Which Side Are You On, Boys?

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I have written before about the fact that I am a member of the nation's largest teaching union, although, other than having about $500 extorted from my check each year, I rarely have any dealings with its hierarchy.

The one exception was in October of 2001. Back then, I was still paying into the union political action committee and was entitled to vote during the contract ratification process.

Those were eventful days for all Americans. Like many others, I hoped that we'd be heading towards renewed economic growth in the near future, but it was not to be. Yes, even as capital disappeared from the stock market and all economic indicators headed south, our members were seriously considering a strike rather than accepting the contract that management had put on the table. The contract was for three years, and we had been negotiating with the administration since July of 2001. Until it was signed, we would continue to work off of last year's agreement, which meant no raise in pay. By October, negotiations had stalled and an arbitrator had been brought in to mediate. What the mediator decided on was now up for a vote.

The sides were not very far apart, and I hoped our union would realize how puny the disparities were between what we wanted and what we'd receive. I figured we would never strike over so little. Without getting into specifics, at issue was the structure of employee compensation. Apparently, there was not an exact correlation between the lanes (which are based on how much education you have) and their matching steps (which are based on how many years of service you've provided). The result was that in some years we got a 3.3% raise and in other years we got a 4.4% raise. I will not offer a defense for this rather loopy configuration of payment; however, what I will say is that we could not have picked a worse time to wage a fight over this minutia.

'No worse than 3.3%? Sounds good to me,' I thought. 'Now give me the paper to sign.'

I was na've, as the union had no intention of simply putting papers before us to sign. In the days to come, those around me took a harder and harder view of the negotiations. Their resentment towards their bosses colored their thinking and excluded any type of perspective from emerging. Our plus or minus 4% raise was guaranteed, which was an unusual blessing in a time devoid of inflation. Even if one does not regard the CPI as being absolute, one did not have to listen very hard to hear commentator after commentator announce that we lived in a deflationary environment.

Apparently within the socialized structure of our educator world, few consider overall economic situations. Had our staff done so, we would have never raised issue with our new contract. I personally had three friends get laid off that year, and one of the three has never recovered. He declared bankruptcy last month after losing the battle with his creditors.

It seemed to me that many of the certified employees I knew were blaming their bosses for whatever poor vocational decisions they personally had made. It appeared that they wanted to assault our district to avenge their broken dreams. I heard again and again about how broke my co-workers were in comparison to their friends, but at least as far as I know, no one ever forced them to pick teaching as a career.

Most surprising of all was the sentiment that some were looking forward to the extra time off a strike bestows. They felt this way in October, which was only a few months after summer vacation ended. In other words, the majority had just returned from their nine week vacations but were jonesing for some more.

I forgot that for many people, money is not a suitable motivator for production. One of our teachers, who was married to a very successful man, just got released from employment this month, but she told me that it was a blessing. She stated that she is no longer interested in working and that she'd enjoy spending the next few years at home (presumably with Oprah). Her dismissal was rather satisfying for me because of a cartoon she had hanging in her classroom. It read, 'I got married before I had a chance to be somebody.' She lived to disprove it, as she got married, was somebody, got fired and now is nobody' except in the eyes of Rolanda, who could use the ratings.

To me, the whole idea of the strike was absurd. It was apparent that no one had considered the political ramifications. Unemployment and personal bankruptcy were growing, and the real world would not feel any sympathy for a group of teachers who decided to suddenly abandon their children over an uneven pay scale. I thought we'd look like the ungrateful whiners we were, so I decided to get personally involved.

After school, on the day of the contract ratification vote, I went around the building trying to convince others of the logic of accepting the administration's offer and not risking our careers over a poorly timed strike. One of the teachers I approached, a fiftyish married woman who'd been at our school for 18 years, asked me, 'Well, what's your problem with a strike? You don't live paycheck to paycheck, do you?' I had never heard anything so ridiculous. I purposely live paycheck to paycheck and have whatever I can spare deducted from my pay package long before it ever gets to my profligate little fingers. Besides, no one ever made a thing off a checking account. I told her that I had no husband to support me and that, without a check, 'I'd be through sooner rather than later.' I pressed on to find other employees, but sadly, my appeal was ineffective. Everyone I talked to said they were voting against the contract.

I then drove to the neutral site where the vote was to be held and sat in the auditorium among peers from several other schools. I listened to the representatives justify why we might consider voting against the contract. One of the teachers from my building even interrupted a steward who was speaking and began to read from The Chicago Tribune. He read the average salaries from the top ten paying school districts in the state and pointed out how bad off we were in comparison. Many nodded their heads at his foolish words, but if that teacher wanted to go elsewhere, he was free to do so (I should also note that this is an individual who fakes illness every April so he can take a week off to open up his cottage). Further, there are hundreds of districts in Illinois , and almost all of them pale in comparison to the salaries of the wealthiest 10. This was a meeting based on envy, not justice.

I then heard a young teacher in the first row raise her hand and ask possibly the silliest question I've ever heard: 'If we go on strike, do we still get paid?' Sure, the reader as disinterested observer can laugh, but I was intimately tied to the proceedings and wanted to put my fist, along with the union stewards, through the wall.

Soon the discussion was over and they passed out the ballots. A general verbal free-for-all commenced while we waited for them to be distributed, so I decided to interject a comment to the assembly above the noise. I yelled, 'Don't forget there's a war on!' A few people gazed my way quizzically but said nothing.

I took my ballot and marked 'contract approved.' Then I tried to slip it into a box up front. Only there was no box. I looked around and saw a union steward holding a manila envelope. I had to physically hand it to her before leaving. I figured she'd stuff it in with the others, but she examined it before doing so. I felt violated yet knew there was nothing I could do about it.

Then next day I arrived to work before 7 a.m. , as I usually do, and discovered four notes in my mailbox. They all contained the word 'scab' on them. Obviously my pre-vote attempt to curry favor for the contract was not appreciated by some of the rank and file. However, it is truly in keeping with how anti-intellectual most teachers are that they did not realize that a scab is one who crosses a picket line. A scab is not a person who warns against going on strike. I knew my co-workers and I had absolutely no intention of crossing the line if a strike were declared. They would have turned my car into an extra from the film, 'Escape from New York .'

Later in the day, the results were tallied. The assistant principal told me that the contract had been ratified. My financial ruin had been avoided. Sanity and security were preserved. My boss told me, after hearing from the highest of the higher ups, that all of the other members of the cooperative had voted for the contract with the exception of our school. She said that only three certified staff members out of 30 had voted for the contract in our building. She shook her head. 'I wonder how they know who voted for who?'

'They know because they checked the ballots individually before stuffing them into the envelopes,' I answered. 'They've adopted the Soviet rules for election,' I added.

Well, as the saying goes, that was then; this is now. I no longer have voting privileges due to my withholding of a PAC contribution (see previous column) so I'll never be able to participate in one of their shams again. Good riddance to selfish rubbish.

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Bernard Chapin's picture
Columns on STR: 33

Bernard Chapin is a writer from Chicago.