February 17th, 2011

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#331 – Dick Bernard: Part 1. “On, [the public employees of], Wisconsin!”

Thursday, February 17th, 2011

Thursday afternoon, February 17, we went across the Mississippi River to see a music program at a local suburban St. Paul elementary school. The performers were about a hundred fifth graders, one of whom was our grandson. The audience was classmates from other grades, and the usual assortment of parents, grandparents and others. It was standing room only in the gymnasium.

It was a great program – they always are. Classroom teachers, and all public school employees, on average are genius level when it comes to working with kids. The average civilian would hardly last a day with one-fourth of the students a normal teacher is assigned each and every day. Ditto for those cooks, custodians, secretaries, Principals, etc., etc., etc. Occasional problems? Sure. There are, after all, nearly 50,000,000 kids in those places called “school”.

Thursday we watched one of this large elementary schools music teachers work his magic during the impressively choreographed and timed program with his young charges. Thursday evening the program was repeated.

Teachers – indeed, all school staff – are to be celebrated.

But those same employees are certainly not to be tolerated if they get uppity, and wish to share a tiny bit in the riches of this country.

Across the river, down the road perhaps 300 miles in Madison Wisconsin, at the same time I was listening to my grandson and his classmates, teachers and other public employees were engaging in rarely seen huge protests over an arbitrary attempt to strip them of rights and benefits under the guise of balancing the state’s budget. At this writing, it appears that the employees, with the help of Democrat legislators who literally left the state to prevent the dominant Republicans from achieving a quorum, will manage to at least minimize their losses in the short term, and bring powerful public attention to the problem of attempts to break unions, particularly unionized public workers.

I taught public school (Junior High) for nine years, followed by 27 years of representing unionized public school teachers. Union dues paid my salary and helped fund my private pension. I grew up in a teachers family, and on and on and on. So I am not unbiased when I cheer on those valiant souls who challenged the Wisconsin Governor and hopefully cause he and his slash and burn allies to regret their move (such unanticipated results do occur from time to time.) It’s past time to take a stand.

Public workers are essential to the public good, and not ‘essential’ as defined by those who would wish them to work as, truly, “public servants”.

Many years ago I heard the issue defined well by a colleague: “public employees are the last to reap the benefits of prosperity, and the first to be burdened by the costs of recession.” He was speaking an abiding truth. The public employer gets the leftovers, if there are any, and were anti-union forces to get their way, the good old days of “come to the table and beg” would again become policy.

Probably half of my nine years of teaching were in those “at will” days where the teachers got what the school board wished to give, which usually wasn’t very much.

By happenstance, my career as union staff coincided exactly with the beginning of collective bargaining in my state, and while both sides made mistakes that first year nearly 40 years ago, and later, we did learn, and collective bargaining has worked reasonably well ever since.

Actually, it would work even better for ALL parties, including the public, were the bargaining playing field opened to include all of the abundant issues which face public education, but managers are afraid of bogey-men that exist in their “minds eyes” about allowing practitioners to – horrors – have a say in education policy.

Get rid of bargaining? Honest managers would agree that unions bring stability to employer-employee relations generally. I know. I did the work, and I know people who worked on the other side of the table back then.

I applaud those courageous workers who when faced with an arrogant challenge by a wet-behind-the-ears new Governor took to the streets and made the national news.

May they be an example to their colleagues everywhere.

The writer taught junior high school geography from 1963-72; and from 1972 to the end of his career in 2000 was field representative for the Minnesota Education Association/Education Minnesota. A career long primary interest has been positive relationships between public schools and the public at large. In addition to this blog site, he retains a site with ideas for better public school engagement with the non-school community. You can access it here.