|"Pere Ubu, You're Killing Everyone!" ("Ubu Roi, the War March," 2009, by Hernan Bas)|
In an unprecedented move, Providence, R.I. is sending out pink slips to every one of its teachers despite years of collaboration between the Providence Teachers Union (PTU) and the school district. The move came just one week after Education Secretary Arne Duncan praised Providence’s labor-management model at his Labor-Management Collaboration Summit, in Denver.
Angel Taveras, the city’s new mayor, announced the mass firings last week. Like most school districts, local laws or Ed Code require that any potential layoffs for the coming school year be announced by March. The mayor’s office said that the firings were necessary to achieve “maximum flexibility” in dealing with the city’s $80 million budget deficit.
In a typical example of either feigned astonishment or gross naiveté, American Federation of Teachers (AFT) President Randi Weingarten called the move “shocking.”
In reality, this action should be far from shocking to anyone following the history of labor-management collusion. Management dictates the terms of the debate, frames the issues, and makes its demands. Labor accepts the terms of the debate and the issues, as defined by management, as the only possible explanation of reality, and then works to convince workers that cuts and rollbacks are necessary to prevent a far worse outcome. Labor is seen as a reasonable and honest team player and retains its seat at the table with the bosses. However, in each round of collaboration, management pushes labor back two or three steps at a time. If lucky, labor might regain a little at a future time, but not necessarily AND not as much as it lost. Thus, over time, labor loses more and more ground.
Likewise, by accepting management’s version of reality, labor sends the message to management that they are suckers, wimps, unwilling or incapable of mustering a fight for their real interests. When presented with such an adversary, it makes sense strategically to go on the offensive and make bigger demands. After all, if they didn’t resist a pay freeze, maybe they won’t resist a pay cut. Over the past several years they have accepted a few hundred layoffs, so why should we expect resistance to a couple thousand now? Anyway, they know that we’re not really serious. We’ll hire most of them back next year, (or not. Maybe we’ll replace them with SCABS!).
The scenarios presented above are not just speculative. The PTU was the first teachers union in the state to sign on to Rhode Island’s Race to the Top grant proposal, a move that exposed their neck by showing their willingness to accept merit pay tied to student test scores and an increase in charter school privatization. Similarly, for the past two years PTU has collaborated with Superintendent Tom Brady on various education reform plans.
March is layoff season for teachers across the nation. While it is normal to release temporary and probationary teachers first when faced with budget shortfalls, tenured teachers and even some with seniority also get pink slipped when times are really tough. However, tenure and seniority rules require that more junior faculty be considered first when making layoff decisions. If two teachers can both teach the same subject, but a school’s budget can only cover one of them, the less senior teacher is supposed to be the one to go. By axing an entire staff, a district circumvents its own seniority rules which are usually part of their contract with teachers. Therefore, Taveras’ demands for “maximum flexibility” are really about the flexibility to get rid of the most senior and highest paid teachers (as well as the troublemakers, union militants, and other proverbial thorns in the side).
The PTU has sued the district, but the lawsuit has not yet reached a settlement. Therefore, no teacher in the district has any guarantee of a job for next year. In the interim, if PTU does anything less than a full scale job action against their district, they may cease to exist next year. Considering that their contract expires at the end of this school year, the Mayor’s move seems to really be about destroying the union.