The Unions and Their Jobs
David makes a perspicacious comment to my post on the item in the teachers’ contract that the school committee approved in January that effectively extended the contract for an additional year because the deadline for notification of intention to negotiate had already passed:
Actually, justin, you may be on to something. Union officials act as legal representatives for their membership and are charged with only that mission. The example that you wrote about- well that’s all on the school committee for not knowing their own contract with the union. You insist on calling it a union contract when it is a contract between two parties. Both are held to its terms. Where you have something is in the reality that individual union members are often times members of the community where they work, and, are often times very interested and concerned about issues facing their community. In the case of teachers, police, firefighters, and social workers it is often the case that they are more concerned- because they have a closer view and knowledge of local issues and problems than say a Boston area worker who leaves their home in Tiverton at 6:30 in the morning and returns at 6:30 at night. Teachers often times know the community through the children better than anyone else. If you can convince those community members that their union representatives are the problem and change is needed in their own workplace than you will have a chance. Union members acting in the democratic framework of their union could help affect the changes you seek.
Realizing that it would be too much to hope that one party in these “fair-minded” negotiations would have clarified with the other that it was effectively approving the contract for an additional year, I do and did hold the school committee members responsible (and will, via future elections). Truth be told, I also allocate some blame to myself for having not been sufficiently familiar with previous contract language to have raised this question during public commentary. I suspect that might have been the one thing that could have scuttled what was clearly a fait accompli at the fateful January meeting.
With that clarification, I’d note that David is dead on to raise the importance of individual union members in changing the dynamic. Just as I’d be tempted to make it a civic requirement that every resident attend at least one school committee meeting during contract negotiation season, so as to observe, first hand, the undertone of violence that the union audience stirs up to waft onto the dais, I’d encourage teachers to spend some time pondering the structures and regimes of their non-educational organization.
As I’ve been given to understand, for example, a typical negotiation session involves the superintendent and couple of committee representatives at a table with two or three leaders of the local union, while a larger union negotiating committee waits in a nearby room, sometimes with a rep from the statewide organization manipulating the temper among them. (Pat Crowley, I understand, can be heard through the walls.) The small group will bring items back to the larger group and return with ostensible instructions, and ultimately the negotiating committee brings the result back to the entire membership for approval. Meanwhile, as we’ve seen in Tiverton, the union will go public with unverifiable claims and complaints that the entire school committee isn’t available in the theatrically controlled space to negotiate the contract. (A con is much easier when there’s no opportunity for head-clearing air.) Moreover, at no time is the administration or committee permitted to appeal directly to the professionals whose contracts they’re negotiating.
While times were flush and the citizenry was inactive, this might have seemed like a fun pastime — and remunerative, too! Union members across the Rhode Island public sector should consider, however, the effect of shifting public opinion as taxpayer groups generate an institutional investment in continued awareness. That is to say that we aren’t going away, and with the processes coming out, the folks who’ve ultimately suffered from the game are going to be less inclined to tolerate it.
Because the pendulum always swings too far, a clever gotcha in one year’s contract could ensure that somebody with a set jaw and brow as furrowed as my own will end up at that negotiating table, demanding that public-access video cameras be set up to capture the edifying performance.