests. I disagree with that assumption. Perhaps it is or should be true of elected officials but arguably not for those who exchange their time and expertise for salaries and other benefits. No one would seriously argue that teachers and most other government workers are recipients of unearned taxpayer funded benefits like, say, the average welfare recipient.
I think all workers bring something to the market in the form of time and varying degrees of expertise or competence. It is self-evidently absurd to suppose an economy that only factors “manufacturer”-as-employer over and against consumer of goods and/or services. In a truly free market, of course, all education would be privately funded or purchased by parents, tech-school, and college/university students. Education would unavailable to those unable to pay for it unless provided as a matter of voluntary charity by groups of citizens that would doubtless include religious groups. In that world, no one would seriously argue that teachers should be denied the right to associate by forming unions to lobby for their interests or attempt to leverage better pay and working conditions. Well, the people who seriously argue that employees have no citizen-rights in the workplace would keep making that argument.
In our society, all citizens are free to associate with one another informally or formally for reasons that may include carrying out non-criminal aims shared among members of the group. I understand that in some states worker citizen freedom of association is curtailed by the requirement that, in order to maintain various sorts of employment, the citizen must associate with a particular group/union. For instance, when I was a kid growing up in California, it was a matter of common knowledge that in order to work as a supermarket cashier, the worker was required to join something I think was called the Retail Clerks Union. If you wanted to work on the docks, you had to join the Longshoreman’s Union. Are some union contracts or terms thereof absurd and do they, to use a hackneyed expression, fly in the face of fiscal reality and responsibility? You bet.
But what I’m wondering is why the employer does not negotiate a better, more realistic contract? Right to work legislation, I would guess, should address on a state by state basis, the closed-shop problem that gives unions more negotiating leverage than seems reasonable in a free society.
If the fight were about relegating unions representing exclusively the interests of recipients of unearned taxpayer funded benefits (basically, the Democrat party and the mainstream GOP) of the ability to impose their will on the taxpayer, I would be all for it. But teachers and government workers, er, work, for pay and benefits that very frequently don’t begin to compensate them adequately for effort expended. Sure, “nobody’s forcing” anyone to serve as a public school teacher or a government employee, but is that a serious argument in an economy in a free fall that can be traced to the greatest twin horrors visited upon the American wage earner, NAFTA and temporary employment agencies? Seriously, people who have jobs are holding on to them.
Everyone with the cognitive horsepower of, um, a horse knows that job security is ultimately an illusion. Everyone with about that much sense knows that times of feast will not last, and are punctuated by times of famine, to put the matter in biblical terms.