Unions, pensions, and tenure…oh my! (part one)

I’ve been watching what’s been happening in Wisconsin. I haven’t really known what to think and who to believe.

I’m a union member, but sometimes I find my union’s approach to be a little too bellicose for my liking. I like to solve issues through compromise and civility — I avoid conflict. Once last year I took a top union member aside and chatted for a few minutes. The budget had been in the news and I mentioned I would be willing to take furlough days to keep my job. I don’t remember the person’s exact response, but it was along the lines of “we don’t give in unless we get something.”

One of my coworkers told me I’d make a bad union rep because I’m not strong enough and not a fighter. Well, there’s more than meets the eye with me, but it’s true that I wouldn’t feel comfortable being a union rep.

If I were a teacher in Wisconsin and my governor asked me to fund parts of my pension and my benefits to help the state out, I’d do it. I’m a reasonable person. But to take away my right to bargain collectively with a stroke of the pen? That’s extreme.

What makes it smell fishy is that he doesn’t want to strip the collective bargaining rights of all unionized state employees — Governor Walker is exempting the bargaining rights of police and firefighters. Why some and not all? That looks suspicious.

Reading about the news from the state to my north has put me into a funk. I don’t think people value education and teachers the way they used to. As one of you commented previously, sometimes school feels like a test prep center.

Real education reform is about compromise and working together for kids. We’re pushing character education into elementary schools, but I guess it was before Governor Walker’s day. I think he could benefit from a refresher on the six pillars of character: trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, fairness, caring, and citizenship. Maybe we all need to keep those principles in mind.

Pensions and tenure…to be continued…

Further reading:
In Wisconsin, the real struggle is over power (Washington Post)
Wisconsin Power Play – Krugman (NY Times)
Our view: In Wisconsin budget battle, bad behavior all around (USA Today)
Make Everybody Hurt – Brooks (NY Times)

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25 thoughts on “Unions, pensions, and tenure…oh my! (part one)

  1. Well said Mrs. Q.

    I am always frustrated that the news seems to single out teacher pensions and teacher unions. Other government employees have these things and the complaints about it don't seem to be there (or at least not on the news)

    If they want to cut collective bargaining and pensions, I might be okay with it – but only if it applies to all unions and all pensions. There are far too many people that have worked the system to collect ridiculously large pensions, retire, then get another job and collect another pension. Cook county/Chicago is infamous for it. There has to be some way of cleaning up the system and closing loopholes to save money over throwing away the entire system. At least I would think so.

  2. I think what you've written is being echoed by lots of people across the state. A lot of people, even people that aren't union reps or even active in their unions, recognize that Walker's proposal is going a little too far. We all recognize the need to address the budget deficit, but it's *still* not clear–after almost two weeks!–how the governor sees stripping unions of their collective bargaining rights saves money.

    Thank you for this post! I've been wondering how you feel about it…

  3. Unions are the last bastion of Democratic power base. It all boils down to this: if he busts the union, he can disperse one of his biggest political enemies. It has nothing to do with financing, pension, bargaining, etc.

  4. I am from Wisconsin, though I am not currently in the state as I go to college out of state. There are many of us college aged students who are behind the unions and teachers. If it weren't for the teachers I had growing up in Wisconsin I never would have made it into the honor's program of a big ten school. I'll admit some of my teachers were better than others, but all I can see coming from stripping collective bargaining while reducing wages is poorer teachers in both the pocketbook and quality senses. If we continue to cripple our school system we will lose our best educators to private schools and other states where they are more fairly compensated. Wisconsin students and teachers deserve better than this, and I hope that Scott Walker figures this out.

  5. I am sooooo torn on this issue because I am a business major (accountant) and my husband is a teacher. I agree with you Mrs. Q., that if our state asks us to pay some for his insurance and pension, then so be it. I've alwayshad to pay for part of my insurance and contribute to my own 401K plan in private industry.

    But I heard something disturbing on the radio yesterday, and I followed up on it. A few years into "Obamacare", as you may or may not know, people who get "cadillac" insurance will have to pay 40% tax on it. My insurance, is certainly cadillac, so I will have to pay an additional 40% of TOTAL cost, not just my cost. Anyway, there is an exception in that law that exempts bargaining units from this 40% tax. So, that includes teachers' unions. Now I don't know if the governor of Wisconsin is thinking ahead to this or not, but if he takes away the teachers' bargaining rights, they will no longer be exempt from this tax.

