A Teachable Moment

Former local teacher union pesident Morty Rosenfeld periodically attempts to make sense of the increasingly senseless world of public education.

Which Side Are We On?

Labor unions have a notoriously hard time bargaining with their own employees. New York State United Teachers (NYSUT) has been no exception. Don’t take my comment the wrong way. I believe unions have a responsibility to treat their employees as they would have their members treated in their workplaces – good salaries, good benefits and good working conditions. My local has always tied the salaries and benefits of its employees to the contract of the people we represent in similar work categories. That said, the fact of the matter is the conditions of many union staff are often much better than the people they represent. That’s certainly true in NYSUT.

Currently, the unions representing NYSUT staff are bargaining new contracts for ones expiring at the end of the month. For years, through several administrations, NYSUT leadership has been aware of a looming structural deficit that threatens the future financial health of the organization. Part of the reason for that deficit has been labor contracts beyond the capacity of the organization to finance. Both the current and past leadership of NYSUT have taken some steps to rectify this looming problem but nowhere near enough to ensure the health of the organization. The current leadership is apparently looking to tackle the underfunding of the pension system in its current round of negotiations, a thoroughly appropriate thing for them to do. The staff counters with a tried and true ploy – organize the local leaders against the demands of state leadership.

In recent days, as the expiration date of the NYSUT contracts approaches, some local leaders have spoken out in support of the staff – arguing that the pension issue should be dealt with outside of the negotiations process, when management’s ability to leverage change will be diminished… Rather than recognizing that as local leaders their interests and responsibilities lie in supporting the management bargaining team, they have allowed themselves to lose track of the interest of their membership in solving the long range financial problems of their state organization.

Although it is detrimental to the interests of their members, it is easy to understand how these things happen. The personal relationships of local leaders with the field staff are often strong ones. Much of the work of too many locals is basically done by the labor relations specialists, not the local leaders. It’s real hard to tell someone you’re close to and on whom you depend that you can’t support their demand in their negotiations. Yet, I suspect, these same local leaders will groan loudly about the ever increasing dues of the state union and the failure of the state leaders to control costs.

I have no idea as to whether the NUSUT’s leadership’s demands of the staff are real proposals required to solve what I know to be very real financial problems of our state organization. I do know that they understand the problem, and I’m pleased to know that they are seeking to fix it. I wish all of my union colleagues could locate their own self-interest and that of their local members in standing behind their management’s attempts to solve our existential, financial problems.

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