Thoughts about the Wisconsin teachers’ union

[Updated to correct information about Wisconsin teacher salaries.]

As I understand it, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, faced with a $3.6 billion biennial budget deficit (for the years 2011-2013), had the choice of raising taxes in his financially beleaguered state or firing up to 6,000 state employees. He chose a third route, proposing that Wisconsin’s public sector employees start carrying a small portion of their pension and benefit load. The Heritage Foundation summarizes Walker’s proposal as follows:

Walker’s proposal would limit collective bargaining power and reform public employee benefit plans. For the first time, state employees would be responsible for making a 5.8 percent contribution into their pension plans and pick up the tab for 12 percent of their health care benefits. As it currently stands, Wisconsin taxpayers bear 100 percent of the costs.

Even with this change to the status quo, the employees are still better off than the average Wisconsin employee. First, as noted, taxpayers are currently paying all of those costs. Second, even under the proposed change, the public sector employees would still be paying a significantly lower percentage of these costs than are paid by similarly situated private employees.

Keep in mind, too, that the average teacher in a Wisconsin city Milwaukee including benefits — has a salary a total compensation in excess of $100,000.:  This salary annual compensation package is one half the average sale price ($200,000) for a home in Madison, Wisconsin. The average salary in Wisconsin overall is less than $60,000. To summarize, Wisconsin teachers, who are state employees receiving their income from taxpayers, get higher pay and better benefits than many of their taxpayer employers.

Aside from the money issues, Gov. Walker proposes trimming union wings a bit, so that the unions lose some of their coercive power over their own members:

Walker’s budget removes the special privileges that give government unions their outsize influence. His plan allows workers to quit their union without losing their job. He requires unions to demonstrate their support through an annual secret-ballot vote. He also ends the unfair taxpayer subsidy to union fundraising: The state and local government would stop collecting union dues with their payroll systems.

In a dreadful economy, in a state with a huge debt load, you’d think that the public sector employees would be sanguine about the proposal. After all, they get to keep their jobs, they get to keep their benefits, and they still have salaries and benefits that exceed those given to their taxpayer employees. In addition, the unions that they are currently to which they are currently forced to belong would have to be run more fairly.

If you were looking for reasoned thought from unions, however, you’d be looking a long, long time. The unions and their Democrat consigliores have gone absolutely ballistic. The Democrat politicians have gone into hiding and the teachers have gone on the march.

With regard to the teacher protests, you’ve already heard about the illegal strike; the ill-informed and indoctrinated students dragged into the fray; the vile signs likening Walker to Hitler or Hussein or Mubarak, or placing gun sights on Walker’s face’ and the filth these protesters left in their wake. What I’m more interested in is why the teachers? Other public sector employees are also subject to these budget proposals, but it’s the teachers who are leading the way.

Part of the answer, of course, lies with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. In a state in which the teachers’ union has been likened to the fourth branch of government, it was he who first made Americans aware of the way in which teacher’s unions, more than any other single employee group, are putting a pinch on state government coffers. Suddenly, teachers aren’t the sweet-faced little ladies teaching Johnny and Janie to read. Instead, they’re well-paid cogs benefiting from the union’s depredations.

Christie is always careful, in his speeches, to distinguish individual teachers from the unions themselves, and he’s right to do so. It is the unions that are rapacious. The teachers benefit, of course, from the union demands. They’d be absolute idiots to say “No, I don’t want the salary you’re handing me; no, I don’t want the benefits that are coming my way; and, please, forget about that tenure that makes sure I’ll have a job forever.” Each individual teacher knows that if he should decide unilaterally to be honorable and turn down the salary and benefits headed his way, it would change nothing. The situation would continue the same, but he’d be poor.

The problem for teachers is that, having taken these benefits, they’re stuck with the consequences. They’re stuck with the fact that, because of tenure, too many incompetent teachers occupying America’s classrooms, bringing the whole profession into disrepute. And they’re stuck with the fact that the unions have stuck their collective bargaining noses in the curriculum, teaching information and values that offend their taxpayer employers. And they’re stuck with the fact that ordinary taxpayers (and teachers are taxpayers too, but their numbers are small compared to the rest of America’s taxpayers), think that it’s obscene for someone to get paid twice their own salary, with much better benefits, for seven months work.

