A Teachable Moment

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

Archive for September, 2017

The Janus Case

As expected, the United States Supreme Court has taken the Janus case, a case testing whether the court’s conservative, anti-labor majority, will strike down a previous court’s precedent Affirming public sector unions’ right to collect from non-members the costs associated with bargaining and maintaining their labor contracts – the so-called agency fee. This case, like others, is part of a well-financed movement to destroy what is left of the American labor movement and making the United States a right-to-work country.

While the threat posed by the previous Friedrichs case prompted some fear motivated attention to membership organizing, I’m sorry to say that a loss in the Janus case will have catastrophic consequences for most of the education unions in the country. I have come to the view that agency fee was one of the worst things for our movement. Ironically, we put a great deal of political and bargaining effort into achieving it only to have it weaken us. With dues automatically pouring in, the pressure to engage membership grew weaker and weaker. More and more of our unions’ energy was focused on political work and hardly any effort was consistently made to build the capacity of local memberships to fend for themselves.

While I’m glad to see our unions recognizing the need for internal organizing, the fact it that it is a painstakingly slow process. It can’t simply be turned on when we need it. It’s built day to day and maintained day to day. It builds from daily reminders of the common fate of the members. It develops from the little day to day workplace victories that build confidence and pride in the growing sense of power of members. It’s magnified when management is forced to yield to a demand. It was our union’s birthright which we foolishly abandoned.

Janus is the name of the Roman god of beginnings and endings. What an ironic name for a case that may well determine the future of our labor movement.

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Upsetting the Status Quo

I’ve participated in protest demonstrations since my student days in the 60s. I led many others over my forty years of union work. Rarely was there initial broad public support for our cause, whether it was opposition to the war in Viet Nam or a demand for a fair contract for our teachers and clerical union members. I’ve never been surprised to find the majority against me. If they weren’t, there probably would be no reason to stage our protest. Protests are inherently upsetting to the status quo. Effective protests find a riveting way to focus the attention of people who are unaware or ill-informed about an issue. They seek to discomfort people in order to move them to support resolution of a problem. Watching the non-violent civil rights protestors in the South have the police turn dogs and fire-hoses on them ultimately pricked the consciences of enough Americans and our political leaders to pass laws ending Jim Crow and empowering Blacks to vote.

The African American football players who have been taking a knee in increasing numbers have clearly upset many people, including the President of the United States. Their protest exemplifies that which is best in our society, the seeking of an ever more perfect union with greater liberty and justice for all. Their protest will have been successful when and if we finally take the next steps in ensuring color-blind justice in our country. To be sure we have made progress in overcoming our original sin of slavery, but we need to be reminded that there is much more to be done to end the scourge of racism and the toll it takes on all of us.

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The Right to Healthcare

Absent from the heat of the Republican effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act (ACA) is the fact that a consensus has emerged among Americans that quality, affordable healthcare is a right. That consensus developed in response to the threat to abolish the benefits of the ACA that brought coverage to over 20 million Americans who were without insurance. If the overwhelming number of us recognize healthcare as a right, the public debate must shift to how best to provide every American with that right.

If we are to have a serious discussion about how to provide universal access to quality medical care, we need to recognize some inherent consequences that flow from understanding healthcare as a right.

Universal healthcare has to be universal. It sounds absurd to remind people of this, but, if the conversations I have been having are indicative, many of the people do not understand this. In order to achieve the objective everyone has to be in the system. On one hand, we can’t have people deciding when and if they are going to be insured. On the other hand, any system that doesn’t have universal participation will repeatedly be subject to attack from the people who don’t belong but who are paying some of the freight for others. Part of the almost universal appreciation of Social Security has been that everyone belongs, even people who don’t need the benefits. We simply have to get over the hump of recognizing that we have to have automobile insurance to drive a car but somehow need to be protected from a government mandate to require participation in our health insurance system.

If healthcare is a right, then we have to accept that the cost of it cannot be allowed to be determined by the whims of the market. We have to be able to negotiate with Big Pharma to obtain the kind of prices that other western democracies are able to achieve. We can no longer allow them to charge us extortionate prices while they use some of their obscene profits to literally buy our elected representatives. More difficult to talk about and even harder to achieve is changing the way we pay physicians. Medicine has been essentially a small business for many years. There appears to be a trend to a more corporate model with managed practices becoming more and more popular. The corporate approach sees volume as its driving force. Just the other day, I was riding on the Long Island Railroad when I looked up at an advertisement featuring my ENT physician. It may say more about me than him, but seeing him in that ad made me think less of him.

I don’t see why we can’t pay doctors like we pay police, teachers and other public servants. Being a good union guy, it should be possible for us to negotiate a fair price for their services. If we are to be fair with them, part of those negotiations will have to include dealing with the debt that many beginning physicians find themselves having accrued. Many are hundreds of thousands in debt before they begin to earn a decent income. Going forward, we need to make medical education free, thereby recognizing that it is in the interest of our society to have well-trained doctors who are not motivated by the debts they have incurred on the way to becoming physicians but rather by an interest in medicine and a concern for the people they serve.

We will also need to recognize that not all treatments are equally efficacious. It’s pretty clear that we now pay for treatments and procedures of questionable value. It can’t continue to be the case that every hang-nail requires a MRI. If agreeing to pay only for treatments with proven efficacy is rationing, then we must ration, recognizing that we ration medical care now on the basis of the kind of insurance a person has and/or the amount of money he has. How much fairer and better would be a system that took the ability to pay out of treatment decisions.

