Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Striking Local

While the big news in teacher strikes has been state-wide walkouts, elsewhere in the world, teachers are also dealing with strikes the old fashioned way-- one district at a time.

In fact, right now in my little corner of the world, two local unions are looking at teacher strikes-- one in the fall, and one tomorrow (I will note in the spirit of full disclosure that one of these school districts is the one where my wife works).

I've been through two strikes in my career (one as a new hire, and one as local president). It may seem as if there are many reasons that strikes happen, but there really aren't.

Strikes happen because there is a breakdown in negotiations. When a school board indicates that they are not wiling to negotiate any more, then teachers are out of options. This should not come as a shock to anyone-- if you are trying to buy a car, and the dealer says he will not lower the price that is two grand above what you're willing to pay, what do you do? You walk away. But school boards (or sometimes the administrator's behind them) sometimes fall in love with the notion that they should be able to dictate the terms of the teacher contract. In some states, that is now the law. But Pennsylvania is not one of those states. When you tell your teachers that you refuse to schedule any more sessions and they had better accept your last offer or else-- well, that's dumb, because the only "or else" that can follow is a strike.

Okay, I take it back. There is one other "or else"-- teachers can decide to stop working for you at all. The nationwide teacher shortage is simply a slow motion teacher walkout.

If you say to your staff, "We want to be the school district of last resort, so that you can work only with people who couldn't find any job anywhere else," you are being a dope. Nobody wants that.

The most important thing to understand about a teacher strike is that no teacher wants to strike. Not one. Not ever. Teachers do not suddenly decide they'd like to strike because a couple of rabble-rousers stirred them up. If your teachers are talking strike, it is because you have backed them into a corner. You have convinced them they have no other options short of quitting permanently.

If you're a school board looking at a strike-- well, you made this. You treated them like dopes who couldn't figure out that a $100 salary bump minus a $200 increase in insurance payments isn't actually a raise (or some similar mathematical baloney).You have convinced them that you are not interested in bargaining in good faith. You have convinced them that you view the contract as a battle to be won instead of a problem to be solved together. You have convinced them that they can't trust you to put the interests of education first. You may even have convinced them that you do not respect or value them.

Schools boards can send messages. In my strike, years ago, the board opened negotiations with "stripping," a move in which the board "offers" to strip dozens of items from the contract-- things they didn't remotely care about, but took as a bargaining position so that they could claim they were "giving something up" when they agreed to only take teachers' arms instead of teachers' arms and legs.  Last night, one board, knowing that the full contingent of teachers were coming to the meeting, moved the meeting to a larger venue, then moved it back to the classroom-sized location so that folks would have to squeeze in and sit on the floor and wait in the hall. This is what is technically known as "a dick move." And it send s a message-- We have the power and you don't. This is our space and you're not welcome.

There are plenty of other delightful things you can expect if you are a teacher on strike.

Fellow teachers who want to hide. "I don't want to wear the union t-shirt. I don't want to wear the color we picked out for that day. I don't want to walk on the picket line. I believe in what we're doing and I want to see this contract settled but couldn't I just stay home and watch Great British Baking and let someone else take care of all the hard stuff?"  I get it. It's scary to actually stand up publicly for something when some people disagree with you. But as with all sorts of negotiations, the principle is very simple. You want A. That's nice-- but how badly do you want it? How much difficulty and inconvenience are you willing to suffer to get it. If the answer I "Now very much," then you aren't going to get it.

Fellow teachers who are conflict averse. My union had several members who were just sure that it was all a big misunderstanding and if we could just explain to the board and the public, it would be okay, so let's just do that. As the strike becomes more real, some teachers will decide that maybe a 0.12% raise isn't that bad. This is normal and understandable and not unusual-- Patrick Henry's whole speech is about responding to the colonials who wanted to try anything else except revolution, and his whole point was that everything else had been tried and had failed.

The race to the bottom. People working in convenience stores make minimum wage and have no benefits. Why should teachers do any better? This would be an excellent argument if schools were competing with Wal-mart for personnel, but they aren't. Good teachers want to work side by side with good teachers. Good teachers want to feel that the school they're investing in is going to have a future. You don't recruit and retain the best by offering the worst; striking teachers are often depicted as greedy and selfish, but strikes are always in part about the teachers of the future-- will any of them want to work here.

Some people just don't like teachers. It not worth wondering why. Some people hate teachers like I hate bats in my house. They will tell you how the union is responsible for everything bad in the world, how teachers are overpaid slobs who think they're so special just because they went to teacher school, how teachers are just glorified babysitters who work two hour days three months a year. Uppity teachers on strike make these people really angry, and they will find all sorts of ways to tell you about it. Warning: do not read the comments to articles about the strike on social media. I'll bet someone will be along to the comments here to explain how I have it all backwards and teachers are just evil greedy terrorists.

