Saturday, July 03, 2010

Marc Kagen: A Larger Issue for Unions

from The Chief, May 7, 2010 "Letter to the Editors"

A Larger Issue for Unions

To the Editor:

I write in response to your editorial, “Klein’s Imperfect Logic” (April 30 issue). Of course, I agree with your conclusion, that Teacher layoffs should be based on seniority. But I am troubled by part of your rationale. It seems to me a symptom of how unions — and supporters of the idea of unionism, such as The Chief — have ceded ground to our opponents.

You correctly write that the Bing-Diaz bill is flawed because Teachers would be subject to victimization, particularly those at higher rates of pay. I would add that many would have little chance of finding new employment at the DOE, since each Principal essentially now has an NBA-like “salary cap” that militates against hiring senior staff.

But you also suggest that the DOE proposal is simply no better at determining who is a good Teacher than the seniority system. That’s dangerous ground; what if it was better, or claimed to be? As Mark Twain said, “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” Soon enough the DOE will start to churn its data machine to “prove” that younger teachers teach to the test better, or teach 8th grade Earth Science better, or spin on their heads better. They’ll send Post and Times reporters scurrying after this or that secondyear Teach for America superstar. [Disclosure: I was hired as a Teaching Fellow, a program for which I personally am very grateful].

Moreover, I don’t care if it’s a “better” system. Here’s a heretical thought: the actual purpose of unions is to improve workers’ lives by challenging the free market: to win a higher than “market” wage, to make it hard for the employer to change working conditions or fire the higher-paid worker. We shouldn’t hide these ideas under a rock like we’re ashamed of them; just the opposite. When unions won the 8-hour day, or the weekend, or pension plans, unions defended the idea that working people’s lives and rights were socially more important than employers’ profits and rights. And we said that those victories would tend to spread, even into nonunionized sectors, and generally make people’s lives better. And that was true, for decades.

Today we are playing this movie backwards. As people in the nonunion sector have faced big roll-backs in wages and benefits, we hear them complain that unionized workers should also “give back.” It’s an indication that we have, at least temporarily, lost the battle of ideas in this country, that we can’t successfully explain to our fellow workers that it is in their interests too if we are able to hold the line somewhere, rather than engage in a frantic race to the bottom.

In some ways, we have been reminded in recent months that unregulated free markets can make a handful of people money at the expense of the larger society. In 12th-grade Economics class we have a term for this: Negative Externality. The classic example is the polluter who saves a few bucks by fouling the drinking water for the whole town. Goldman Sachs is a Negative Externality. And we should make the case that so are Joel Klein and Jonathan Bing. It’s morally and ethically wrong to take away the jobs of people who have worked hard for decades simply because a cheaper body can be found. It is a spiritual pollution of the values that we should uphold. It is another step away from civilized behavior toward the idea that only might makes right. If we can make this case to the public we can win; otherwise, scratch and claw as we will, we will be fighting an ultimately losing battle.

Finally, I would just add that if the “for the students” mantra is successful, it will open up the door for attacks on every public union in the city that has some kind of seniority pay grade. I’m sure the city can “prove” that 23- year-old studs make better Sanitation Workers than 38-year-olds. Or that 42-year-old Firefighters have lost a step or two compared with their firstyear brethren.

We all tend to fight our own battles and try to preserve our resources otherwise; my union, too. In the short run, this makes complete sense. We’re all concerned about what we need in the next five minutes or the next three months or, at the longest in our own next contract round, even though we are all stuck in this pattern-bargaining contract system where wages are largely pre-ordained before the bargaining begins.

Management, whether private or Mayor Bloomberg, thinks hard about how its labor strategy will unfold over the next 10 or 20 years; if we could learn to do the same, we might have a brighter 2030. And that would be a really good thing.

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