Public Sector Collective Bargaining

What’s so bad about it?

by: Brandon Hartness

On September 10th, 2012, the Chicago Teachers Union organized a strike, leaving over 350,000 students without classes. This drastic action came in response to calls for modest austerity measures and updates to guidelines by none other than Democratic mayor and former Obama chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel. As local and state governments across the country have sought to combat inflating budgets, political leaders have sought to implement reforms at the behest of public unions. Some of the most striking examples of the abuses of public sector unions are found in education. Collective bargaining in the public sector has pitted teachers against taxpayers, stifled any serious reforms for austerity, and hurt the education of hundreds of thousands of children in the process. The strike in Chicago is yet another example of this trend, one which must be reversed in the name of sanity and for the sake of quality education.

The idea of public sector collective bargaining dates back to the 1930s. Numerous courts have ruled against public sector collective bargaining, as one judge in a NY supreme court case in 1943 said that “to admit as true that government employees have power to halt or check the functions of government unless their demands are satisfied, is to transfer to them all legislative, executive and judicial power.” Nothing would be more ridiculous. Even the leader of the New Deal for America, President Roosevelt, saw the danger to such leveraging against taxpayers, saying “collective bargaining, as usually understood, cannot be transplanted into the public service [for] the employer is the whole people, who speak by means of laws enacted by their representatives.” When talking of striking by public workers, FDR stated  “such action, looking toward the paralysis of Government by those who have sworn to support it, is unthinkable and intolerable.” Although FDR warned of public sector collective bargaining, it is now plaguing parents, taxpayers and those who seek reform against who have to tolerate the unthinkable notion of public employees using their services to bargain against the taxpayers, which has been disastrous.

Reading the statement released by the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU), it is easy to see the mindset of union leaders who crafted this walkout. In a statement released nearly a week after the walkout, CTU spokeswoman Stephanie Gadlin is quoted as saying the union “is striking over mandatory subjects of bargaining such as compensation, evaluation procedures and the conditions within our classrooms.” This striking statement is a palpable example of union leaders’ attitudes, which essential fail to consider that the classrooms in consideration are in places to serve the interests and needs of students and parents. The statement goes on to blast Democratic Mayor Rahm Emanuel, saying his administration has tried to trample the “democratic process” and stifle the Union’s “freedom speech and right to protest.” It is with these sort of tactics that union leaders continuously neglect the role of teachers as cultivators of children in service to the community, and instead turn the system into an arena for strong arm tactics and political theatre.

So what are the draconian cuts and reforms which the Emanuel administration has tried to force upon these public servants? The mayor tried to implement an 8% pay raise, yes a pay raise, but even this drastic step was not good enough. The CTU refused, demanding a 30% pay raise, but willing to settle at 16%, raising annual pay to over $88,000. This is all absurd, considering the fact that teachers in Chicago have some of the highest salaries in the country, and after working for 30 years can retire and get triple the retirement as a Social Security recipient in the private sector. Besides salary, Chicago teachers also have a 46% normal cost rate, exceeding their salary, which are benefits not counted as salary. One of these extra benefits is guaranteed retirement health insurance, which many retirees get in their 50s, until they are eligible for Medicare at 65. When compared to the salaries and benefits of teachers in the private sector, the actions of the Chicago Teachers Union appears merely as an orchestration of petty protest; in other words, inexcusable.

When one examines the shape of the school system in Chicago, it is apparent that the teachers’ union puts its own demands above quality education for children. Chicago schools have a nearly 40% dropout rate, meaning almost half of kids do not even get a diploma at all, while those that do suffer from inadequacy. Nearly 80% of students in Chicago schools are behind in grade level proficiency, while the achievement gap between rich and poor keeps widening, with one-third of students who do make it to post-secondary in need of remedial education. Despite all this, the CTU refused to give in to the mayor’s calls for longer school days, despite Chicago having one of the shortest in the nation. Reforms dealing with tenure were also rejected by the teachers’ union, as well as test scores as a means test for performance. The union also took the opportunity to push for more reduced class sizes, as well as the hiring of more social workers and medical personnel, in complete disregard for the need of funding elsewhere to help failing schools. Emanuel’s attempts to implement valuable changes into education were consistently thwarted by the teachers’ union, while Chicago students lost another collective 18 million hours of class time.

There is hope that leaders are beginning to step up, putting children and parents first before union leaders in states across the country. In Chicago, Mayor Emanuel did not get everything he wanted. Seniority still trumps student performance, which is only one-third of an overall evaluation of a teacher’s performance. Emanuel did, however, set a precedent as a Democratic governor going head to head with powerful public sector unions, a historically close ally. The same can be seen in Wisconsin, where Republican Gov. Scott Walker successfully abolished the privilege of public sectors unions to engage in collective bargaining. In acclamation, the people of Wisconsin reelected Gov. Walker in a recall election that happened because of his policies toward the unions. The same is true with Gov. Christie in New Jersey, who has made enormous progress. As more parents and taxpayers demand an end to the fiasco of public sector collective bargaining, cities and states can focus on priorities, resolving budget shortfalls and ensuring necessary reforms so that children are adequately educated and graduating.

At the end of the day, teachers and parents should be working together to assure the best education possible for every child. Although the vast majority of teachers do care about students, it has been leaders in the unions who have stood in the way of any real educational reform for students who are falling behind at an alarming rate. Instead of focusing on the exploding budget and the inadequate performance of students, CTU leaders and other public sector unions use their weight to hold children, parents and taxpayers hostage while they strike over wages and reforms. Especially in education, where tomorrow’s future leaders are being shaped, we cannot continue to allow political tactics and gamesmanship through collective bargaining to stand in the way of educational reform and responsibility.