The hostage children. This one always comes up. Teachers are just holding children hostage so they can make more money. Of course, saying that is just a way to hold children hostage so that teachers will accept being compensated poorly.

You will have your heart broken. The single most difficult part of being the president of a striking union was the number of people, including friends, neighbors, family, former students, who made it a point to make sure I understood just how little they value the work 've devoted my entire adult life to. Plus the people who indicate that same disregard without even realizing it ("Well, I mean, geeze-- you're only a teacher."). And all of this including families for whom I'd gone an extra mile, or who had made it a point to be friendly to my while Chris and Pat were in my class. As a teacher, you know somewhere in the back of your mind, that an awful large sector of our society does not value education or teachers or any of the rest of the work, but it's one thing to know you're standing on a tightrope and another thing to stare straight down into the abyss.

All that, and more. Did I mention that no teachers actually want to go on strike?

It's not hard to avert a strike. In fact, while I was typing this, word arrived that the school board facing a strike tomorrow has postponed that strike for the moment by reversing their previous position and agreeing to meet with an arbitrator. See? Was that so hard?

I'll let you know how things go.


  1. Even as a conservative, I have no issue with strikes. You can't be compelled to work under terms in which you disagree. Slavery was outlawed a long time ago. I don't even have a problem with unions. The right to assemble is protected by the 1st amendment - although it's important to note that this is an individual right. You can no more tell someone who disagrees with you that they must support a union than you can tell them what religion to practice.

    However, an employer has rights as well. If you choose not work for the terms offered, then you can leave or strike. But the employer likewise cannot be compelled (or bribed as teacher controlled school boards do) to enter into terms with which they disagree. If the teachers may choose not to work, so may the employer choose to find replacement teachers. And sure, I acknowledge that much of the teacher shortage may be the result of insufficient pay. But if an employer wants to go the route of seeking lower paid workers, that's their right just as much as teachers may seek higher paid work. Sure, both sides can and should try to negotiate. But sometimes, there is no midpoint to which both sides can agree. It's not a tragedy. Rather, it just means that both sides need to engage with others. And for the teachers, that "others" may not be teaching. As Greene has long said, teachers can do other things. That idea of multiple parties seeking what works for them is what makes a market. But again, neither side may be a monopoly - and that's where teachers unions that forbid those who want to negotiate themselves is a problem.

    1. Except that, in the case of teachers, the school board is not the employer. The taxpayers are. The school board may get focused on budget issues and cutting corners (although they rarely seem to cut their own corners), but the taxpayers have a right to have quality schools to send their children to. It is not the right of the school board to simply cut teacher pay to peanuts and hire Wal-Mart workers to replace them if the teachers refuse to comply with their "employer".

    2. "Except that, in the case of teachers, the school board is not the employer. The taxpayers are." Technically, that's not correct. The taxpayers are no more the employer of a teacher than the customers of Walmart are the employer of the cashier who works there. Your contract and your paycheck are typically signed the the school district as represented either by the school board or similar organization. Instead, tax payers are more analogous to the Walmart consumers. And sure, if the employer cuts their service to the bone in part by underpaying employees, consumers may be pretty unhappy.

      But indirectly, you are supporting the idea of school choice ! Critics of school choice often reject the concept because they don't think competition for students is constructive. However, such choice also means competition for teachers. Even without charters, teachers have a choice as evidenced by teachers moving to nearby states (e.g. OK to TX). But my point is that the same market which provides an outlet for teachers seeking higher pay also serves consumers seeking a better education. But where there is no choice, monopolists tend to fairly insensitive to the concerns of either employees OR consumers.

    3. If you think I'm supporting school choice, I hope you have a good chiropractor to straighten you out of the pretzel you've bent yourself into. Next time try arguing honestly.

    4. The problem with your argument (as I'm guessing you understand perfectly well) is that shopping at Wal-Mart (which I don't do, but nevermind) doesn't give me any kind of ownership stake in Wal-Mart. On the other hand, being a citizen of a democracy, being a resident of a jurisdiction and paying taxes toward public goods and services in fact very much *do* give me an ownership stake in such goods and services. I, along with 80,000 other residents, very much do own the schools of my town. No amount of spending at Wal-Mart would give me equal say in their business.

  2. "But if an employer wants to go the route of seeking lower paid workers, that's their right just as much as teachers may seek higher paid work."