    My feelings on bargaining units are one thing, and my feelings on "Obamacare" are another. I don't much like either, but I agree that the governor is going to far on this one.

  6. Just an FYI in case people aren't familiar. Teachers pay into their retirement instead of social security and that's what's available to them after retirement. We don't have 401Ks, and we aren't eligible for social security because the retirement/pension system takes it's place. That is part of the reason young teachers, like me, worry about these things. The state keeps giving us IOUs, so who knows if we'll get any of the money we contributed back when it's time to retire. (sort of like when other professions worry about whether social security will still be available to them when they retire)

  7. I'd like to say that you seem to have a very healthy attitude towards unions. Kudos to you!

    I've never been in a union position myself but I did work in a mostly union government office for nearly 5 years and it was an eye opening experience. I think people often forget why unions came about in this country in the first place. Unions were formed because workers used to be severely mistreated. They were forced to work long hours in dangerous environments for little pay and no benefits and the employers didn't care. Unions were formed to create "fair working conditions."

    Today, it seems like most union issues involve keeping what you have–the status quo. And when you compare some of the stuff that's in union contracts against what non-unionized labor gets, you often find very outdated concepts. I find that most long-time union employees have a sense of entitlement to these benefits that the rest of the working world doesn't have.

    Think about it. Why *should* union employees have nearly free healthcare while the rest of us pay for it. Why *should* union employees have built-in pay raises based on time instead of performance-based pay raises like the rest of us. Why *should* it be your company or organization's responsibility to save for your retirement when the private industry mostly makes you match them dollar for dollar in a 401k. And why *should* lazy or otherwise non-productive employees have their jobs saved by union mediation when there any regular person would have been let go are thre people lining up outside the door who want to do the job and do it well. As a taxpayer and just an honest hardworking citizen, I think a lot of the traditional union entitlements like this are outdated and just plain wrong for our current society and economy. The problem is that it's hard to get people to let them go when negotiation time comes along. People seem to feel they "deserve" it. It's a right, just because it was negotiated 10 or 20 years ago when it probably made sense.

    I'm not saying there's no place for unions in our society. There certainly is. There are still a lot of employers who treat people poorly–many of them union shops. What I'm saying is that contract negotiation has become more about greed and maintaining the status quo than it is about fairness. Fairness would be walking into the negotiations expecting to get what your average working American gets–no more, no less.

  8. I completely agree that people don't appreciate educators as they should. My husband and I have both been in school to become teachers and have both separately decided that the degree and job requirements are much too difficult for the amount of compensation, stress, disrespect and difficulty finding a job in the first place that comes with the degree. States want teachers to jump through so many hoops in order to even be certified to teach and then when they do get certified they are in danger of not finding a job at all, or finding a position that is likely to be cut within a year.

    It saddens me greatly to hear story after story about how much is being cut out of our school systems and stripped from our children's lives. In fact I wrote a blog entry about that very subject a few days ago. I really don't know how we expect to survive as a country if we keep putting our kids' education last on our priority list. I can understand trying to come to a compromise in order to save the state money, but like you said the governor is going about it all wrong. It seems like a big case of bullying in my opinion.

    It seems that people don't understand just how difficult the job of teaching is, even when you have summers off. Any good teacher worth their salt spends the majority of the time they are off planning lessons and educating themselves even more. Not to mention the fact that they have to deal with bureaucracy every day with the administration. this can lead them to feel powerless to change anything and the behavior problems they inevitably have to deal with means that teaching is not the walk in the park that most people seem to think it is.

  9. I live in Wisconsin and am a public employee. I agree that unions can be both good and bad – but they definitely have their place. Walker shoving through a bill that kills unions (except for police, fire and state troopers – who conveniently supported him in his campaign) is wrong. I'm so thankful that the 14 democratic senators have fled to Illinois – otherwise this bill would've passed immediately, no questions, no chance for public input, nothing. I also find it hard to believe republicans want to end unions and cite the fact that they can't "compromise" when Walker himself refuses to budge on this. Sigh. Politics frustrate me.

