Teachers’ unions bear some blame for layoffs

CODA

GREG BEAN

In the interest of full disclosure, let me state that my personal experience as a member of a labor union has been limited to twice, and both those sagas were frankly weird.

The first time was in the early ’70s when I was trying to save money for college and hired on as a laborer where they were building a power plant. Before I could begin work, however, I had to join a union.

I started out on the lowest point of the food chain, literally digging ditches. But within a week, because I was the only person on the crew who spoke English and some Spanish, I was promoted to crew foreman. The next day, I noticed that the guys on my crew were giving me the stink-eye, and when I asked them about it, they said it was because I was working too fast and making everyone look bad.

I took that news to my supervisor, but instead of telling me I was right, he said, “Well, maybe they have a valid point. Are you in some sort of a race?”

Two weeks later, I was fired for setting unreasonable goals for my crew.

My second experience with a labor union was after I graduated and was looking for a job to raise money for grad school. I hired on with a railroad on the midnight to 8 a.m. shift, making short runs between towns.

I joined the union, because they told me I had to, and showed up the first day to learn that I was a “fireman.” In the old days, firemen shoveled coal into the engine so it could make steam. When they switched from steam engines to diesel, the firemen had nothing to do, but the unions made the company keep the positions anyway.

So I had a job that basically paid me to do nothing for eight hours a night, and the only rule was that I couldn’t sleep.

Have you ever tried to stay awake all night while doing absolutely nothing? About a month later, I was fired for sleeping on the job.

My father came from an old union family and we were raised to believe that unions were good, and companies generally bad. But as I grew older, I came to realize that while unions might have been absolutely necessary in the bad old days, in modern times they seldom did little that would help their company employers stay in business, and they didn’t always operate in the best interests of their members. While most labor unions are absolutely indefatigable warriors when it comes to protecting things like the wages and benefits of their members, the history of the last few decades is rife with instances where union intransigence contributed directly to the financial failure of the very companies that paid the members’ salaries. If you doubt me, I give you the American auto industry.

Sadly, in this state it’s looking like New Jersey’s teachers’ unions might be another case in point.Months ago,whenGov. Chris Christiewas warning everyone that an awful year was in store, he told the teachers that they could avoid many of the bad things in the pipeline if they did without raises and contributed more to things like health insurance plans.

Nobody apparently believed him, and his warnings landed like a bottle of scotch at a church picnic. Instead of acting proactively, the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA) responded with a massive media campaign (where did all the money to pay for those ads come from, anyway?) that accused Christie of ruining education and urging everyone to call him and make him stop. Internally, they sent emails that basically wished the guy dead. Their one suggestion for getting out of the mess was to tax “rich” people.

Since most of the people who pay taxes that fund educational salaries (at least most of them who work in the private sector) had been making many of those concessions for a long time, the media campaign landed on deaf ears, and recently school budgets across the state went down like ducks at a carnival shooting gallery.

The NJEA and local union representatives still didn’t get the point, and the NJEA responded with a new ad campaign intended to scare people because Christie’s budget would also mean fewer cops and firefighters.

That is undoubtedly true, but the reality is the reality. You can’t pay people with money you don’t have, and scare tactics won’t do a thing to change the bottom line. And in some cases, even if the unions finally see the light it may already be too late.

In my home community of East Brunswick, for example, the district was already facing an $8.4 million reduction in state aid, but when the budget was defeated, the council told the school district it needed to cut another $2.5million. It pointed out that if teachers in the community gave up their raises during the budget cycle, it would save about $1.8 million of the cut.

Did the Board of Education agree? Not on your life. This week, as was reported in Greater Media’s Sentinel, the Board of Education said the council’s suggestions were not “feasible.” And even though meetings with the local union that represents teachers and another that represents supervisors were scheduled next week, Superintendent Jo Ann Magistro would not even say whether salary freezes would be on the agenda. East Brunswick Education Association President Ruth Davitt did not return a reporter’s calls asking if the EBEA would consider salary cuts, so don’t hold your breath.

It’s interesting that in that same edition, a story reported that in neighboring Milltown, the local teachers’ union agreed to a salary freeze for next year, and that concession meant more people will get to keep their jobs.

But soon, in East Brunswick, and many, many other communities in New Jersey where unions have refused even the most basic concessions, hundred of out-of-work teachers, administrators and support personnelwill have to start looking for work in what The New York Times reports is the worst market in decades. And while they’re looking, there’ll be plenty of blame to go around for their circumstances — corporate greedheads who sank the national economy, politicians who spent us into bankruptcy.

And their own unions, which must share some of that responsibility.

Gregory Bean is the former executive editor of Greater Media Newspapers. You can reach him at gbean@gmnews.com.