Oh, yeah! Did I forget to mention that? Most people work about eleven months of the year, with approximately one month off for official holidays and vacation. Teachers, however, work on average seven months of the year, except that they make more money than those eleven-month workers do.

How did we get to this point with teachers? I certainly remember a time when it wasn’t this way. From about 1966 until 1987, my father was a public school teacher in a San Francisco Bay Area school district. Those were not the glory days. Our family lived only slightly above the poverty level. We made ends meet only because, in addition to his teaching job, my father taught summer school and gave private lessons. Eleven months a year, my father worked five to six days a week. He left the house at 7:00 every day to teach school and returned home at around 10:30, after his private lessons ended.

The only good thing about my father’s job was the benefits. He didn’t get life insurance, and he got a minuscule pension (about $5,000/year when he retired), but he got great medical and dental. The dental was especially good: if we had our teeth cleaned and checked twice a year, the insurance company would pay for all major dental procedures. My parents, though, had to dig into their own pockets to get our crooked teeth straightened.

The whole situation stank. There was a reason, though, for teachers’ lousy compensation. Before women’s lib, the bulk of teacher’s were women. Before women’s lib, you could therefore pay these female teachers a very low salary. The thinking was that women who taught were wives and mothers who were bringing in a little extra. They didn’t need a top salary because theirs was the second salary in a household. (My mother, a draftswoman, was told precisely this back in 1958, when she learned that the man sitting at the table next to her, with the same training and job description, received twice her salary.) That this wasn’t always the case — that the women was sometimes the primary or sole breadwinner — didn’t prevent it from being true often enough for the system to work fairly well in an era before women started realizing that the job itself, not their marital status, should determine the salary.

Incidentally, women’s lib also changed the caliber of teacher we see in today’s classroom. In a pre-liberated era, one of the only jobs for bright, college-educated women, was teaching. Classrooms therefore got a lot of teachers who would, by today’s standards, be considered over-educated.

I don’t say this to denigrate today’s teachers. I know that most of them (and most are still female, although there are a fair number of men), are qualified for their jobs. But the fact is that many of them don’t come from the top third of their own graduating classes. When it comes to women, many in the top third now go to the cachet jobs: doctors, lawyers, architects, investment bankers, etc. This means that the current crop of teachers, with obvious and many exceptions, lacks the breadth of knowledge and education that characterized pre-women’s lib teachers. What all this means is that we pay more now for teachers than we did a generation ago, but we get less educational bang for the buck.

The kind of starvation wages my father was paid were offensive. Also, people realized that their children are in the teacher’s hands. If they don’t get decent teachers, they don’t end up with decently educated children. Ironically, it was the Leftists who argued most stridently what is an obvious free market principle: if you don’t pay good salaries, you don’t get good workers. Salaries for teachers had to go up. It’s just that, as the unions gained more and more power, salaries went up disproportionately to the service being offered. This fact wasn’t obvious during the flush times, but it sure is obvious now.

Worse, no matter how good the teachers, at precisely the same time that the unions were getting more demanding, people were noticing that their children were getting less educated. Some of it, as I pointed out, was due to the change in educational level of those teaching. Some, however, was due to the increased politicization of the classroom. Educational colleges because less concerned with the Three Rs and infinitely more concerned with indoctrinating students. Reading, writing and ‘rithmetic got swept away in ebonics, climate change, multiculturalism, identity politics, self-actualization and self-realization. A six hour day just didn’t give enough time for everything, and academics suffered.

But no matter what, teachers’ unions clung to that moral high gr0und: “It’s for the children! Give us more money and, even though we won’t change the way in which we operate, we promise that we’ll produce a better product.” After twenty plus years of being fooled, the taxpayers are finally wising up.

It’s this moral high ground, though, that sees the teachers in the forefront of the battle against Governor Walker. No one is going to be sympathetic if the tax collections or auditors or motor vehicle employees rise up to fight the cuts. It’s the teachers who have put themselves on the high moral pedestal, and it’s they who are falling furthest and fastest, although I don’t think they’ve quite realized either their speed or trajectory just yet.

The last thing I’ll say here, speaking directly to Gov. Walker and the Wisconsin Democrats, is a Margaret Thatcher quotation: “This [is] no time to go wobbly.” This is one of those turning points in a war. It’s the public sector’s Gettysburg or Midway or Battle of the Bulge: whoever wins this battle, wins the war.

Cross-posted at Bookworm Room

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