Feeling Tested

Examining the role of the teacher’s union in public schools

I’ve never belonged to a labor union. I don’t come from a “union family.” But I’ve been thinking about unions a lot lately, and I’m worried.

My only experience with labor unions came about in the early ’70s when I worked for a friend at his downtown Madison restaurant. The place had a nice run for the better part of three years offering good, innovative food and some of the best music and cabaret-style theater in town. I was part of the management team. The waiters, dishwashers and bus-people belonged to a hospitality workers union. For the most part these were students working part time. But they took their organizing and bargaining seriously. Too seriously as far as I was concerned. It always felt as if they were “playing” union.

Eventually the restaurant ran into some cash flow problems just as the union decided to make some new demands for higher pay and benefits. We opened our books, showed them every number that existed and suggested the obvious conclusion—either work together and keep the restaurant open, or insist on changes and close us down. They closed us down. It hurt.

In the ensuing years I had the experience of meeting dedicated, passionate, smart labor leaders like John Matthews, David Newby and Marty Beil for whom I have great respect and appreciation. I also covered the strike at Madison Newspapers in the later ’70s, one of saddest, most gut-wrenching labor battles I’d ever witnessed up close. So I view with trepidation the current discussions about state employee contracts and the role of the teacher’s union in public schools.

For the most part these are always difficult conversations. But it’s hard to imagine a worse environment in which to consider the fundamental issues at stake. People are angry and afraid. They don’t trust most of our bedrock civic institutions and they have little confidence these people and places can make their lives better. And, unfortunately, there’s political hay to be made by picking a side and demonizing the other in a made-up, over-simplified, winner-take-all battle. Not a great atmosphere for complicated and nuanced negotiations about jobs and services that affect the lives of every one of us.

Since it may be the last thing we can agree on, let’s stipulate that everyone wants to keep taxes as low as possible, and provide the best education possible for all of our kids. One need only look at the state budget deficit and the performance of our public school students (and, remember, I said all our kids) to recognize we need some changes in health care and pension benefits for state workers, and flexibility in how our schools are organized and run. We must get control over spending and keep taxes, especially property taxes, from choking the hope out of the elderly and the unemployed. We must ensure that our children, especially our poor children, succeed in school or we are risking our future as a society.

But, while it does not strike me as unreasonable to ask state employees to accept modest increases in the amount they contribute for their health insurance and pension costs, I don’t trust our elected leaders to bargain in good faith, having gotten elected on pledges to cut government, eliminate agencies and reduce the number of workers regardless of relative needs for services for state citizens. Likewise I have come to believe that in the face of even more intractable issues like poverty and family stability, some of our communities need complementary schools with longer (or shorter) school years, and differently structured school days with rewards for performance standards set by parents and post-secondary schools and employers.

Fueling my sense of anticipation is the importance of tax burden, state worker incomes (and spending), public school achievement and teacher quality to this particular city and this particular county and region. People are hurting, and I’d sure like these discussions to be civil, respectful and, in the end, successful.

Neil P. Heinen is editorial director of Madison Magazine. Contact him at nheinen@madisonmagazine.com.

Find more For the Record columns here.

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