For over a week now I have wavered about how to go about writing this post. I have read about the chaos of my home state in headline after headline, and watched as pictures of the screaming protesters at the capitol were dutifully posted to facebook, and emotionally heated statuses flooded my newsfeed. I have listened to the rants of Republicans and Democrats, and learned how many slices of Ian’s pizza were donated to the growling stomachs of hungry protestors (9,600 slices on one Wednesday alone according to nytimes.com.) I’ve heard comparisons of Wisconsinites to the oppressed peoples of Libya and Egypt, Scott Walker likened to the infamous Mubarak, and the actions of the “Dem-14″ put on the same level as the fits of whining children. However, for all of this information, I didn’t feel that I actually knew anything about what was going on in Wisconsin. I didn’t understand collective bargaining or what was actually being taken away with this controversial bill, or how it would affect the education system. I didn’t feel informed enough to have an opinion, but felt like I should somehow be swept up in the passion that has permeated the Midwest. So I hit the books. Or, rather, the New York Times. I began by re-reading the Wisconsin and Union focused articles of the last weeks. Acknowledging that the New York Times (which I tend to read every morning) is pretty liberally biased, I looked to other sources. I searched for the supporters of Scott Walker–people who called him a savior rather than a dictator. Reading these perspectives, I found my passion. Underlining with bold slashing motions, I filled the margins of these articles with angry question marks. I formed an opinion.
Before I delve into an explanation of how I’ve come to feel about the great Union/collective bargaining debate, I should recap what I’ve learned about collective bargaining. Before the NY Times and letters of Newt Gingrich found their way to my computer screen, I found it necessary to google search collective bargaining. It was pretty disheartening to have to search for something so simple–to admit that though I learned about unions and collective bargaining in dragging class periods of AP US History and American Government in high school, I didn’t actually retain it. I couldn’t apply the phrase “collective bargaining” to this context. My process of higher thought was at a standstill (I suppose this is where the CORE Standards could come in…maybe if I had learned about unions and collective bargaining by being authentically assessed, I wouldn’t be in this position. Furthermore, perhaps if our State governor were taught about collective bargaining and democracy through the utilization of the CORE principles as were the protestors screaming at his doorstep, compromise might be more achievable. But that’s a whole other can of worms.) To reach a level of critical thought, I went about the process of teaching myself a concept and applying it to an opinionated concept.
At the most basic level, collective bargaining “consists of negotiations between an employer and a group of employees so as to determine the conditions of employment”(topics.law.cornell.edu/wex/collective_bargaining). Collective bargaining is a sort of compromise arranged between employees in a labor union, their employees, and federal and state laws.In disputes between these groups, I have learned that the method of Arbitration is often used. In this case, a neutral third party is brought in to hold a hearing about the disagreement. Why are we incapable of using arbitration in this situation? As I understand it, Scott Walker (and the Republican Majority of the Wisconsin State Senate) has proposed (and since passed) a bill that requires state workers to pay more for their medical insurance, and strips the bargaining rights of unions (like the Wisconsin Education Association Council–the largest teachers’ union in the state). All of this was done in the name of rescuing Wisconsin’s sinking economy. However, after 14 Democrats left the state to make a quorum for voting on the bill impossible, it was revised to cut bargaining rights without any fiscal component so that it could be passed without any Democrats present. The largest conflict here seems to come not from the actual stipulations of the bill, but from the way it was carried out. Unions have been valued as an important representation of American “freedom” and “democracy” for centuries. Scott Walker’s bill, and the debate that followed, have provided a venue to question if they are still legitimate and necessary, or rarely a stale symbol. As I perused paragraph after paragraph, I found myself wondering:
1) How should we teach our students about Unions and rights? Should it be from an unbiased perspective ? What do they need to be given to form their own opinions?
2) How has this issue been presented to students Madison schools and throughout Wisconsin after the protests began? Are teachers breaching the right of their students to learn when they do not come to work in order to uphold their own rights to protest?
3) Why do some people disagree with Union rights?
4) How do teachers feel about Unions? I know that in some cases state workers are required to pay union dues even if they don’t want to be a part of a Union. Is this fair? How do Unions affect teacher quality and opportunity?
To answer my first question, I stumbled upon a creative article from The Learning Network of the New York Times, entitle “Of Budgets and Bargaining: Putting the Union Protests into Context.” An outline of a potential curriculum to be used in teaching students about unions in the context of the current Wisconsin debate, authors Shannon Doyne and Holly Epstein Ojalvo began by listing the same initial questions I had in my state of bewilderment about how little I actually knew. For example: What are labor unions? How do they work? How many workers belong to unions? How have unions shaped the way Americans work and live since they first arose in the 19th century? What are the arguments for and against collective bargaining?
