A lot of people have a lot to say about the union protests in Wisconsin and the governor’s plan to curtail collective bargaining for teachers. Those on the ground are best qualified to hash out the big issues, so I’ll just add three morsels to the conversation.
1) Sickouts. The Madison school district and others were closed yesterday due to teacher sickouts. There has been some debate about whether this constitutes an illegal strike, but for a protest that centers on public employee collective bargaining, it’s ironic that whatever you want to call it, yesterday’s protest was a violation of the Madison teachers’ collective bargaining agreement.
Madison teachers are allowed five personal leave days per year, but are required by contract to notify the principal at least three working days in advance. Since the teachers themselves didn’t have that much notice of the protest, they had to use sick leave. The contract spells out in exacting detail the purposes for which sick leave can be used. Union rallies are not among them.
Some may consider the protest a matter of principle or civil disobedience, That’s all well and good. But remember, the only reason to call in sick is so you still get paid for the day. So go ahead and yell. Just remember who’s paying for the microphone.
The Madison contract also contains this provision:
Therefore, MTI agrees that there will not be any strikes, work stoppages or slow downs during the life of this Agreement, i.e., for the period commencing July 1, 2009 and ending June 30, 2011. Upon the notification of the President and Executive Director of MTI by the President of the Board of Education of the Madison Metropolitan School District of any unauthorized concerted activity, as noted above, MTI shall notify those in the collective bargaining unit that it does not endorse such activity. Having given such notification, MTI shall be freed of all liability in relation thereto.
Whatever you call it, it was certainly an “unauthorized concerted activity.”
So, by all means, defend your right to collectively bargain an agreement that you can flout at your convenience.
2) Human rights. Over at the Huffington Post, Robert Creamer writes:
“The right to choose a union — the right to collective bargaining — is a human right every bit as central to Democracy as the right to vote, or freedom of speech.”
He goes on to cite the documentary evidence, including the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, that supports his argument.
Leaving aside the question of private vs. public sector unions, Creamer’s citations are correct – at least as they concern the right to choose and join a union. However, those documents are entirely silent on collective bargaining. The Wisconsin proposals do not take away anyone’s right to join a union. And I think even the Republicans are fooling themselves if they think the lack of collective bargaining is enough to make the teachers’ unions go away. If that were so, the Alabama legislature wouldn’t be in a similar fight with its state teachers’ union.
It also bears mentioning that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights has a few other provisions, such as “No one may be compelled to belong to an association,” and “The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government; this will shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret vote or by equivalent free voting procedures,” and “Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment,” and “Parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children.”
3) Teachers’ unions’ unions. Over the years, I’ve spent a lot of time writing about NEA’s labor relations with its own employees. Some readers consider it too “inside baseball” kind of stuff. But I find the subject edifying because when labor is management, it has the same problems and offers the same solutions as any other managers.
I noticed a familiar name in a quote from this news story about teacher protests in Fond du Lac:
“It is a basic human right to be able to continue collective bargaining,” said Debbie Swoboda from the National Education Association in Washington, D.C. She was in Fond du Lac urging people to sign up for a bus that was traveling to Madison at 7:30 a.m. this morning, departing from the Forest Mall parking lot to join in peaceful demonstrations.
Ms. Swoboda used to be the executive director – that is, chief of staff, a management position – for NEA New Hampshire. She was not beloved by her employees. In June 2009, NEA New Hampshire’s staff union issued a vote of no confidence in her.
The resolution claimed she “created a negative work environment” and “repeatedly violates the mutually agreed to terms of the collective bargaining agreement.” Later that year, the staff union accused her of issuing a gag order, insisting union employees “must receive permission from her before communicating with or about NEA.”
I believe Ms. Swoboda and every other NEA official are sincerely convinced of the benefits of collective bargaining. It’s just that they take a less expansive view of its scope when it comes to their own employees.