  10. First, and foremost, if you are a public employee – YOU ARE THE UNION – they are not some nebulous entity in charge of what you do and don't get. What Justin said above is correct – unions came into being because the American worker was being mistreated. If not the union, then there would be no 40 hour workweek, no weekend, no insurance, etc. It is imperative as teachers, and public employees that we consider very carefully our willingness to 'give up' some of the rights we have earned through hard work and literal bloodshed – thinking here of early union organizers as well as those members of the public sector who literally put their lives on the line every day when they step into their uniform to serve ALL OF US. Fairness is getting treated like a human being and earning a living wage, and the ability to take my children to the doctor. I know my union participation is NOT about greed or maintenance of the status quo – which if you consider not receiving a cost of living increase and work requirements increased – is a pretty shabby status quo to begin with. Shame on the governor of Wisconsin and those of you who think that collective bargaining is outdated. It will be a sorry state of affairs indeed if collective bargaining and unions fall by the wayside opening up the door for all kinds of unfairness.

  11. just to clarify my above statement: when i spoke of 40 hr. work weeks, weekends, and insurance benefits – these are union based initiatives that employees of both the private and public sectors enjoy.

  12. I think there are so many misconceptions about the benefits of a union contract. I belong to a union (the IFT/AFT) and I fund most of my own pension. You know the money that non-union employees put into 401K's and social security? My employer takes that money out of my paycheck and gives it to the State to fund my pension. And as far as I can tell, the State has been using that money to line the pockets of corporations, with no guarantee that it will be there for my retirement.

    Additionally, I pay for part of my healthcare coverage too –this is no different than in the private sector!

    Personally, I'd be happy to give up my union-negotiated pay and benefits, but then you'd have to start paying me what my education is worth. And that means you'd need to double my salary. At double my salary (which is what a private-sector Ph.D. would make), I would be able to fund my own retirement. But don't tell me I don't deserve those benefits when I'm working for peanuts compared to others with my education level.

    I chose to teach at a public college because I think education is an important job. But certainly part of the reason I was willing to take this job was because of the knowledge of some financial security in retirement –anyone else with my education level would be able to have that financial security because of their much higher salary.

  13. The last time the teachers in Wisconsin collectively bargained with the state, it took 18 months to come to an agreement! Maybe that is why he wants to cut it out although not completely because they still get to negotiate over pay, so I don't see how this is union busting.

    And before this bill was introduced, Walker did try to work with the unions and they refused to negotiate. Only AFTER the introduction of the bill did they begin saying they would compromise and kick in to their pensions and for healthcare.

    People are complaining that Walker is doing this to hurt a Democratic voting block, but isn't there something wrong with a public union basically saying, "okay you Democratic Senator, Governor, whatever, you give into our demands–cut Medicaid, food stamps whatever you need to do so that we don't have to sacrifice–and we in turn will use the dues our members pay to run ads for you and against your Republican opponent." That collusion goes against the best interest of the state and its taxpayers.

    In addition, I live in a state that doesn't have collective bargaining for teachers and they still get paid a decent salary.

  14. good points Renee…you often find people with M.Ed making 30,000 or 40,000 a year as a teacher, don't think many people with a MBA would stand for that. Only way to make that $100,000 is to teach for 35+ years

  15. I live in Wisconsin. Gov. Walker is a tyrant and pretty damn scary. My husband is a State employee and let me say that yearly raises are not a happening thing. Yet again, he and his co-workers are currently contract-less. When they do finally negotiate a contract, any back pay that they are supposed to get goes to fund their insurance, it does NOT go to them. And I will tell you why he has elected to exclude a chosed few from his master plan. First of all, the heads of the assmebly and senate are the Fitzgerald brothers. Daddy Fitzgerald, at the age of 71, was appointed by the Gov to a high position in the State Patrol—no WAY are they going to be affected. Local police are currently being untouched, because Walker's next big move will be to cut Capitol and UW police officers and he will expect the local police to take over those roles. Do you want your college student attending school at a UW campus with NO police officers? Pretty freaking scary!!