This is the best way to begin a meaningful lesson. I am reminded of the days of my sophomore year of high school in my favorite class–U.S. history. Taught by a St. Olaf alumnus, we began most class periods by listing questions on the board in multicolored chalk–moving from the broad and basic to the specific. Too often I feel like history lessons begin with dates and facts, and aren’t put into a larger social context that students can actually relate to. The Wisconsin debate allows this opportunity. It lets students ask questions at a time when they are motivated to have opinions and to be able to participate in discussions. Doyne and Ojalvo’s article goes on to suggest activities that can be used in the classroom to create this sort of meaning and understanding. Ranging from splitting a class into three groups that each play the roles of governor, union leaders, non-union workers, and state lawmakers on each side of the issue in different states, to a lesson taught about “Strikes that Made History” (i.e. the Pullman Strike, the MAjor League Baseball Strike, the Homestead Strike etc.) and how they relate to the teacher strikes of the past few weeks, these activities encourage extrapolation and connection. The class-splitting activity (called “The State of the States”) in particular acts as a great form of alternative assessment. Though this article and its brilliant curricular suggestions couldn’t completely answer my first question, they were a fantastic beginning. As for the unbiased perspective of teachers, I think that this is pretty impossible to enforce. Though teachers should technically be unbiased (at least in public schools) I think that they have the right to strong opinions and public protest. They should not impose their beliefs upon their students, but they should be allowed to express them. This is a touchy issue for many parents, but I ultimately think that students should know what their teachers really think rather than have them spoon-fed completely neutrally. In cases like these, students should ideally be presented with both sides of the debate. No matter who they go to, bias will exist, but this is the nature of negotiating both sides of an argument and finding where you stand.
To answer question two pertaining to the way the debate is being presented in Madison classrooms, I went to an article from the Wisconsin State Journal about Madison students’ return to school after 4 days of teacher “sick-out.” According to the article, the district prohibits teachers from promoting political candidates or activities (which includes protests.) However, principals are able to decide to what extent teachers can discuss current events in the classroom. One teacher at Black Hawk Middle School allowed her students to reflect on the protests by asking them to write in their journals about what they did during the 4 days without class. In this way she was not asking directly about the protests, but allowing an opportunity to express an opinion about the event if they chose–knowing that most students had witnessed or been involved in the protest during their ways away from school. Other teachers are using the protests as an opportunity to talk about Wisconsin labor history, and still others avoid the topic all together and just “focus on learning.” Personally, I think that learning should include current events like this one, and to avoid discussion of the topic is a disservice to the students.
When it comes to addressing my third question regarding the use of Unions in the modern day and why people disagree with them, the supporters of Scott Walker must be called upon.
One argument that cropped up again and again in support of Walker was the assertion that we currently pay our state employees too much. In one such article, written by Joe Ohler as a letter to the editor for the UWM Post, it was stated that “It is unsustainable to have a starting wage of $13 an hour for a food service worker, custodian or receptionist. Such jobs are readily learned, and performance is easily quantifiable to eliminate deficient workers.” The last time I checked, minimum wage in Wisconsin falls at $7.25 an hour, not $13. Furthermore, someone needs to do these “readily learned” jobs if we plan on maintaining our current American “quality” of life. Maintaining our blatant consumer culture that depends on dollar menus at McDonalds and unrealistic product prices that don’t factor in the true costs of human labor and natural capital is not something I wish for, but I do predict that it is something this author would support. Ohler goes on to say that wages can be even further lowered if current college students take the place of current adult employees. He also makes the point that it is “easy” to get a college degree at most UW System schools and MATC programs. Mr. Ohler believes that “any blue collar person can get a degree these days to qualify for white-collar positions.” Though I do believe that obtaining a college degree is something to strive for, and something that has become increasingly necessary to find a position in this difficult job market, I absolutely do not believe that it is “easy.” It is naive to believe that any person can obtain a white collar job. The American Dream of upward mobility is simply not something available to anyone. It is currently a myth of exceptional stories and expectations of people who find themselves at the upper rungs from an early age. I expect this is the case with Mr. Ohler. Though America claims not to have a hierarchy, it wouldn’t be able to function without one. If things were really as easy as Mr. Ohler believes they are, we wouldn’t have a middle or lower class. We would all have college degrees and be competing for positions that are not numerous enough for us to fill. Where would this lead us? Moving the discussion back to education, I do believe that teachers are largely underpaid. Though there are exceptions in private schools, charter schools, and at the college level, public school teachers are pretty under appreciated.
