Guest post today from my friend Corey Andreasen, a high school math/stats teacher in Wisconsin. I know Corey from grading AP Statistics exams the last few summers. As worldviews go, we’re pretty different, but I know Corey well enough to know that he is a good teacher who cares about his students, and about doing his job well. He is a man of integrity, and I have valued his perspective the last week or so as someone who is on the inside of the issues in Wisconsin, and knows what is going on. He is not a teacher who doesn’t keep track of how things really work with collective bargaining and the interplay between his union and the administration, nor does he allow his position to cloud his willingness to acknowledge the reality of the situation in which he finds himself (and many other teachers and other state employees find themselves) with regards to the political and economic climate of the times. I asked him if he would be kind enough to take some time to write out the facts of the situation, since he knows them better than anyone else I know personally, and share some perspective as well. I offered him the option of sharing anonymously, which he emphatically turned down (as I expected he would). In his words: Please do not post this anonyously. I am proud to be a teacher, I’m very good at it, and I’m tired of having to justify the fact that I get paid for my work. Feel free to share that, too! 🙂 As a fellow teacher, I know where that comes from. We teachers work hard, and those of us in mathematics, statistics, and related disciplines could make a lot more money doing almost anything else with our skills. Corey and I share a passion for teaching, and both strive to be excellent at what we do.
Full disclosure: I am generally not pro-union. I am registered Republican, but never simply check to vote that way in its entirety. The current polarization of politics is harmful and hurtful, in my view. The point of sharing this is not to convince anyone of anything in particular, other than that we should be careful to hear each other before responding. We should also be careful to avoid stereotyping our political opponents, even as we would hope to avoid being the victims of stereotypes ourselves. As most of my readers are on the outside of this debate, it may be easy, almost unavoidably tempting, to offer our uninformed perspective based on what we have read or seen, without really knowing the truth at all. I hope that any dialogue that this sparks will be civil, and aimed at better understanding each other. Certainly, we are unlikely to “solve” the issues here, but if we can begin to truly listen and value the other, that would be a start. Also, I know that this is not simply about teachers. This bill affects any union of state employees (with a few notable exceptions), including graduate teaching assistants at public universities like the University of Wisconsin. We don’t currently have any grad students there from our department, but if this spreads it could affect a number of my former students at public universities (NC State, Ohio State, and Colorado State, among others).
NOTE: What appears below is in Corey’s words. Except for a few typographical edits, nothing has been changed, nor any emphasis added. I am posting his thoughts in his words. My reaction is after his post. Between the breaks, everything is his.
I would like to share my perspective on what is going on here in Wisconsin. I will first lay out some facts, then I will get into my opinions of the situation. Please understand how emotional this issue is and be a little forgiving if some of that spills into the parts I am trying to present as fact.
First, our budget was in reasonably good shape in Wisconsin. Not fantastic, but it was worse two years ago. Our new Republican governor stepped in and immediately gave 140 million dollars in business tax credits to, well, businesses and political supporters. (Opinion here: I am not opposed to incentives to bring business to our state and help them flourish in principle. That can be a very good thing. I’m not in favor of paying off campaign contributions with them.) But now we have a 137 million dollar shortfall, and his solution to balance that budget is this budget repair bill. And notice how closely those numbers match up?
In the bill are provisions that say public workers need to pay their ‘fair share’ of health care and pensions, to bring it in line with what people pay in the private sector. The fact is that public employees pay ALL of their health care, and they do it with a model that would really benefit the private sector. (OK, that last part is opinion, but listen.) The unions negotiate a total compensation package for the work we do. Then they say, “Out of that pot, take out x dollars and put it toward our health care, and take y dollars and put it toward our pensions. Then, and only then, let’s see what’s left for salary. So it all comes out of the negotiated package. Every dollar put toward benefits comes right off the amount we get in salary. We pay every penny. That’s not opinion, that’s fact. And it’s a win-win. The employees don’t have to pay income tax on that amount. The employer doesn’t have to pay FICA on that amount, because it doesn’t go in as salary. Please let people know that the ‘free health care’ and ‘free pensions’ idea is a mischaracterization. And, in Wisconsin, public employees make less than private sector employees in similar jobs, with similar educational backgrounds, etc.
This bill wants to take away that amount that was designated to go toward health care and have it come out of the part that’s salary, even though it was all part of our negotiated package. That means cuts of maybe $5,000 per year per employee. That means losing homes for many people. Or, if you want to say that the health care is paid by taxpayers, you must also realize that all public salaries are paid by taxpayers. Because we work for the taxpayers! And we do important work.
But that’s not what the protests are about. The protests are about the provisions of the bill that have zero impact on the budget. For example, there is a provision that unions cannot collectively bargain about anything other than salary. We can’t even discuss the length of the work day, occupational safety, class size or the number of classes we teach in a day (for teachers), tuition remission for graduate students (Yes, graduate students are affected by this bill.), number of patients or number or length of shifts for nurses, case load for social workers, whether road workers will get steel-toed boots: anything.
(I would like to point out that the working conditions described above are not only about the workers. My students learn best when I can be at my best as a teacher: when I have time to adequately prepare lessons, time to grade papers and provide feedback in a timely fashion, and time to contact parents to discuss how their children are performing. Patients get better care when their nurses are not working 16 hour shifts or trying to manage too many patients at a time. When we bargain collectively, many things we negotiate are things that allow us to perform our jobs better.)