  16. The five states without collective bargaining rights for teachers may pay decent salaries, but rank 44th, 47th, 48th, 49th and 5Oth when nationally ranked according to ACT/SAT scores. Wisconsin is currently ranked second. It seems to me Wisconsin may be setting itself up for quite a fall from the top. Wisconsin teachers have proven they are willing to make sacrifices to help their state's budgetary crisis, but taking away their opportunity to ask for anything back after they weather the storm is simply ridiculous. I am with you Mrs. Q!

  17. I am just curious how you can surmise that the ability to bargain collectively somehow correlates to how well a student will perform on the ACT/SAT. If that is the case, how do you justify Milwaukee schools?

  18. @Sara, collective bargaining means a lot more than just pay –in fact, that may be the least important for teachers. Contracts also keep class sizes low, and keep time set aside for prep. Those are the things that allow teachers to do a good job, and without collective bargaining, they won't happen. Academic integrity is protected by unions. Once that erodes, ACT/SAT scores go down with it.

  19. I don't think the governor is going to far at all. FINALLY someone is willing to stand against the unions and ask what is their purpose. The usefulness of unions has been lost long ago and many regulations and laws prevent employers from taking unjust actions as they once could. School employees, police and fire, all public-employer union employees need to realize they are not getting handed anything regular people deal with on a daily basis – having health insurance fully paid for? That is ludicrous. Having a pension that goes with you no matter what, again I'm at a loss. There is no reason these employees shouldn't take a hit, just like everyone else has in years past. Time to get with the times! People who love their jobs wouldn't care if they had to pay a typical rate for benefits or give up some of their pensions. Class size and prep times should be governed by the strategic opinion of the district and NOT by contract.

  20. @Renee I worked as a teacher without a collective bargaining agreement, and we were given prep time as well as reasonable class sizes.

    My experience has been that the school districts that have the better scores and the better schools have a community that is supportive of the education system.

    Unions and collective bargaining would be fine if all they did was ensure proper working environments, reasonable pay and benefits, etc. The problem is that it doesn't seem to stop there and thus we witness teachers who should be fired, not, and we get to the point that teachers are not contributing to their pensions or health care. Yes, it is not that way in every state, but I am going off of what is happening in Wisconsin. It is simply not a sustainable path.

  21. I am the daughter of a WI state employee and the sister of a WI teacher. The general public thinks that state workers/teachers are paid too much and get great benefits in comparison to the private sector. I admit, the benefits are great -but they make up for the lousy pay. When you hear that the average teacher makes $75K per year, they don't tell you that the average teacher has 30 years of experience and is part of the baby boomer generation. My sister, a second year teacher in a class that is 75% non-native English speakers, makes $28K/year. Once she has to start paying more for her health insurance and pension, she will make $25K/year. How is the state going to encourage teachers to enter the profession when it is awfully hard to rent an apartment, buy a car and pay back student loans on that amount?

    My father, the state employee, started in 1991. Twenty years later, his salary hasn't kept up with the cost of inflation because he hasn't gotten a raise in six years and the last raise he got was half of 1%. If you do the math, he is working for less now than he originally made in 1991. He stays because the pension benefits and health insurance make it worth it and he truly LOVES his job.

    80% of state jobs and all teaching jobs require at least a 4 year degree. I would venture to say that is not the case in the private sector – so it is hard to compare the two against each other. People should be compensated for their education – whether that is through salary or benefits should be irrelevant.

    Public employees rarely see a benefit from "the good times" either. When the economy is booming, public employees don't get bonuses, or raises – the salary schedules are pre-ordained. This is an accepted part of being a public employee. The "lack" of good times are evened out by not having to take cuts/unemployment during the bad times.

    I do believe that unions can protect those who are not doing a good job. However, a good union contract provides plenty of opportunities for employers to seperate the good from the bad. Employers need to look at the ways their contracts are written and work with the union to address those issues – not summarily decide that unions are the enemy and refuse to bargain.

