Thursday, February 17, 2011

California's War On Teachers Unions

While Wisconsin has been receiving all the media attention lately for its governor’s vitriolic and violent assault on public sector workers, there is a growing trend throughout the nation to crush unions once and for all. In California the Republican Party recently issued the following propaganda in its bid to destroy public employee unions. In the document, they attempt to redirect blame for low student achievement on the privileges and rights teachers have won through collective bargaining, rather than on political policies and socioeconomic relations that have increased poverty and privation for millions of Californians and the gutting of public education through Proposition 13 and recent legislative cuts. They also place blame squarely on re-Gov. Brown, for signing the Rodda Act, in 1975, which gave teachers the legal right to bargain collectively.

The document is full of lies and distortions, like the notion that existing laws protect public employees, making the Rodda Act superfluous, a statement that is as meaningful as the idea that the rich have just as much right (or lack thereof) to sleep under bridges as the poor. The laws are written by the rich, for the rich, and of the rich. The few laws that do exist to protect workers’ rights, including public workers, exist as stopgaps to maintain labor peace (i.e., keep the workers on the job and in line) and generally have resulted in the wake of labor unrest and collective action. The laws on the books prior to Rodda did not recognize teachers’ right to collectively bargain. Considering Wisconsin’s current attempt to strip away teachers’ rights to collective bargaining and striking, and Illinois’ recent failed attempt to do likewise, we should be very suspicious and hostile to any attempt to weaken labor protections in California. This document is clearly part of this national trend to crush unions.

The document also exploits the recent stupid comments by a teachers’ union member who said that teachers unions are in the “protection racket,” bolstering the stereotype that unions are connected with the Mafia and tantamount to a criminal enterprise. What next, will they reinvoke the old criminal syndicalism laws used against the IWW, too? And while we’re speaking of “protection rackets,” isn’t that what the Chamber of Commerce does? Or the Cato and Heritage Foundatons? Or corporate lobbyists?

Speaking of lobbyists, this document specifically criticizes the millions spent by the teachers unions on their own lobbyists, something I have always been very critical of, but for very different reasons. The Republicans are pissed off at the unions for helping Brown defeat their billionaire darling Meg Whitman and for their influence in forcing out pro-privatization state school board members. Unions are one of the only non-corporate entities around with the bucks to compete with the ruling elite at election time, and this infuriates them. They want a complete monopoly on the political system (which they already virtually have) without having to waste their potential profits on getting it (which they still have to do). Considering that our unions’ campaign contributions have gotten us anti-teacher politicians like Brown, with his complicity in the multi-billion cuts to higher education, and potential k-12 cuts still looming, it should be obvious that union election money is a poor investment. However, the solution is NOT to abolish unions or collective bargaining, but for the rank and file to demand that our union bosses stop wasting our dues on the boss vs boss election game, and focus on their real mission: organizing, educating and mobilizing workers to fight for their own interests (rather than begging rich people to have mercy on us).

It is incredibly cynical and an enormous distortion to portray unions as greedy, self-serving, and corrupting entities in light of the truly greedy and corrupting organizations used by the ruling elite to sequester and protect their overwhelming wealth and political power. In addition to the goal of crushing unions (and thus increasing profits through lower wages), these attacks serve the dual purpose of distracting public attention from all their tax breaks, bailouts and subsidies that have benefited the richest 1% of Americans, now being financed by slashing social services, lowering wages and laying off workers. Their goal is to convince the working and middle classes to go for each other’s throats, instead of their own, so they can laugh safely and unmolested all the way to their banks.