    I agree with that in principle. But realize this:
    1st, Employees hired on the cheap tend not to stick around. That's OK for Walmart or Target, but there are schools in America where students go through entire years without math, science,English,etc teachers. Many low wage schools have teachers leave midterm with no replacements. Charter schools are very bad about this. Surely you don't believe employee churn midyear is great for students.

    2nd, What happens to a child if he/she misses out on a functional 2nd grade education? You willing to sacrifice your child for the sake of 'market forces'?

    3rd, You DO realize that there are countries that have higher standards of living than the US, don't you? None of them are slaves to free enterprise.

    1. Re your last point, I disagree with your depiction of "slaves to free enterprise". Consider S. Korea for a minute where some teachers literally become rich because families willingly pay for their services in after-school education. Pretty good pay for a "slave" ?

      Re your first point, the data simply doesn't support the perhaps intuitive connection between teacher experience and effectiveness. Surely, you don't believe that keeping teachers solely due to seniority - who may be unfamiliar with the latest pedagogic methods and may be more focused on pending retirement than education - is a good thing ?

      Yes, your 2nd point is key (functional education). But where we disagree is that I believe market forces support rather than impede educational effectiveness. To disprove the alternative, can you suggest a monopoly that you consider successful (other than perhaps the US military) ?

    2. To make your point, you need to first establish that public school is a monopoly; for that matter, you need to establish that it's a business that sells goods or services. I don't believe any of those things are true.

    3. "To disprove the alternative, can you suggest a monopoly that you consider successful"

      While acknowledging Peter's disclaimer above about government services being "monopolies", I'd say the U.S. Postal Service. They deliver every letter, package and parcel to every address anywhere in the U.S. (with systems also for getting said packages delivered in foreign countries as well) all for the same rate per letter/package, even out in Nowhere, Nevada or Anywhere, Arkansas. Now, technically USPS isn't a monopoly because they do have competition (FedEx, etc.), but FedEx can't do what USPS does. If you want FedEx to deliver a package to Outback, Alaska, they'll not only charge you an arm and a leg to do it, but they'll probably have USPS finish the delivery anyway.

      Sort of like how public schools educate all kids regardless of "difficulty". Technically public schools aren't monopolies either because they "compete" with charter schools, etc. But charters can't do what public schools do. If a particular package, er, I mean, student, is too difficult to educate, charters, etc. will simply have the public school finish the job.

    4. My first point was not about experienced vs not as experienced teachers. It's about having reliable staff available. It's about having teachers available from day one. The fact is that market forces induce teachers to leave. And the data shows that charter teachers leave at a much higher rate at the end of terms and midyear.

    5. Ana, you didn't read my post carefully. I did not mention teacher seniority at all. I just said that there is more churn for lower wage employees. Data suggests that's true. Teaching is not an exception. If you're ok with your teenager's chem or physics teacher leaving in say February for a higher paying gig, that's ok with me if it's ok with you. After all market forces will surely supply a better replacement teacher the following Monday. That's what you believe. That's what you're implying.

      Your statement about latest pedagogy is bullshit. Period. Pedagogy is all about establishing fundamentals through repetition, imitation, practice, trial and error until proficiency and some creativity is possible. I am saying this as a physics teacher who was also professional musician for more than 40 years. The latest technology can aid in pedagogy, but the steps don't change...regardless of whatever discipline you wanna consider.

      Your reference to South Korean teachers in no way had anything to do with my statement about slaves to free enterprise. I did not reference teaching at all. What I said is that the USA has a lower standard of living than other nations. And none of those countries are nearly as "free market" as ours.

      In your post you mentioned "data" about teaching experience, then mention "I believe" when mentioning that market forces support educational effectiveness.

      I wanna suggest that we use your children or grandchildren as the experimental sample to test your belief. I'll use mine as the control. Mine will be enrolled in a 2nd grade class where the teacher is present almost everyday and she isn't working 2 jobs.
      Yours will be enrolled in where the child has 3 different teachers before January because market forces present better opportunity for those teachers.

  3. Great article. Unbelievable how stupid Cranberry School Board has been in their so-called negotiation. Having witnessed the Valley Grove School Board in person, I believe that they have the capability to exceed the stupidity of the Cranberry board, and their lack of respect for their teachers may set a new local low.

  4. Ana, you had asked for a monopoly that is sucessful. Allow me to offer a few Standard Oil Company, AT&T, United States Steel and others, I think you see where the list comes from. Had they not been sucessful this hey would not have been split up or challenged in court. As for public schools being monopolies, I think by their situation they are not since there exists private and religious schools along with online cyber schools and pseudo public/privates ones. The fact that there are choices conflicts with notion of a monopoly.