Saturday, July 9, 2011

California’s Powerful Teachers Unions?

In an apparent payback to the California Teachers Association (CTA), which has donated millions to state politicians, the legislature quietly and privately shoved through a bill, AB114, that prevents districts from laying off teachers and forces them to maintain staffing and programs at last year’s funding level, the San Francisco Chronicle reported today. The wording of the bill was concocted in a backroom deal between the governor, Democratic legislators and representatives of the CTA.

In the past, state law allowed districts to reduce teaching staff until August 15 to address budget shortfalls. AB114 suspends this right. This is particularly frustrating for districts which are fearful that the state may not be able to come up with the $4 billion in anticipated revenues upon which the new budget depends. Should the state come up short, districts would have to make other cuts, such as the Brown-favored plan of shortening the school year by seven or more days.

Strong Union?
CTA President Dean Vogel, quoted in the Chronicle, said that "the easiest thing to do when you're trying to solve the kind of budget crisis hitting us is lay off employees. It's the easy way out."

Vogel is grossly exaggerating. Districts usually try to avoid layoffs, as they increase class sizes and force program cuts which harm students and piss off parents. The easiest and first thing they do is freeze wages and benefits, demand teachers start paying more out of pocket for their benefits, and furlough them. They have been doing this for the past three years, resulting in decreased take-home pay for the vast majority of teachers. Those working in basic aid districts, which have been slightly more insulated from the budget crises of the past few years, have had their wages frozen. With rising living costs due to inflation, even this amounts to a de facto pay cut.

While the unions complain about these actions, they generally concede and justify their concessions with arguments like, “We shouldn’t expect a raise or cost of living increase this year because the district is broke,” or “Wouldn’t you rather have a few furlough days than get laid off?” The unions have done virtually nothing to fight for increased revenues and state spending aside from a few pathetic rallies, press conferences and spending millions on the campaigns of fickle politicians who would rather throw the unions a few measly bones, like increased job protections, than raise taxes on themselves, which would be necessary for revenues and spending to increase and stabilize.

It should also be pointed out that while preventing layoffs is good for teachers and students, it could result in a shortening of the school year, which is bad for students, who will lose considerable instructional time, and parents, who will have to take time off work to care for their children or pay for babysitters or activities to keep them busy. It is also bad for teachers, who will lose seven or more days’ worth of pay in addition to already existing furloughs, pay cuts and/or wage freezes.

The “powerful” CTA, thus, has won job protections for its members by wasting millions of dollars of their dues to buy off some politicians, money that would have been much more effectively used to organize and mobilize their members to strike and demand increased taxes on the wealthy to ensure a steady, secure and ample revenue stream for the future. However, even this “victory” for teachers is dubious as their salaries are being wagered to preserve their jobs, while overall state spending on education remains among the lowest in the nation, resulting in some of the largest class sizes and lowest ratios of counselors, librarians and nurses in the nation. This hardly seems like a strong union.

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