Three things that will affect your job: Hey NY Teachers!
By: Josh Hickey
As the recent cover of Time magazine very clearly demonstrates, there are many people outside of our profession that have ideas about how to “reform” education. More often than not, these “reformers” have some ulterior motive, from the tech billionaires who want to “save” education to Governors who think they can win elections by gutting public education. Of all the changes that have already been brought about, from APPR to Common Core and others, there are still three major issues that have the power to radically transform our profession here in New York. They are the Triborough Agreement, Court Cases pertaining to Agency Fees and tenure.
The Public Employees Fair Employment Act (more commonly known as the Taylor Law) grants public employees the right to organize and elect their union representatives. It defines the boundaries for public employers in negotiating and entering into agreements with public unions. The Taylor Law has been a frequent target for anti-union activists; they claim that it severely limits the ability of governments to limit spending on unionized labor, with minimal recourse in the event the unions illegally strike. One particular clause, the Triborough Amendment, mandates that in the event of a lack of a contract, the terms of the previous contract continue, leaving governments (and, by extension, taxpayers) with virtually no leverage to force concessions if a generous contract becomes unsustainable. As a result of this, numerous activists and government officials have moved to either suspend or repeal the Triborough Amendment (see Locust Valley, New York), arguing that the amendment's guarantee of a perpetual contract eliminates any incentive for unions to negotiate in good faith. I should note at this point that if these conditions are removed, then districts will once again hold all of the cards in the bargaining process. This would mean, for example, that when a contract expires, teachers could face returning to work without a contract because the district has very little incentive to bargain with the teachers union. The end result would be a default hard zero wage increase (which includes no step raises as well).
The U.S. Supreme Court has heard, and is poised to hear more cases attacking the role that unions play in the public sector. Although cases like Harris v. Quinn dealt specifically with home health care workers and their role as partially public employees (they are paid by the state of Illinois, but the recipients of this state-funded health care can choose who provides the services), it is part of a momentum gaining trend that seeks to disenfranchise unions and their ability to collectively bargain. Within two years, the Supreme Court will likely render a decision on the Friedrichs v. CTA case- a direct attack on the unions ability to collect agency fees, a key component to how unions organize and work to support their members. This is not conspiracy theory, and this is not an over-reaction to these court cases; they are part of an organized effort to disenfranchise unions and limit their ability to bargain in their member’s interests. Without teachers unions to have the capacity to bargain collectively about wages, benefits and working conditions, they would all be at the mercy of districts compelled by a tax cap to limit spending in an environment of increasing costs.
In Vergara v. California, the California state court ruled that teacher’s tenure constitutes a direct violation to the student’s right to an education because it makes it difficult to fire tenured teachers. Some of the public outcry discusses the difficulty and cost of removing ineffective teachers. Advocates of striking down tenure are either unaware, or deliberately ignoring the fact that there are procedures in place and an opportunity for school administrators- tasked with evaluating teachers to remove ineffective teachers. Some of the people and groups that want to remove tenure also characterize due process (which is all that tenure really affords) as some sort of extraordinary advantage- what some people describe as a “job for life” that no one else receives, which is completely untrue. Due process is afforded to every citizen through the Bill of Rights, tenure provisions just describe due process as it pertains to our profession. In addition to due process, tenure rules also allow teachers to speak up for issues that they might otherwise be silent on because they are concerned about being fired. For example, speaking out for a child in a CSE meeting, advocating for services that the student needs while the district wants to deny them..
All in all, the teaching profession is under attack from multiple sources (the Walton family, the Gates Foundation, the Broad Foundation, Koch brothers, ALEC, etc.), and along numerous fronts. Governor Cuomo recently vowed to break “one of the only remaining public monopolies,” meaning public education as it is currently constructed. The repeal of the Triborough agreement and the fallout from cases like Friedrich v. CTA and Vergara v. California could mean a radical transformation of the conditions New York teachers work under. These concerted attacks aimed at the last bastion of public unionism will, if successful, limit and severely weaken unionism, weaken teachers unions from the ability to collectively bargain, and teachers will find that not only will their salaries deteriorate, but their working conditions will as well. While all of this affects employment, and how teachers do their jobs, it will also negatively affect the kids that teachers teach and the communities where teachers live and work. And in the end, who will want to be the next generation of teachers, entering into a profession where they might be arbitrarily fired, negotiating as an individual about working conditions and salary when their employer’s primary concern is not the quality of teacher they are putting in front of a classroom, but the lowest cost method possible for providing that service?