Thursday, February 28, 2008

Talk About Ending Teacher Strikes

The new proposed pieces of legislation eminating from the Board of Regents seems to hit the spot, doesn't it? End teacher strikes & jobs actions. What's not to like? Teachers don't like them, parents & school committees, even students as they go to school longer & longer in June long for their cessation. So this should be a no-brainer, right? Onward it goes to the guv for his approval & then submittal to the Lege. Quoting Joan Rivers seems appropriate here: "Let's talk!"

"Officials at the state Department of Education researched tougher labor laws in Pennsylvania and New York when crafting the amendments, according to Deputy Education Commissioner David V. Abbott." (Projo)

Evidently they forgot looking into the results of these laws and whether or not they work. New York has some of the toughest anti-strike laws on the books to prevent public workers from striking. The first is the 1947 Condon-Wadlin Act, a state law that forbids strikes by government workers on penalty of dismissal and a three-year pay freeze for those later reinstated. This law is so onerous that despite many strikes, it has never been invoked.

In 1967 New York passed the Public Employees’ Fair Employment Act (Taylor Law). While still banning strikes, the penalties were decreased & a labor relations structure ( PERB) was set up to help resolve disputes before they escalated. It was the Taylor Law that gave teachers the right to organize and teachers across the country watched what happened here. In fact, it was Republican Gov. Rockefeller who made this bow to labor in an attempt to balance labor's interests with management rights.

I recall watching what happened in N.Y. in the early seventies. My college ed course focused on the differences between the NEA & Albert Shankar's newly organized United Federation of Teachers out of NYC. The NEA considered itself a "professional" organization much like the AMA. Union tactics were most definitely part of their agenda. The UFT was considered "radical" and backed using union tactics & bargaining to improve not only teachers' lives, but education.

Did the Taylor Act work? The fact that it's had many amendments since its passing demonstrates that while having some sucess the problem still remains. In fact when the 1975 teachers' strike was settled, the Board of Education ignored much of Taylor's punitive action as part of the agreement.

"Yet even as strikes in New York State have become rarer, the conditions that drive unions to contemplate striking have not disappeared, a function of the Taylor Law’s inability to prod government employers to bargain in good faith and sign timely contracts." "said Al Viani, a veteran arbitrator...the Taylor Law does not provide any finality for teachers." (here)

Teachers still strike even with severe penalties. They also stage walkouts (299 in the first 15 yrs.) at various schools to spread out penalties among membership. And when they do settle job actions, punishment strike activity is excluded.

"New York's United Federation of Teachers, for example, now boasts a potent no-strike contract with the board of education that covers salaries, checkoffs, teaching conditions, grievance procedures and binding arbitration." (here)

One could say that the passage of the Taylor Law resulted in the formation of not only the AFT but the philosophical change of the NEA. The AFT's sucess in better teacher contracts resulted in the sea change of the NEA into an actual union.

Another unexpected result of delaying teacher contracts, is the physical decay of buildings, larger class sizes, the lack of basic materials & supplies, staffing, etc. (here) And still teachers persist in job actions. (here) They still walk the picket line and defy the law. Who can blame them when there still is no strong motivational factor for school boards to actually settle contracts? Teachers in Buffalo waited ten years for a raise with no contract. While some like to say that contracts are ONLY for teachers, in fact working conditions improve not only teachers' lives, but student education.

To combat the problem of school boards refusals to negotiate contracts there have been a number of amendments offered in N.Y., but so far vetoed by Gov. Pataki. The Triborough Amendment, continues pay raises while contracts are being negotiated. Another amendment requiring acceptance of a union's last offer when management refuses negotiating in good faith & substantial monetary punishments for not negotiating expeditiously. Part of the package also includes substantially reducing strike punishments. All of this legislation is expected to eventually pass.

The referred to Pennsylvania "legislation" (Republican backed) prohibiting strikes demands is, in fact, a Constitutional amendment. It faces tough opposition with Democratic proposals calling for binding arbitration.

“To me, this feels like a piece of legislation that essentially puts the blame and penalty only on teachers,” said Callaghan. “I think the right to strike should be retained. In most cases, when teachers strike, it is often the only thing that brings everyone back to the negotiating table.” [says] Colleen Callaghan, director of professional development for a teachers’ union, the Rhode Island Federation of Teachers. (Projo here)

And Colleen hits the nail on the head.

Nearly all labor-law experts feel that public employees cannot be handled by simply barring unions or outlawing strikes. To be sure, the presence of unions fosters strikes to some extent.... In light of the public sector's enormous labor growth, however, the experts argue that strong laws alone will no longer do. Sound bargaining and judicious injunctions, they say, are the modern way to help political leaders avoid strikes and aid the public weal. (here)

In response to the proposed legislation:
Robert A. Walsh Jr., executive director of the... National Education Association, said he prefers third-party binding arbitration over striking as a way to resolve contract disputes between teachers’ unions and school committees. Connecticut uses binding arbitration. “Police and fire have arbitration because everyone agrees it is not in the public interest to have those public employees on strike,” Walsh said. “Well, if there would be irreparable harm to the public when teachers don’t report to work, the same standard should apply,” (Projo above)

If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Simplistic solutions such as the Board of Regents is suggesting, just don't work. You can't just cut out the teachers' unions & various support personnel groups when you mandate these laws. Everyone who is invested needs to have a seat at the table.

And we have even more of this stuff to look forward to:

"The task force meetings generated so much discussion the Board of Regents expanded its focus to include ways to improve teacher quality, contract negotiation and mediation.. revamping teacher preparation programs at local colleges; strengthening mentoring programs..." (Projo)

Blah, blah, blah, yackety, smakety. We can't actually figure out a way to solve actual problems so we'll just pretend that we can. Leave it all to daddy. He does know best after all. Why don't they just say it - let's eliminate the public schools and/or those nasty Unions & have private/charter schools. These teachers will NEVER think of organizing, complaining, or exerting influence on what happens in their schools & will gratefully do whatever we tell them. Nope, nope, nope. Say it often enough and ... it's still malarkey.

Come on, we can do better. Like Joan says, "Let's talk."

Thanks to Projo reporter Jennifer D. Jordan.
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