Briefing Report: The Public School Teachers Unions in California and the Rodda Act
It is the purpose of this chapter to promote the improvement of personnel management and employer-employee relations within the public school systems in the State of California.
- California's public school union collective bargaining law, known as "The Rodda Act."
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
- "Ozymandius", Percy Bysshe Shelly
When Governor Jerry Brown signed the Rodda Act in 1975, he established collective bargaining for California public school teachers. The Rodda Act was never intended to promote or improve student achievement, and it has succeeded in weakening education. Nearly 40 years later, this monument to teacher rights and union power remains, while public education, the rights of parents and children, and the prospects for California slowly decay.
The California Teachers Association (CTA)
Labor leaders argue that unions protect the rights of workers, but employees are already protected by a substantial body of law. This is especially true of government workers, including public school teachers, who are protected by a labyrinth of civil service law and regulation. Given these statutory protections, how does CTA ostensibly serve its members - public school teachers? The CTA aims to increase public school teacher salaries and to provide them job protection. In that, it is largely successful. Aside from aiding local unions in collective bargaining, it lobbies the Governor and Legislature for more school funding and union-favorable laws. These local and state efforts often work hand-in-hand; lobbyists in Sacramento argue for more public school money and local unions demand contractual clauses calling for pay raises based on these funding increases. In this way, increases in school spending flow through the local contracts directly into teacher salary schedules. Increased salaries help union leadership justify and demand higher dues, which teachers are mandated to pay. This might explain why, in 2000, "[o]ne day after 8,000 teachers demonstrated for more money at the Capitol, Gov. Gray Davis and Democratic leaders... agreed to shift more than $1.8 billion to local schools, primarily for teacher pay hikes." 1 Soon thereafter, local union bosses demanded raises, sometimes citing Gov. Davis' press release on the $1.8 billion deal.
"The Business of Selling Protection"
Another way CTA serves its members is by protecting them from layoffs under virtually any circumstance. "Unions are in the business of selling protection," a former teacher's union leader recently wrote, "and anything that causes teachers to experience more job-related fear or insecurity increases union membership." 2 Hence the well-documented, years-long process for school districts to fire a bad teacher; hence lifetime tenure after only a year-and-a-half on the job; hence also the infamous and annual March 15th layoff notification deadline. Here is how it works: State law requires school districts to notify teachers by March 15th each year of potential layoffs for the following year. School districts are forced to over-notice since they are unsure of what the final budget will be, sending thousands of these notices each year, prudently maintaining their options during fluid state budget discussions. The CTA then trumpets a "sky-is-falling" scenario of mass teacher layoffs, filling teachers with fear and insecurity. Yet when budgets are finally approved, relatively few layoffs are made. But that is not widely reported, and no matter - teachers are made anxious enough to believe they need CTA protection. It should come as no surprise, then, that any effort to remove the artificial March 15th layoff notification date has been opposed by CTA and duly defeated in the Legislature.
The Rodda Act
The Rodda Act forced all teachers in a school district to collectively bargain through a union if a majority agreed to do so (so much for individual rights!). This is the means to a contract and is so important that CTA tells teachers that "their union contract should be as vital as their student gradebook or lesson planner." This is not surprising given that the Rodda Act extends the scope of collective bargaining far beyond matters of wages and working conditions to include the school calendar, teacher transfers and reassignments, class sizes, evaluation procedures, organizational (union) security, layoff of probationary employees, and union "right to consult" on educational objectives, curriculum, and textbooks. While one might think these matters are best left to elected school board members, government employee unions see it another way. As CTA puts it, "the bargaining process has shown that teachers are willing to push back to protect their profession and their compensation." And push back they will. CTA boasts of "more than 170 public school teacher strikes, sickouts, and other work stoppages since 1975." 3 Now, California teachers are the second highest paid in the United States. At 125 percent of the national average, California teachers earn on average $68,093 annually. 4
This high pay translates to union revenue, since taxpayer-funded school districts are required by law to extract from taxpayer-funded teacher paychecks whatever union dues CTA leadership desires and to send it directly to union headquarters. In 2010-11, for example, a teacher in Long Beach has $1,041 taken out of his or her annual paycheck earmarked as follows: $639 for the CTA, $166 for the National Education Association, and $236 for the local union. 5 In 2008, CTA alone entitled itself to some $180 million in dues revenue - all completely tax-free, which is especially ironic given CTA's constant call for more taxes. Much of this money is used to aid local unions to "push back" against school districts in order to extract more money or concessions.
There Is Power in a Union
