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Teacher’s union stubs toe in Rhode Island

In Recent Headlines on February 26, 2010 at 6:43 am

Lifted on Eagle’s Wings is honored to feature a guest blogger today. Our friend Jim Teeter has worked in the entertainment industry with teen performers on professional stages for many years in the capacity of a performer, a director, and a producer. He is writing a book on those experiences and also writes his own blog upon occasion.

He  has also worked in the construction industry for 35 years and owned a business for 25. We welcome Jim to our forum and thank him for sharing his views.
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Traditionally, I believe, those of liberal persuasion overwhelmingly support  labor unions in America while those of conservative bent find it easy to oppose them on many levels. I take my seat with the latter even though I have been a Teamster and a member of the Laborers. My opinions and my choices guided thereby have come from many years of working in and around labor unions.
 
Whereas the genesis of the unions, I believe, was of necessity and certainly benefit to the working force, their transformation into their present state fails the workers they are chartered to serve, the companies who are forced to “unionize”, the communities in which they find strength, and the nation at large. My perception has been that this failure has not come directly from the membership but from the leadership. They, almost unanimously, have failed to lead their membership in a responsible, fair, and profitable way, choosing instead a path of greed, power, and corruption destined ultimately to destroy American business, commerce, and by association, their own membership. 
 
Focus upon Central Falls High School in Rhode Island. The teaching staff and administrators of the entire school, about 88 in all (accounts vary) have been fired by the school board with a 5 – 2 vote. Interestingly, the most scathing denigration of the fired staff came from one board member who voted AGAINST the terminations. The reason?
 
It seems that despite teacher’s salaries averaging between $72K and $78K per year, half of the students were failing. One solution offered by the school board pursuant to Federal Law, was to increase teaching time, add tutoring, and develop more and better teacher training. The teachers union naturally stepped in to “protect” the jobs and demanded upwards of $90 per hour for “extra” work. Their stand, as usual, was more pay for the teachers. 

Here is where I am rubbed the wrong way. First and foremost, THE STUDENTS ARE FAILING!  Please do not come back on here and claim “it’s not the teacher’s fault”. Education is the only product teachers have. The teachers and administrative staff are the only ones there aside from the students.

Getting paid over $70K for nine months work and NOT producing is simply unconscionable. There is no room here for excuses. Either do the job you are being paid to do or get someone in there who can. Believe me! There is someone who can do it successfully. It is being done in private schools and in public schools in many cities.

Has it ever occurred to the teacher’s and their myopic union that THEY are failing as educators and perhaps a field trip to some successful schools is in order?  Whose interests are truly of importance to the teacher’s union, the members or the students, whose parents pay their substantial salaries? How can any union justify this quality of product from its membership?  Sadly, in my experience, ’tis all too common. 

I respectfully seek your opinions and constructive suggestions to benefit the students.

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  1. Jim, first I want to thank you for sharing your thoughts in our space. Second, (you knew this was coming), I have to take issue with some of your points, but I will address where I agree with you first.

    Something had to be done and the time is now to address the abyssmal performances of our schools. Nothing is more important than education. I venture a guess that most teachers feel that way as well or they’d not have gone into such a career.

    As you may know, I’ve worked in the past as a labor union organizer and negotiator. I even spent time on a picket line when I was 8 mos. pregnant. I think you’ve made a few unfair sweeping generalizations about labor unions. (here is an editorial I wrote in a local paper over the summer… http://freshdailybread.wordpress.com/2009/06/02/general-motors/#comments)

    It appears that the school board’s move is part of the negotiation process, because in essence, the firings do not take place until year end AND half the teachers can be rehired. I would imagine that is an incentive for many of them to really step up their game. I’m not defending poor job performance, but I would contend there are many mitigating factors surrounding this besides simply “bad teachers and a greedy union”.

    Central Falls has a median income well below the poverty line and less than half the students speak English. It’s a job that comes with unique challenges. I contend that this wake up call will roust complacency away.

    In the end, it’s always about money, whether as a district or an individual. The districts want a chance to get “Race to the Top” grants under Obama’s education reform. They are taking drastic measures.

    It’s time to stop pointing fingers and casting blame and instead realize, nothing is more important than educating our children. Our future depends on it.

  2. I could not agree more with Jim. The unions need a transformation along with the teachers that were fired. If grants are the only way that the school feels they can start again so be it. I am sure that the schoolboard would rehire any teacher worth their salt to come back and try it again. The time is now for all schools to step up to the plate and make the staff accountable for the lack of education, stop being complacent. Now more than ever in todays society our children are at risk. Teachers just keep passing them on. Every school should be creative in finding a solution. We don’t need government interference if schools did their job. Unions need to rethink what they have done to this country, good and bad. Let’s not get started on the loss of jobs to foreign countries.