In an article for “The Daily,” a woman from Wasau was interviewed about union workers and educators in particular. Following in the footsteps of Ohler, she stated; “[educators] teach what to think, not how to think…kids are taught political correctness in school. They are taught to go against the values I have…bad teachers can’t be fired, which means new teachers can’t find jobs because other teachers are taking up space.” Here we see the problem parents have with bias in the school system that I discussed earlier. The question remains: How much of their own opinions should teachers be allowed to express in school? As for the “bad” teachers who can’t be fired, I can acknowledge this as a valid concern. Studying the tenure system in Campus Ecology, I have come to see that it is often corrupt, and ends up leaving a school stuck with unmotivated teachers who are too secure in their positions rather than encouraging teachers to take more risks and increase their personal investment in their classes. Theoretically, tenure and union involvement should allow teachers to feel secure enough in their positions to push themselves and their students to learn more in ways that they might not if their positions were more precarious. However, this is not always how things play out. I think that the tenure and firing process need to be better regulated, and “bad” teachers should be removed immediately, but I also believe that when we lose union, collective bargaining, and tenure rights completely we lose a significant number of older teachers. Often, these are the teachers who make the most difference. A case can be made for young and relatable teachers, but one can also be made for experience. Our nation cannot afford to lose the older generation of teachers. Our fresh faced young teachers are promising, but they cannot replace the wisdom and experience of their peers overnight. Unions provide a sense of security in a profession that is currently on pretty unstable ground.
In a final analysis of the side of the debate that supports Walker and his cuts, I move to Newt Gingrich–former Republican Speaker of the House and Minority whip. In a letter calling on Republicans across the country to stand behind Scott Walker, stating that “64% of the American people do not think government employees should be represented by unions,” and “A victory for the forces of reform in Wisconsin would provide enormous energy on government reform efforts to balance budgets in Ohio, New York, New Jersey, and elsewhere. It will also extend to other issues like meaningful education reform.” What these education reforms would entail, Gingrich does not say, but based on how Walker has dealt with bargaining rights and Unions (making significant cuts in the name of fiscal savings–despite the fact that the fiscal portion was actually removed from the Bill) I can only assume that our education system will be receiving reduced funding.
When schooling is looked at through an economic lens, problems occur. For example, in a NY Times article titled “For Detroit Schools, Mixed Picture on Reforms,” this was exactly the case. Recently, Michigan Republican-run legislature echoed Wisconsin and approved a bill that allows managers to void public worker contracts. In a district with a debt of $200 million dollars, this ability to void contracts holds true for teacher unions. The district is thinking of moving all students to the charter school system–believing that this will save the most money as charter schools don’t have unionization and can hire young teachers and pay them low salaries. Mr. Bobb, the manager of the district, has been closing schools that aren’t providing enough money for the district through enrollment mercilessly. Yet, many of these schools, educating the poorest children, are far more meaningful and successful than their standardized test scores and enrollment numbers give them credit for. Take Carstens elementary for example, a school that features free breakfast and lunch for its students, jacket and shoe drives for students without winter coats, a twice a year dentist visit , and teachers who give up their lunch hour to sit with their classes instead of hire a lunch aide. These are the schools that truly make a difference–developing a relationship with their students and instilling a sense of hope in their futures. And yet, these are also the schools that are closed in the name of money. These are the sorts of ramifications I worry about with Walker’s bill.
Now that I have outlined a few of the supporting arguments for Walker and my reactions to them, I should say something about the side that I have come to support–the opposition to Walker’s bill. I have read several articles objecting to the bill, but I find that the points made in all of these are best summed up in Diane Ravitch’s “Eight Civics Lessons from Governor Walker” written for the Huffington Post. In this article, Ravitch passionately criticizes Walker’s manipulative union breaking despite initial union compliance to his budget cuts, expresses her disappointment in Wisconsin voters for their extremely poor turnout in the November elections (Scott Walker really should never have been elected,) reminds us to fight for the right to compromise in a democracy, declares that Walker’s “school reform” is actually an attempt to cut $1 billion from education budgets, laments the loss of senior teachers due to the cuts of the bill, and claims that Walker has “demolish[ed] one of the pillars of a democratic society.” As someone whose views have come full circle throughout her career, I have come to value Diane Ravitch’s perspective when it comes to the education system. Like her, I am concerned about the future of my own children and their place in the public schooling system someday. Reading and reflecting upon both sides of this debate, I find that though I can see merit in some of the motives behind Walker’s Bill, I am completely disillusioned by the way it was carried through congress. I find it more coercive than corrective, and I think that ultimately it has done a lot more harm than good.
Here is an especially telling video of the Wisconsin Republicans voting in a Conference Committee
For a look at what I see as the ideal education system, check out my Utopia Paper–written for my American Conversations Course (co-written with Steve Kannenberg.)