However, tens of millions of dollars are spent on lobbying and political campaigns. In fact, the CTA alone spent $11.5 million on November 2010 ballot measures. When combined with the National Education Association, the California Federation of Teachers, and the American Federation of Teachers, teachers unions spent over $19 million on ballot measures, to say nothing of their spending to support political candidates. 6 For example, CTA spent nearly $8.9 million to support Proposition 24, (which would have resulted in higher taxes on businesses), while spending $200,000 to oppose Proposition 23 (which would have suspended a global warming law until unemployment was reduced to 5.5 percent). They also gave $2.1 million to the California Democratic Party. CTA can mobilize thousands of phone bankers and precinct walkers in addition to rallying crowds and government-union voters - all informed through various dues-funded union organs. Lobbying takes place, too. Thus, as the California Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC) has disclosed, over the past 10 years CTA has spent more than any other organization on political activities. In fact, CTA has spent in excess of $211 million - over twice that of the second-place spender (also a government employee union) and far more than any corporation. 7
So What About Teachers, Kids, and the Public?
For all this getting and spending, what do Californians have to show for it? Certainly the union bosses are richly-compensated and enjoy access to the halls of power. In fact, as one of his first acts as Governor, Brown recently appointed a CTA lobbyist to the State Board of Education. Moreover, California's teachers are well-paid when compared with peers in other states and the Legislature has codified for them excellent job protections. In addition, CTA works diligently to defend Proposition 98, the state's school funding guarantee that curiously - if you subscribe to CTA's assertions - has not kept California from among the lowest states in per pupil spending.
So an educated, critical thinker must ask: Is it all worth it? We rightly recognize rank and file teachers as characteristically hard-working professionals representing broad viewpoints; indeed many of us are related to or know fine teachers. But in return for high salaries and job protection, what is lost? Unions skim $1,000 a year from every teacher's salary; teachers lament the largest class sizes in the nation 8; there are complaints of underfunded programs; teachers are burdened with bureaucracy; teachers are forced to annually face the unnecessary but politically useful March 15th layoff scare; and when working with one of the relatively few substandard teachers, good teachers are stuck with him or her due to union protection dogma. It is therefore no surprise that, despite CTA's ostensible efforts on their behalf, so many teachers leave the profession so early in their careers.
However, teachers are not the only ones ultimately shortchanged by the CTA. Californians in general are no better off for all of the union's power. Whatever influence they have on California public policy has had dismal results for the public at large. Over the last 40 years, California has produced and preserved an outmoded, industrial-modeled education system that fails California's children. Student scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress rank California near the bottom of all states. One in five California students drops out of school. Parents seeking better educational options for their children face a union and Legislature generally hostile to any structure that may compete with the status quo, near-monopoly public school system. Unless our education system changes, we will leave our children an economic and civic landscape barren of possibility and open to the erosion of the liberties we yet enjoy.
Time For Change
CTA must bear some responsibility for these bleak policy outcomes. Thus the time has come to ask again whether the CTA has outlived whatever usefulness it may have had, and whether the monument government chiseled for it through the Rodda Act and other statutes improves our state. A candid analysis leads to the conclusion that 40 years of increased union power has failed our children and our state.
We need therefore to temper CTA's influence. Reform or end collective bargaining - non-collective bargaining states have adequate wages and working conditions. Instead, allow state policymakers and local governing board members be accountable to parents - let them make decisions free from concern about CTA reaction. Recognize that competition breeds excellence, and shift power from union leadership to parents by expanding school choice. California can do it, raising the pay and prestige of teachers while offering more children a chance to live up to their full potential and offering parents hope in a system that values, first and foremost, students.
1 "State to Shift Another $1.8 Billion to Schools." Dan Morain. Los Angeles Times, May 10, 2000.
2 "Unions Must Fear Lost Membership More than Lost Teacher Tenure." Doug Tuthill.
redefinED, December 27, 2010.
3 "Collective Bargaining." Accessed at, February 2, 2011
4 "Rankings and Estimates: Rankings of the States 2009 and Estimates of School Statistics 2010," Table C-12. National Education Association, December 2009.
5 "2010-11 Member Dues/Agency Fees." Accessed at
6 "NEA/CTA Outspends Everyone on California Ballot Measures." Accessed at
7 "Big Money Talks." California Fair Political Practices Commission, March 2010
8 Rankings and Estimates: Rankings of the States 2009 and Estimates of School Statistics 2010," Table C-17. National Education Association, December 2009.

For more information on this report or other Education issues , contact Roger Mackensen, Senate Republican Office of Policy at 916/651-1501.

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