Also, currently non-union members who are employees are still required to pay dues to the union. That is because, whether they are union members or not, they get the benefits of the union’s collective bargaining. They get the same salary, health benefits, pension, working conditions, everything. So they pay the dues. There is a provision in this bill that says unions cannot require such payments.
And, there is a provision that unions must have a vote each year on whether they can stay organized as a union.
Oh, and firefighters, state troopers, and police (The groups that supported the governor’s campaign) are exempted from these union provisions.
It’s those last provisions about unions that are inspiring the protests. It is unfair, it erases 80 years of progress on worker rights in one bill, and those provisions have NO budgetary impact. Make no mistake. These protests are not about money. We knew we were in for cuts. That’s the grim reality of the times. This is about the assault on collective bargaining rights, and that has no bearing on the budget, and no place in a budget repair bill.
These are the facts. These are the reasons you are seeing thousands – now tens of thousands – of workers storming the state capitol. This is why the firefighters and police and plumbers unions and the Coalition of Wisconsin Churches are standing with us, even though they are not affected by this the bill.
Now we’re going to wade into my commentary. The monetary portions of this bill will cause many working people who are barely making ends meet to lose their homes. There’s already a mortgage crisis, and families will be put out of their homes. It is tragic when people are laid off and lose their homes. But when people who have been working a job, carefully planning and making a living and a home for their families, still have that job and still work 40 hours a week start to lose their homes, that’s injustice.
$5000 a year is a big hit. $500 a year would be felt, but would not cause drastic changes in behavior. $5000 a year will cause every family affected to sit down and ask, “What can we cut?” Buying clothes, going out to dinner, cable TV, trips to the dentist. A few hundred thousand people across the state making these sorts of adjustments will definitely have an impact on private businesses. The analysis I read estimates that 9400 private sector jobs would be lost as an impact of this bill.
And it gets worse. School districts don’t see a penny of the money saved from these concessions from the teachers’ union. These concessions are supposed to balance the state budget. School districts, already faced with huge shortfalls, are still going to have to make additional cuts.
In spite of all this, our union leaders went to Walker and said, “OK we’ll concede all the money stuff. We’ll pay our ‘fair share’ (as if we don’t). Just take the collective bargaining language out.” Walker refused. So is this really about the budget?
Can Rush Limbaugh, who makes $50 million dollars a year really call teachers, nurses, and the firefighters – the same firefighters who were looked at as heroes after 9/11, remember the FDNY hats? – he called these people freeloaders? What’s this really about? Why would 80 years of progress in the treatment of workers be on the chopping block in one week?
It is clear to me that this is all about breaking the unions. Not because of the economy, not because of any belief about how labor should function, but for one reason: The unions are the ONLY big financial supporters of democrats. Get rid of the unions and all big money for campaigns is on the Republican side. And this isn’t for one election, this is forever.
Democracy works when there is balance. The big money and special interests in the elections is destructive. But at least there’s money on both sides. When one voice is silenced there is no democracy. We become a one-party nation. We become Iran. Anybody who loves democracy, anybody who loves this country and what it stands for must see that prospect as dangerous.
Another point that Corey doesn’t bring out is that the law would prevent any union (except those exempted) from asking for more than a cost of living increase. Really?! How would you like it if your boss told you at your performance review that as a starting point, regardless of how well you performed last year you may not even ask for more than a cost of living increase. That basically says that even the best teachers will be losing ground to inflation every year. Again, really?! This seems like an overzealous, reactionary stance, at best. At worst it is a mean-spirited attempt to punish union membership.
I tend to agree with Corey’s assessment in the last couple of paragraphs. It does seem that this is targeted at the unions, and the link to campaign money seems inescapable. I’d like to think it was something else, but I have a hard time seeing a real budget connection given the unions essentially admitting defeat on the dollars in the budget. Also, I hate the big money part of campaigning already, but I fail to see how cutting off the gravy train on one side solves the issue. As I said, I am not generally pro-union, so I am not saying this in some kind of attempt to promote the unions. We do not have a union here at Messiah, and I’ve never thought of this as a real need. Still, I don’t know that I can argue that they are always without merit. I do object to some of the things I’ve seen some unions argue for, but that hardly seems justification for throwing out the whole system.
As a Christian, workers working together to argue for better working conditions, fair pay, and other benefits doesn’t seem like something I can be against, at least in principal. No, I’m not sure teachers are amongst the least of these, but if a prophet is worthy of his pay, teachers are certainly worthy of theirs too. Certainly they deserve more pay than actors and sports stars, at least in my book. I know that is a battle I’ll never win, but talking about teachers as money-hungry freeloaders seems crazy, entirely unjustified, and hurtful.
Perhaps the bigger issue is whether the governor and republicans pushing this bill through have required of themselves the same belt-tightening that they are asking of others. Has the governor agreed to freeze or reduce his pay? Have the Wisconsin congress members agreed to reduce their pay to cover more of their benefits and pension? If they are asking this of others, they should be leading by example. None of the articles I have read address this. Anyone know more about this?
Other thoughts? Questions for Corey? (I cannot promise how actively he’ll be checking in and responding, but we can ask!) Please remember that we are not (or at least should not be) debating the value of the people involved. The issues here appear to be the motivation behind the bill, whether undercutting the unions is legal or advisable, and whether this is really an issue on which compromise is impossible.