  3. Just briefly, Kim, before I must be off to coordinate a performance of Texas teens at “Legends In Concert”, I want to thank you for the opportunity and the kind words of introduction. Yes, I knew when I wrote this piece I would strike a cord of discent with you but that is one of the reasons our friendship is of value. We can always disagree amicably and we often do. I promise to rebut soon but wished to recognize your kindness first. Thanks again.

  4. You’re more than welcome…

    I need to clarify some of the things in my comment. I’m not absolving the “union” or the “teachers” of responsibility in this matter at all. I hope it didn’t come off that way. Rather I would like to highlight that this is the nature of negotiations that often occur between employees and employers.

    Sometimes, when we would be working on a contract, we would put the most outrageous requests on the table so that management would concede to one of our more simple ones. Anyone who has ever even been to a garage sale or bought a car (or raised a child for that matter!) knows the how negotiation works.

    When I read the story my first reaction to the $90/hour OT pay was WHAT THE HECK ?!? Oh they are negotiating. Then when I read the finer points of the story, that half their contracts CAN be renewed at the end of the year, I thought AHA! This is how they wanted to get rid of the deadweight, and honestly… probably was the only way to get around bloated contracts.

    Here’s something from a retired union person. We do NOT want to defend lousy employees. Truly. However, during the boom years, management got really lazy on their end of the deal and I often found myself defending terrible workers because managers hadn’t followed through with their discipline documentation.

    We had one habitually tardy/absent employee who was unreliable. However, they kept him on for years, just telling him to get his act together. NEVER wrote him up, never had him sign the warning that he had been told, etc. I’d go into meetings not defending the deadweight worker, but rather defending the CONTRACT.

    However, had the bosses held up their end of deal and written him up when he was absent/late, I would have had nothing to defend, but instead showed him where to sign the termination notice. Similarly, when the company is making lots of money, they would often agree to raises that they probably didn’t have to agree to, resulting in ridiculously high wages. However, they agreed to pay it… The purpose of a union is really to ensure that there are no sweatshop, worker exploited conditions. If you don’t think it’s necessary today, look into some of the factory food processing plants.

    It’s simply not as easy as blaming the unions. A contract is a TWO party agreement.

  5. Kim; thanks for your response. I am finally back.

    Your arguement is understandable and in most cases, I would say, true, regarding negotiation tactics and purposes. With no intention of being offensive I must add though, perhaps a bit naive. The way you portray the unions (generalization on my part) makes them sound completely innocent and only desireous of protecting their membership. My position is from where the rubber meets the road, not from the way things “ought” to be.

    As a former member of the teamsters and the laborers, and from direct experience with the IBEW (electricians, plumbers, pipefitters, carpenters, sheetmetal workers, laborers, and teamsters, as well as several other smaller unions, I can tell you that the general rule is “slow down, don’t work too fast, don’t work yourself out of a job, screw the big business, never allow anyone non-union on the job, vandalize and subvert those who are doing a great job, and generally be a slovenly producer. The most important time period in a union members day (with direct focus upon those named) is break time and quitting time. They are never late for those and never, EVER do the breaks last only 15 minutes. I have seen the head of the teamsters go into a grocery store who used non-union truckers for wholesale deliveries, and vandalize it. That happened several years ago and he is still the local boss.
    When I had my own business, I hired some union workers who were forbidden to work to support their families because the union was striking. Horror stories like these, I can provide for you daily and for the rest of your life.

    You see, it really is quite easy to blame the unions. They support and encourage these kinds of behaviors among their membership. They actually teach young workers that a good producer is bad for labor. The teachers union in the school teachers case mentioned should have told the teachers in question long ago to clean up their act and produce if they wanted to continue to represent that union. Instead, they protect the bad teachers along with the good ones and immediately insist that conditions outside the teachers control are to blame for the poor results. If that is true, then how is it so many private schools as well as public schools with innovative leadership are producing tremendous successes in the education of “problem” kids in “bad” areas?

    There are not enough pages here for me to enumerate the maladies of today’s unions, economically, socially, and personally. My son, unprompted by me, asked a plumbers union organizer once, “Why would I take a cut in pay to go to work for you guys?” He saw daily the same kinds of things I have seen over the years. Now, to concede a point I will agree with one comment you quoted in your response having to do with food processing plants. There are lots of management abuses there today just as there used to be in much of industry many years ago. The unions of yesterday had a purpose and filled that purpose well. I applaud that. Sadly, I think, today’s unions have gone way too far to the other side. There is never “enough” in their eyes. Keep in mind that the union bosses and membership do not own the the businesses for whom they work (well, except for GM). They demand more and more and more for less and less and less work.

    I apologize for rambling a bit but I had to break for supper. I know you are a supporter but my experience guides my opinions of unions. I cannot deny the truth I have experienced. The teachers in that school are being paid an exhorbitant amount of money to accomplish a job and deliver a product. They are being paid more than most annual salaries for only nine months work and are completely failing to produce. There is no excuse for their failure. NONE

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