The Union President's Dilemma
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With the recent release of the House and Senate budgets it's looking like the economic situation for schools is going to get even more dire. Add in the fact that a lot of this year's relief is because of the economic stimulus money from the Obama administration, and I'm running under the assumption that as bad as this year's cuts have been next year could be even worse.
It's something I've been thinking about since September, when I officially took over as president of my local. It's been a hell of a first year, and the next two months could be the cherry on the proverbial *hit sundae. My superintendent has been telling folks to expect an even $1,000,000 in cuts--about 13 teaching positions--and in light of the past two days even that eye-popping number could be a case of raging optimism.
The question for local union leadership becomes this: how do you respond?
Consider my local of about 130 members. If we did lose 13 positions it would be devastating to all five of my schools. Morale would be ravaged, and I truly don't think that's too strong a word to describe the impact. Class size would spike, particularly if the cuts to I-728 and levy equalization that are being bandied about actually come to fruition. Members are looking to me to save their job, which is a hell of a responsibility; similarly, drastic cuts to staffing also lower the quality of the workplace for everyone left behind.
The temptation is to look at the contract and see what could be "given back" to the school district to save money. We have 86 hours a year of per diem, for example; that's more than $500,000 a year that could save roughly 7 positions. Given that per diem is extra money, some reason, they're willing to give up the extra for the good of the whole.
Not so fast, though. That money is also pensionable income, so any teacher who is within sight of retirement (3 years) needs that money in their paycheck to bump up the pension that they'll receive for the rest of their life. Giving away that $4,000 of per diem this year not only costs them now, but the difference for them every month of their retirement could be profound.
Or, consider my members at the very bottom of the seniority list. The $2,500 that per diem means for them is Christmas, is the property taxes, is the automobile insurance. How close to the bone would I be cutting if they didn't have that cushion?
Another area that comes up regularly is health insurance. There's a piece of the budget called the "Health Care Authority Remittance" (HCA), which is much better known as the carve-out. This is the money that school districts have to remit to the state to pay for health care for retired teachers, paras, and administrators, and right now the bill is about $60 per month per teacher. When carve-out started that cost was about $5 a month, which lead to many districts agreeing during contract negotiations that they would just cover the cost. Now that it's trebled four times over we're talking big dollars: for my district, about $90,000.
I could say, "OK--you can take that money out of the monthly health insurance allotment that we receive from the state." The practical impact would be that the people who are already paying out of pocket would see their costs go up $60 a month; for me, a guy who already pays about $440 a month out of pocket, that would make it about $500 a month. Those who insure only themselves--the single people, or those with a spouse who has good insurance--could come through untouched, or only paying a token amount.
Or, I could say that all the money that currently goes into the insurance pool could be used for the carve-out. That wouldn't completely eliminate the bill, but it would alleviate it some. The impact of that would be felt by anyone who uses the insurance pool to lower their monthly costs. That hits the people with families and kids the hardest.
My speech therapists get stipends--three days a year--but taking that away makes it feel like I'm targeting a very narrow band of my membership. My ag teacher at the high schools has a 40-day extended contract which pays him an additional $10,000 a year, but he earns every penny of it because his FFA duties keep him going all summer long. I could bargain those away, but that's lousy leadership.
What to do?
It's worth noting that the official advice of the WEA is that you never, ever trade money for jobs. Getting cost items into the contract is always a fight, and surrendering the long-term gain to avoid the short-term pain makes no sense in their view. The jobs always come back--remember, it's layoff AND recall--and while the pain is real for those sent away it's just part of doing business.
I understand that. Economically, intellectually, it makes all the sense in the world. When an organization that is fueled by member's dues money is telling you that the right thing to do is to have less members, that's probably something that you should listen to.
That said, teaching is a relational business, and layoffs hurt relationships. Culture counts, and I can understand the temptation to put the school family ahead of the fiscal ideal.
It's going to be an interesting couple of months.