The Current State of the Union(s)

Unions.

There is a word which is currently stirring much thought and commentary.

With all due solemnity and respect for the people of Japan, I would say that Madison, Wisconsin is the epicenter of an earthquake which is sending tremors into every state capital of our country.

What’s all the hubbub, bub?

In case you have been living in a cave, allow me to enlighten you.  Desperate economic times have apparently called for desperate measures.  State legislatures are looking for ways to cut spending, and they have uncovered a very interesting phenomenon.  Government unions have been very adroit in negotiating excellent financial compensation for their members, including fringe benefits which are outpacing the benefits of many employees in the private sector.

Governors, emboldened by the example of their counterpart in Wisconsin, are attempting to change collective bargaining laws, so, in the very least, unions do not have as much, if any, control over wages and benefits.  Asking government union employees to pay more of their “fair share” of benefits has resulted in millions of dollars of proposed government savings.

Well, you would think that mass murderers have been cornered in the town square, because lynch mobs have formed against “both sides” of this dispute.  Protests have gone on unabated for days.  Teachers obtained false doctor’s notes excusing their absences from school, since some of these states are no-strike states.  Re-call elections have been proposed in multiple states, and no mercy is being shown to bold governors or legislators who chose to leave their jobs and cross state lines for several weeks of – shall we say – “vacation.”  (What’s up with that?!  Both Wisconsinites and Indianans sought “refuge” in Illinois!)

Please allow me to share my experiences with and views about unions.  At their inception, unions served very useful purposes.  Especially during the Industrial Revolution, managers were responsible for horrific abuses of working hours, conditions, pay, and benefits.  Employees formed unions to present united fronts to their bosses, so they could negotiate reasonable conditions.

While I am not naïve – and I know that management abuses do still exist today – those behaviors are very rare, and I believe unions – in the form that they were conceived – have outlived their usefulness.  In an age of shared decision-making, and participative leadership, no manager of a reputable organization could get away with abusive behavior in even the most subtle of forms.  Cries of “foul” regularly ring out, and news outlets are only too happy to capitalize on the crisis d’jour.

I have often wondered about the efficacy of unions during my thirty-plus years as a professional educator.  During my 7 years of teaching, I was miffed by what I believed to have been exorbitant fees and disproportionate percentage of my income to join the local, state, and national unions.  (In case you didn’t know, the National Education Association is the biggest and most powerful union in Washington, D.C.)  I was always threatened with the “need’ for insurance in case I found myself a defendant in litigation, and the administrators were always portrayed as the “bad guys” in these scenarios.

As a teacher, I was also frustrated by the issues taken up by the NEA and Iowa State Education Association.  Why were the delegates to these conventions spending so much time and money discussing the non-education-related dynamics of homosexuality and abortion?!  Even before I was a believer in Jesus Christ, I somehow inherently knew that these topics were superfluous to the school building.  (Don’t get me wrong.  I don’t dismiss these issues.  They are VERY important issues, but the more important issues for EDUCATIONAL unions are those related directly to the EDUCATION of students in classrooms.)

As a part of my Master’s degree program in school administration, I was trained by a Western Illinois University professor in the “art” and “science” of collective bargaining.  Looking back on the content of that course, I can now accurately point out that this was a class on gamesmanship more than determining what was in the best interests of students, educators, and parents.

The relationship between the Pleasant Valley Education Association and administration was the most adversarial in my experience.  Outrageous financial proposals were put on the bargaining table every year.  The teachers asked for too much.  The administration offered too little.  All of this blustering and caucusing did nothing to bring “unity” from either the “union” or the administration.  (I am at least pleased to add that THE BEST union in my working experience has been the Urbandale Education Association, which cooperated well with administration in a non-adversarial model of bargaining in which every penny was put on the table for discussion, and no outrageous proposals drew battle lines.  Also, the UEA did not automatically defend poor teachers who were asked to resign or to complete intensive assistance plans for the improvement of their teaching.)

During my last year of teaching, no one would run for the presidency of the Pleasant Valley union, so I unabashedly ran unopposed as a “let’s get something done together” platform.  I was elected.  If someone had a different platform, they should have run a write-in campaign!  Everyone knew where I stood.  After all, I was the son of a school administrator.  I remember the calls my Dad took at home.  I remember he had the best interests of his staff members in mind.  I remember when he was no longer a member of the union, because the collective bargaining laws of Iowa had precipitated rancor between teachers and principals and the end of union membership for school administrators.

As the PVEA President, I wasn’t exactly the “why-can’t-we-all-just-get-along” leader.  I wanted to fairly represent the teachers, and I was willing to make tough decisions on their behalf.  But I also didn’t want to fall lock-step into a union mentality which always immediately distrusted the intent of administration.  How ironic that one year I was the union president – 1986-1987 – and the very next year – 1987-1988 – I was Associate Principal of Pleasant Valley High School.  Needless to say, I was no longer a member of the PVEA as a school administrator!  And I can imagine that several of my teaching colleagues believed I had “sold out” to the “dark side of administration.”

I am pleased to report that I am now the Superintendent of a non-public school which does not have a union.  To be frank, there are times when I have unintentionally not acted in the best interests of the staff in this school, but there has generally not been a “need” for a union, because I want to intentionally do everything in my power to fairly compensate them for their work and to create working conditions which are favorable to student learning.  As a private school, our school will go out of business if we are not giving a good return on our “customers’” investment, and teachers need to be unencumbered to do their jobs.

But the school must also be unencumbered to end contractual relationships with teachers who are not helping students to learn.  I can honestly say that I have loved 99% of the teachers who have left our school for any number of issues.  While I can love people, I can also, even and especially as a Christian, expect employees to do their very best to honor and glorify God through their work.  We can love each other and still agree that parting ways would be the best course of action for students, parents, administrators, and especially the underperforming or misplaced teachers themselves.  I understand the emotion attached to losing employment, but can’t we also agree that the teachers themselves will be miserable in positions for which they are not suited?

This is all to say that I am not AGAINST unions.  But I am against unreasonable union leaders and managers.  And I am FOR government employees needing to pay a reasonable share of fringe benefits, especially with rising costs of health care.  Union leaders in some of these feuding states have indicated that they have “passed” on negotiating for higher wages to secure these excellent fringe benefits.  That may be true, but I would venture a guess that such an argument is sometimes/often a “white lie”  (aka intellectual dishonesty).

Right now, I am most incensed by the behavior of many (but not all) National Football League players and owners.  One of our school’s parents is a federal negotiator, and he rightly pointed out that greed is at the heart of “millionaires arguing with billionaires.”  And, all along, a family cannot afford to attend an NFL game featuring players who have (obscenely) compared the current situation as “slavery,” thus implying they are “slaves”!  Ah, to be that kind of “slave” who has that kind of talent and earns that kind of money and has the right at any time to walk away from that kind of work!

Unions have garnered a lot of attention lately, haven’t they?  You can no longer be ambivalent.  You’ve got to get into this discussion and game.  Unions are affecting all of us, whether you care to admit it or want to live in a state of denial.

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