A Teachers’ Union Speaks Power to Truth
Children suffer, but they aren’t the point
APRIL 23, 2014 by WENDY MCELROY
On March 22, Joshua Pechthalt delivered a “state of the union” address at the 72nd convention of the California Federation of Teachers (CFT). Union Watch, an organization that monitors California’s unions, called it “refreshingly candid.” It bluntly revealed the union's political and social goals without wrapping them in rhetoric about educating children. Pechthalt declared:
[The CFT is] a beacon of progressive, social justice unionism. . . . That’s why we have consistently supported single payer health care reform and progressive tax reform measures. . . . The CFT is committed to the vision articulated by the civil rights movement and efforts to ensure class, race and gender equity and the just demands for comprehensive immigration reform. We understand that central to the mission of public education is the need to advocate for a different kind of society.”
Could the teachers have been any clearer?
Pechthalt also pointed to “the Vergara lawsuit” as “the latest attack on public education.” On January 27, the non-jury trial of Vergara v. California began before Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Rolf Treu. In the suit, nine public school students and their parents accuse state statutes of protecting the jobs of grossly incompetent teachers, which amounts to an unconstitutional denial of education. In California, students have a constitutional right to “substantially equal opportunities for learning,” which the Vergara plaintiffs claim was abrogated.
The Washington Post explained, “In states such as California, there are so many legal and procedural hurdles before a tenured teacher can be fired, they say, that it’s difficult to shed even the worst teachers.” Moreover, California school districts have an unusually short time—about 18 months—before tenure is granted. “The complaint also attacks seniority rules and ‘last in, first out’ policies, which say the newest teachers are the first to be laid off when jobs are cut, regardless of performance.”
In short, the legislature and teachers' unions are accused of putting the interests of their members above the educational interests of children as encoded in law.
Vergara has attracted national attention and passionate debate because the judge's ruling could change the manner in which California educators are hired and fired. It could also set a precedent for other states.
The teachers' unions have reason to fear the ruling, which explains why the two largest ones—the CFT and the California Teachers Association (CTA)—joined the suit as defendants. Many reporters believe Judge Treu has repeatedly signaled his sympathy toward the plaintiffs. In a March 31 article, “Vergara Time Bomb: Will a Judge Tear Down California Teacher Protection Laws?,” the LA Weekly stated, “One couldn't help but notice how Treu repeatedly interrupted the defense attorneys representing the state and teachers' unions who intervened in the case. He probed their reasoning, after having listened silently to the plaintiffs.” Pechthalt commented on the judge's behavior, "Unfortunately, I think that may be quite telling about where he's going." The arguments closed on April 1 and the decision is expected in a matter of months.
One theme that binds Pechthalt's speech and Vergara together is the high priority that teachers' unions have given to their own interests rather than to the goal of quality education. But equally questionable is the priority they are giving to political and social causes rather than to quality education. Even though the plaintiffs are poor minority children and their parents, the unions are casting Vergara as a “class” conflict in which they are the underdog being persecuted by rich people and corporate interests (sound familiar?). In other words, the unions wish to appear as David against Goliath. Who is cast as Goliath? Billionaires David Welch and Eli Broad as well as the corporate-friendly law firm of Gibson Dunn and Crutcher—all of whom are backing Vergara.
In his speech, Pechthalt said,
The super wealthy and their swollen circle of reactionary think tanks and echo chamber conservative media are committed to eradicating what remains of the labor movement. . . . The egalitarian mission of public education that was given new life by the social movements a half century ago now stands as an obstacle to a corporate world committed to keeping wealth and education in the hands of a few. . . . The largest corporate interests use the media and the politicians they help elect to create a narrative that attacks hard earned pensions, worker rights—including the right to unionize—and the right to vote.
In newspaper statements, union officials have hurled similar accusations of class warfare.
It is difficult to give any credence to such accusations, flowing as they do from massive, state-privileged, taxpayer-funded organizations. California’s teachers’ unions are among the most powerful in America, representing some 400,000 educators. The state's statutes are so favorable to the unions that it is next to impossible to dismiss even educators who behave egregiously; indeed, the legislature is sometimes referred to as “union controlled.”
The Washington Post (Dec. 15) cited the average yearly salary of teachers in California at $69,324—the third highest in America. The salary does not reflect other benefits such as healthcare and pensions. Estimates of those benefits vary widely, and predictably so; the unfunded mandate of teachers' pensions may well be the most heated political conflict in California and statistics are weapons. The Los Angeles Times gave the low end: “The average retiree last year left his or her job at age 62 with a monthly pension of $3,980 after working 25 years.” The Voice of San Diego gave the high end: “Every district employee gets a guaranteed pension, which . . . will pay them 80–90 percent of their highest salary every year until they die . . . That teacher making $73,000 today will get 80–90 percent of their final salary number which will be as high as $95,000. They are eligible for retirement beginning at the age of 55.”
A standard counter to citing the plush union pensions is that teachers do not receive Social Security; of course, neither do they pay into it. The Voice of San Diego continued, “This retirement program is dramatically more generous than Social Security, which most Americans receive. Current middle-age working Social Security recipients are slated to receive only 76 cents for every dollar taken from their paycheck. However because teachers' unions negotiated a guaranteed pension amount, they are receiving 10–20 times any contribution they make in future retirement payments.”
There is a more fundamental reason for tearing the cloak of David off the shoulders of the union, however. It has been almost a century since the labor movement had any claim to being an underdog or the voice of workers' rights. The New Deal turned unions into state-sponsored organizations with such legal privileges as state certification (that is, a monopoly within specific industries) and the “right” to collective bargaining. Interestingly, the new unions were championed by leaders of industry such as Gerard Swope, then-president of General Electric. Big business may not have liked the “new union,” but it was vastly preferable to wildcat strikes, slowdowns and other disruptive tactics pursued by their grassroots counterparts.
Some put an earlier date on the death of the genuine labor movement. The libertarian Karl Hess said, "We used to have a labor movement in this country, until I.W.W. leaders were killed or imprisoned. You could tell labor unions had become captive when business and government began to praise them.”
There is no measure by which California teachers' unions are an underdog; they are a politically privileged and legally protected class. It is not clear if the wealthy supporters of Vergara are politically objectionable. Nor does it need to be. The entire issue should be educating children.
Unfortunately for them, children do not vote, nor do they send lobbyists to the legislature. In their response to Vergara, the CFT and CTA have displayed a wanton disregard for children, preferring instead to argue for their own interests and to play “class” politics to smear opponents. By contrast, the Vergara supporters have focused on the children and the quality of education. If it were up to the unions, no one would know that it was children and parents suing them for an opportunity being denied by the unions—namely, the opportunity to learn.