The Union Chooses Firings
Anybody who’s surprised that the teachers’ union in Central Falls has chosen to stare down mass firings and do battle rather than submit to some eminently reasonable additional responsibilities should think through the future scenarios of the game.
With administrators now standing firm on key planks that were previously popular political catch phrases, the unions are going to challenge authority way up to the top — to Education Commissioner Deborah Gist and beyond. Their secondary strategy will be to delay significant changes until they have an opportunity to change the players. They’ve lost no ground in the General Assembly, either in recent elections or in the selection of the new speaker of the house, and they’ve an opportunity to affect the governor’s office, this year, which means access to the Board of Regents, from which the commissioner ultimately derives her authority.
If the unions can delay the mass firings, through friendly labor review authorities and the courts, for even just one year, they’ll have time to re-rig the game entirely in their favor. If they lose on questions of authority, they’ll use their political clout to turn the top-down model to their favor. In other words, when voters, school committees, and district administrators seek localized, bottom-up reforms, the newly enhanced authority of the state and the education commissioner will be used to squelch the movements before they can begin.
Consider the thoughts of the only Central Falls teacher whom I’ve seen offer public comment outside of the union channel:
Sheila Lawless-Burke, an English-as-a-Second Language teacher, said teachers are not opposed to working harder — or longer; they simply want the opportunity to negotiate the details of their contract, not have it imposed from above.
“It’s all about the politics,” she said, “about making Fran Gallo look good. The issue is having the right to negotiate. Once we allow the superintendent to get her foot in the door, where will it stop?”
Even under circumstances of dire failure, the unionists want to assert their rights to drive up costs and usurp management authority. What Lawless-Burke ignores is that politics is the game of figuring out “where it will stop” when differences of opinion negate a hard rule. It will stop when the public decides that the superintendent has exceeded her mandate. That’s how politics work.
It’s also the reason that local administrations and the state education bureaucracy should devote some of their attention to fostering community-level involvement of additional players. I mean not only extending some budgetary authority for the schools to town councils and mayors, but also opening channels of communication and cooperation from taxpayer groups and the like.
The top-down reforms, in other words, require a complementary bottom-up foundation, not only to solidify local support from the folks who ultimately pay the bills, but also to rope in stakeholders who will cry out when the unions attempt to manipulate the game at the top. The unions may succeed in reversing Commissioner Gist’s reform efforts such that the options offered to failing districts all entail additional benefits for union members, but they’ll find it much more difficult to silence constituencies who’ve been allowed into the decision-making process.