Before I add to the vitriol surrounding the striking Tacoma school teachers I should provide this disclaimer: I don’t have kids in Tacoma schools, don’t have any experience in teacher negotiations and have only a basic grasp on the issues.
Now to the point- Tacoma teachers should put down the signs, step away from the picket lines and get back to the vital job of teaching children.
As I mentioned, I don’t have a dog (or in this case, a kid) in the fight. What I do have is the experience of being a public employee charged to perform a vital role within the protective network of a union. Despite a degree of removal, my perspective as a law enforcement officer does give me a minimum level of commonality with public school educators, whose union is currently conducting a very aggressive, ill-timed and controversial job action.
Like teachers, my years in police work have all been spent under the umbrella of a union-negotiated contract. Not surprisingly, the last three years at the bargaining table have been, in a word, lousy. Our union gave back 2% of our pay one year and froze it the next. We received fewer health benefits just as medical costs increased. Finally, we watched staffing, job opportunities and promotions erode. Like many other public and private sector workers in this brave new economy, we are now being asked to do more while being given less.
Compare that with individual Tacoma teachers quoted as saying they would simply like to keep the previous contract’s salary. While I don’t blame them for wishing, in this economy that wish and four bucks will get you a gallon of gas.
The other sticking points are the related issues of performance evaluations and the managerial right to transfer employees. These ideas seem to be new or abhorrent (or both) to this union which apparently lacks a basic level of trust in management.
Performance evaluations and specific managerial rights, however, are standard in many public and private sector professions. Any police department that covets the status of an accredited agency must demonstrate that employees receive routine performance evaluations. Setting goals for employees and measuring their success (and, yes, failures) is a process meant to be beneficial to the employee, the employer and the public for whom we all toil. Poor performers will, and should, be moved to areas of lesser responsibility if their duties require a performance level they fail to reach.
These appear to be the unresolved issues awaiting negotiation, and negotiations are not meant to be pretty. These “discussions” are combative by nature as both sides hammer out the whys, wherefores and how-much-es for each matter of contention. At its best this two-sided volley ends in a tie, and at worst t(in the case of police agencies) mediators arrive to determine the outcome.
Did any of that include a strike? Nope. You may point out that, in most cases, public safety officers are precluded from striking. Point taken. But we shouldn’t be the only ones.
The threat of a strike gives teachers a negotiating trump card as powerful as any in the working world. The reaction to the mere suggestion of one is swift and chaotic- parents scramble for child care, scrap pre-planned vacations and re-work painstakingly prepared schedules. For some, single parents especially, this can be both costly and stressful.
Most important to the argument against teacher strikes is the example set by the people we entrust to educate our children. What civic lesson are they conveying when they state that they are striking because negotiations don’t work? What level of responsibility are they promoting when they fail to meet the obligations of a contract that holds their signature? What respect for authority are they demonstrating when they ignore a judge’s ruling to get off the strike line and go perform the job for which they were paid?
Just imagine if students were absorbing these erroneous lessons. What if a student who decides to ignore a classroom rule he doesn’t like. He gets detention, but then he blows it off and heads home. Faced with discipline by the principal, he walks out of the office. The principal decides not to invoke further punishment if the student will just go back to class.
Is that reality? Apparently it is if you’re a Tacoma teacher.