Is anyone COMPLETELY right or wrong in the teacher demonstrations?

In the interest of disclosure, I should mention that I am adjunct college faculty (no union), a part-time public school teacher (and union member), a non-union musician, a small business owner with a non-union shop, … and a registered Republican. Untangle that mess.

After praising and supporting Middle Eastern demonstrators, it seems hypocritical to move on to slamming Americans for exercising the same “right”. Some of the behavior of demonstrators, however, has been disgusting.

During the Wisconsin demonstrations, if as reported on TV, doctors are in the crowds writing “sick letters” for demonstrators, that is wrong. To be fair, though, only those who have never called in ‘sick’ for a non-medical reason should criticise. There were schools closed and education not happening — and who does THAT hurt? But WAIT! It is not JUST about students…..and THAT’S part of the problem.

A perspective I didn’t see on the news came to me from a friend who is a Wisconsin teacher spouse. According to Ron, teachers agreed a couple of years ago to accept a lower wage increase and, instead, received additional benefits. And now….much of what the state is wanting to change is in the benefits area….hence the rub.

I’m not going to get into the specifics of the Wisconsin battle which is, also going on to a less publicized degree in Indiana. Financial cutbacks from states definitely puts the squeeze on the education process, and teachers who have devoted their careers to education see the changes negatively impacting their income in pay, benefits, working conditions and employment.

A CASE FOR UNIONS: Unions become necessary when employers disrespect employees

Because I am not totally unbiased in this area, I’ll just share some personal experiences:

  • In my very first year of teaching, I expanded a summer band program in my school because I was convinced it would help the program. I didn’t ask for, nor did I have, a contract or summer stipend to do that. When the program improved, I THEN went to the Superintendent to ask for compensation to continue the program. His response, in private, of course:,

“I’m not going to give you a contract,
because you’re going to do the work anyway.”

A couple of months later, and yes, I’m skipping the details, the Superintendent caught me alone in the hallway (how do they do that?) and unpleasantly updated me:

“I’m not sure what you did….
but you are going to get your summer contract.”

The union didn’t contest it, but I was not a union member.

  • Seven years ago, I was hired as an emergency six-week substitute band director. As a certified teacher, THAT superintendent promised that I would be on sub pay for 5 days and then paid according to the teacher contract. When my 2nd paycheck came in at the sub-pay rate, I asked and was told…. “the board hasn’t voted on you yet”. With all his squirming around, I was there 3 weeks before I got the higher pay rate. He saved them an extra 15 days teacher-rate pay at MY expense. Ah, but there was no union involved. The union there didn’t contest it, but I was not a union member.

Those are the kinds of bosses unions protect teachers from…..

  • In another teaching stint, I was pink-slipped. I was not in the union and the union did not respond. I joined the union. No more pink slips…so far.

Unionized workers are often professional and proficient, but may be more expensive. It would be unwise for me to discuss my current union or work experience, so I’ll take examples from a couple of others I know well.

  • I am always impressed by the UPS drivers. You never see them walk…..they are always running. Drivers tell me of their “fuel efficiency” contests and other incentives to operate quickly. Fed-Ex, on the other hand, is NOT unionized — and cheaper to ship.
  • …but over the years there have been some troublesome contract negotiations and I have been warned by my driver to be careful what I ship during those times — saying things like, ‘there seems to be a sudden spike in the number of damaged packages‘. So innocent businesses and individuals are inconvenienced or harmed for the sake of contract negotiations. After all, it is the inconveniencing of the CUSTOMER that gives the UNION leverage to pressure the EMPLOYER to respond.

WHEN A UNION PLAYS BY THE RULES….TO THE EXTREME…

  • As a former participant in a non-unionized chorus that sometimes rehearses and performs with a unionized orchestra, I have observed some interesting tactics by both the unionized orchestra musicians (I do NOT belong to the musician’s union) and the maestro boss.  
    • Rehearsals DO START ON TIME, exactly on time…..but not a second early. There is actually a union rep standing at the conductor’s podium to ensure the maestro doesn’t step upon it ‘early’. The Concertmaster (violinist) doesn’t take his cue to start from the conductor, but from the union rep.
    • There is a large clock placed on a music stand in plain view of both the conductor and the orchestra. The contract gives the union a 15 minute break after 90 minutes of rehearsal. So at EXACTLY 90 minutes past the start of rehearsal, even if the group is playing, the union rep stands up, claps his hands, the musicians stop rehearsing and walk off the stage. In a memorable rehearsal, we were running a 50-minute piece of music and less than 30 seconds from being finished when the music stopped for the union. So the chorus had to wait the extra 15 minutes. After the break, the orchestra plays the last 30 seconds of music and the chorus is THEN dismissed. 100 volunteers inconvenienced because the union would not “give” 30-seconds. When I expressed my discomfort with the way the clock was used, a member of the orchestra responded with, “If it weren’t for the union rules, he’d run this rehearsal for hours and hours.”
    • In an actual concert, due to the maestro’s interaction with the audience, i.e. explaining the music, the concert actually went a couple minutes OVERTIME the maximum 2-hr limit, so the 50+ musicians received EXTRA PAY. In their defense, the maestro always utilized 100% of his allotted time too, never dismissing anyone early.
    • I have been in church musicals where they utilize local musicians but supplement with union professionals….. There can be a large choir, drama cast, including children….. and the musical/cantata can be going well, but for the unionized musician, the contract stipulates that 15-minute break, so everything stops. The premise of the break is good, but sometimes some courtesy or common sense, in addition to contractual considerations — would be beneficial to a greater number of people.
    • In a college orchestra rehearsal there were two union bassoonists sitting next to me. At exactly the published time for the end of the rehearsal, both removed their reeds and sat quietly, politely, but NOT PLAYING for the few minutes that the rehearsal went over. It goes with a quote my son shared from his unionized high school trumpet instructor; If they don’t pay, you don’t play.”
    • Related to that, there was a summer when my then high school son was invited to perform in a couple summer concerts with the professional orchestra — for pay. BUT….he had to join the musician’s union. Unfortunately, even the student rate discounted union dues exceeded the pay from the performances……so we chalked it up to a learning, life experience. They paid, he paid, but it cost him.

So who’s right? I say BOTH ….. and NEITHER.

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