How Work-To-Rule Amplifies the Implied Bargaining Chips

To keep pounding the Education drum, a reader (“CL”) commmented on one of my posts from November of last year on how East Greenwich students rallied at a school committee meeting to agitate for a contract and were cheered on by teachers and parents. Within the context of the piece, I mentioned the now-familiar “work-to-rule” problem, to which CL took exception:

I wish you would spend you time dealing with facts.
Work to rule doesn’t mean teachers are not doing their job. It simply means that teachers are not giving up their free time. For example: the teacher contract does not require chaperoning dances, writing letters of recommendation, sponsoring class trips, etc. Teachers have “donated” so much free time that people like you expect it.
Tell me what other job besides teaching expects the employees to solve the problems of the world like:
kids don’t get a good breakfast so have the schools provide it,
kids are drinking at home so let the schools teach them why drinking is bad, Kids need a place to go on Friday nights so the schools must have dances, etc.
Why don’t you list all the FREE jobs you did that had nothing to do with your job.

Herewith, my response:
Thanks for the comment. It brings up a couple different issues, though. First, to your points about breakfast, alcoholic parents, etc. I completely agree. These are larger social issues that I don’t believe that our education system is really equipped to deal with and which our teachers are compelled to handle every school day. It is unfair, but schools are the mechanism by which we have collectively, if only half-thinkingly, concluded to be adequate to the task.
Second, when I complain about the work to rule attitude, I’m specifically speaking about no field trips, no comments on report cards, no parent teacher conferences. To me and many others, those are implied as being intrinsically part of being a “teacher.” It was that way when I was in school some 15-20 years ago, and it still is, regardless of whether you view these as being “FREE jobs” or not.
There is a reason why parents and communities expect teachers to do more than the teacher contract technically stipulates: those very same unofficial acts are always used, whether implied or stated outright, as bargaining chips in contract negotiations. Part of the reason teachers engender public support when it comes to contract time is because they perform these “extras.” Chaperoning dances, doing field trips, etc. may not be a part of the official job description, but teachers have always done them and communities, realizing this, factor this in when determining proper compensation levels.
What work-to-rule does is take a legalistic approach by adhering to the “letter of the contract” as a bargaining ploy designed to remind communities just how much extra teachers do. Are teachers legally correct? Yes. But legal and moral are not always the same thing.
To repeat, the fact is that the performance of these extracurricular jobs is implicit in the teachers’job description. Past contracts have been based on this assumption, whether they were outlined in the contract or not. This factor, consciously or sub-consciously, contributed to the willingness of the public and their elected officials to provide generous compensation. Knowing this, it is disingenuous to first use the goodwill engendered by performing these “additional” jobs to gain more compensation and then, when the next contract comes up, to claim these jobs are not required, stress the point by not performing them, and then turn around and expect a better compensation package than before.
Let me take a crack at your “challenge.” I’m a salaried engineer, though I can earn bonus time for working extra hours, so long as they are “billable.” In addition to my regular work, I have worked longer than 8 hour days regularly and gone uncompensated. That is because I am, like I said, on salary. Implicit in my compensation is that I will work longer than 8 hour days if need be. Additionally, my company owns its own building and rents out space to other businesses. When it snows, guess who has been known to shovel the stairs? And it’s not even in my job description to be a snow shoveler. Who’s brought people to the airport to go on business travel? And it’s not in my job description to be a taxi service. Who’s been asked to “swing a wrench” even though I’m ostensibly a “white collar” worker? I don’t need to go on, do I?
The fact of the matter is that something like 90% of people are employed by small business. In small businesses, job descriptions don’t encompass the true nature of the work an individual is asked to perform. And, much like the teachers, when salary renegotiations are brought up, the willingness of the individual to perform these “outside of the box” jobs factors into the equation. Teachers are not unique in this. Do you know what would happen if the average employee put in only a 8 hour day, didn’t do anything extra, etc., like the teachers are now doing? They certainly wouldn’t be looked upon favorably in their next job performance review. Do you think that they would get a raise and a better compensation package for doing less than before? They may not even keep their job!
The average worker is beholden to his employer to perform up to the latter’s expectations and be compensated as “the boss” sees fit. Sometimes the demands are fair, sometimes not, but the employee always has the option of moving on. In the case of teachers, they must perform up to the public’s expectations at a salary deemed appropriate, some would say tolerable, by the taxpaying citizens of a city or town. If teachers think the demands are unfair, they can move on. I’d challenge them to find a better deal, even with a 5-10% Health care co-pay, than they have here in Rhode Island.
The problem that we parents have is that we get the impression that teachers believe that they never have enough and are willing to go to the mat for more for themselves, even if it means less for the students (our children). Perhaps this is because teachers’ unions are out front and leading the fight utilizing hyperbolic rhetoric that casts teachers as put-upon victims of a thankless society. If union leadership is not truly representative of what the rank and file believe, then I would encourage teachers, much like the administrators did in East Greenwhich, to buck their union leadership and negotiate with the school committee in good faith. Stop the rhetoric and the self-victimization and come up with reasonable contracts that reflect contemporary fiscal reality. Taxpayers aren’t looking to screw you over, just to be reasonable!

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Justin Katz
19 years ago

I don’t have any additional information, but it seems likely to me that CL is a teacher. Who else would doubt that other careers require extra work that is not directly compensated? Sure, any industry will include employees who do the bare minimum, but education is not an exception.

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