    The public forgets or doesn't know how much we rely on the expertise of our public employees. They are the ones who ensure that the house you are living in is built to strict codes so that you can sleep easily at night knowing you won't have a fire in the walls or it won't collapse around you during an earthquake. They are the ones who ensure that proper standards are maintained in the kitchens of the restaurants you like to go to. They are the ones that make sure that when you pour a glass of water that the water is clean and safe to drink. They are the ones that make sure that the animals you eat are treated humanely.

    To hear public employees vilified in the press, called "leaches," "scum" and "thugs" is sad. Public employees protect the common good and ensure that each of us isn't just "out for ourselves". They help all of us be better citizens by acting as an independent layer of accountability. I am proud to stand with the public workers. They perform an often thankless job and rarely get the credit they deserve. Now, they are being vilified by the press and their neighbors.

    You may not agree with my thoughts on this mess in WI, but let's at least agree that the public employees perform necessary services that we rely on. They are our neighbors, friends, parents and siblings. They deserve consideration and understanding.

  22. I love how propaganda has convinced so many people that the working class are to blame for all of our nation's financial woes. Want to reduce the deficit and balance the budget, then you better go after those teachers, police officers, fire fighters, and state workers. They're bleeding us dry! Are you kidding me? How about Walker's "no bid contract" deals that are going to make his Republican friends incredibly rich? Wonder how much of the budget is going to disappear into the pockets of his friends after he awards them contracts. How about the millions in tax breaks to the super-wealthy? No, none of that is affecting the budget. It's teachers. When the h-e-double hockey sticks will people educate themselves on the true facts?

    The other thing I'd like you to consider is "for profit" education. Many states are using NCLB as a jumping off point for allowing private corporations to come in and take over failing schools. The teachers are all then fired and invited to reapply without union protection. Corporations then decide what teachers are paid, how many kids in a class, and what they get served for lunch. Do you think they're more interested in kids' education or the bottom line? What's happening is scary and it's time people started really looking at what the future of education is going to look like. It's not pretty.

  23. Hi, I am a non-teaching employee of a Wisconsin school district.

    Please realize is that this bill is going to be followed by additional initiatives from the Governor. He has spoken about refusing Title I funds for schools. That will absolutely devastate my high-poverty district. No need to feed kids school lunch when there are no schools, is there?

    The governor also wants to split up the unversity system here and appoint most of the board for UW-Madison. This will force most kids from my district into schools that will quickly descend to second-tier status.

    I used to be proud of my state. I still love the place and the people, but I am deeply ashamed of this governor.

  24. As scary as Walker's approach to unions is I think that his no bid contract is a lot scarier. At least the collective bargaining rights have a time limit to their suspension. The no bid contract just smacks of corruption which is not what I want for my state.

  25. I'm from Wisconsin and totally support our governor and this bill. Many of the points here are obviously from those are in unions and have bought into the union mindset. In the private sector we have to plan for 100% of our retirement and my husband and I pay 100% of our health care/insurance costs. The teachers here have been paying almost nothing for that. As for if the pension will be there, it is fully funded (unlike other states) and there is no reason to believe that the huge pensions that are built up would not be there. And teachers currently pay almost nothing for health plans worth almost $30,000 a year (in most districts). Also, many may not realize that those plans are 'bargained' to only be bought from a company that is owned by the union. So really who is benefiting from this bargaining? The union. Teachers are required to be in one, have to pay 'fair share' even if they want to avoid being attached, which means they pay the same amount as dues. The state pays people to automatically collect the dues and send them to the union. Ridiculous!

    And just remember that the unions put more money towards electing the officials they wanted than any other group. So they require people to pay them to elect the people who are supposed to represent the tax payer when it comes time to 'bargain.' The union owns and makes money off the entire process and as a tax payer I'm sick of it.

    The officials that ran away are not representing anyone. They are breaking the law, like the teachers who illegally 'sicked out' and they should be prosecuted. Can you imagine what would have been said if the Republicans who opposed many of Obama's demands would have done the same thing? Or if those here in WI had done the same thing when we were subjected to the deficit causing ways of Doyle? The election in November changed things because that is what the tax payers in this state wanted. Now it is time for them to do the work they were hired to do.

    Kudos to a politician for doing what he said he would do and for trying to balance a budget…something every family in America has to do and almost no government body has done in a long time.


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