I realize that none of this discussion is about to take place in our country. We are currently governed by a Republican majority that clearly is more concerned with paying off their donors with giant tax breaks than they are with the health of the American people. Believing as I do that there is “more day to dawn” for America, I’m confident that the opportunity to have this conversation will come. I’m equally sure that progressives must be prepared to build on the consensus about the right to healthcare with ideas for a medical care system that is just and equitable to all Americans.

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Network for Public Education

In many ways the person best giving voice to the problems of public school teachers is Diane Ravitch. I have little doubt that if she were on a ballot for president of either of our two national unions to be voted on by all of the members, she would win hands down. Her efforts to push back against the corporate privatizing agenda for our public schools has been more clear, consistent and cogent than any of the work of our union leaders.

On Sunday, the Network for Public Education, an organization she founded, launched the first in a series of videos alerting the public to the dangers posed by Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos to public education. For the first time in the history of the office, we have a secretary who does not believe in public education yet whose job is to oversee our nation’s public schools. As I write this, the video has been viewed 350,000 times, the result of skillful organizing of supporters of the Network to share the video on their social media sites, blogs and what have you. This blog post is part of my commitment to share these videos as they are published and thus promote information to arouse the public of the threat to the vital institution of public education in our country. I urge my readers to sign up to lend their support to this important effort.

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Time for Chuck Schumer to Stand Up for Working People

Are you wondering why New York’s Chuck Schumer, the Minority Leader of the United State Senate, hasn’t gotten behind Bernie Sanders’ Medicare for All legislation? Here a bit of insight. Long the darling of our state teachers union, Schumer has taken huge amounts of political contributions from sectors of our economy whose interests are inimical to those of working people. According to OpenSecrets.org, Schumer has taken the following amounts since 1989 from businesses with much to lose from taking profits out of our medical system.

Securities and Investments – $12,823,522
Lawyers and Law Firms – $8,188,027
Real Estate – $6,059,229
Insurance – $2,098,920
Health Professionals – $1,383,810

If like me you expect progressive Democrats to support health care as a right; if like me you can’t understand why most of the industrialized world grants this right to its citizens at much lower cost; if like me you can’t understand why we have a system of private insurance with huge administrative cost when Medicare operates with about a 3% administrative cost; If like me you can’t understand how a leader like Chuck Schumer from a progressive state like New York can fail to support Medicare for All, then take a few minutes and email Chuck Schumer demanding that he get behind Bernie’s bill. We all know it will be a long road before we accomplish the task of providing truly universal coverage to Americans. Good leadership can shorten that road, however.

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DACA Protest

Judi and I were pleased to march in Hicksville on Saturday with some five hundred others to protest the decision by the Trump administration to end the DACA program, the executive order by President Obama that provided a mechanism for children brought to this country illegally by their parents to live, go to school and work in our country. It was heartening to see so many people willing to give up a precious Saturday morning to express their outrage at the anti-immigrant policies of the current administration.

Hicksville is a very appropriate place to have held this march. Increasingly, it is an immigrant community. As we marched from the Hicksville Long Island Railroad station to the Governor’s office on Old Country Road, immigrants working in various shops and buildings along the route came out to applaud us, obviously moved by the support of the marchers for the cause of justice for immigrants. Their response reminded me of just how unwelcoming our country must seem to all immigrants these days.

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What the Public Doesn’t Know About Teaching

Lay people have an image of public school teaching as an easy way to earn a living. You’ve heard the comments about all of the holidays teachers get; how they are done working by early afternoon; and, of course, the ten weeks of summer vacation that infuriate who have to spend most of their summer working.

As I watched the postings on Facebook of teacher friends this week as the school year began in my area, I was reminded of just how ignorant the public is of what it means to teach in our schools. Over the Labor Day weekend, teachers were commenting on their inability to sleep, the anxiety of the coming school year causing them to toss and turn. On returning to school, the comments turned to how fatigued people were feeling, their bodies reminding them of just how much energy gets sapped from a day of standing on one’s feet and finding imaginative ways to engage the minds of children whose natural inclination is to want to be elsewhere. How many members of the public know what it takes out of a person to speak publically for five or six hours a day – how physically and intellectually draining that is. That, of course, says nothing about the time taken to prepare to fill those five or six hours.

Teachers, like many in the helping professions, have a high rate of problematic children of their own. Early on in my public school teaching career, one of my students, the child of a teacher, gave me an insight that I found useful throughout my teaching days. I no longer remember what I said to her to elicit this response, but her words were a teachable moment in my career. “My fucking mother has time for everybody else’s children but no time for me.” Having something left for one’s own family after teaching all day is a struggle every teacher with a family knows.

Incidentally, teacher union leaders often wonder why it’s so hard to get people to do union work after school. Their knee-jerk answer often is that members are apathetic. Sure some are, but as surely many can’t imagine finding the energy to teach their classes, take care of their own families and in many cases go to graduate school several nights a week and volunteer to do union work on top of everything else..

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Today It’s Opioids

The magazine Mother Jones reports that there were 64,000 deaths in the U.S. from drug overdoses last year. 64,000! Our society seems in the gravitational pull of some force pulling generations of our mostly young people to abuse one drug or another. Some years ago it was methamphetamine. Now it’s opioids. In 1969, the year I began to work in Plainview-Old Bethpage, Quaaludes, Seconal, Tuinal and such had kids literally falling down in the hallways of our high schools.

Human beings have always sought altered states of consciousness. We seem to be wired for it. Just watch little kids spinning themselves around, giggling in dizzy rapture. Yet most human societies have found ways to work drugs that alter consciousness into their culture. There are social norms for the use of drugs that allow people to experience different levels of consciousness without serious danger to themselves or others. Most often the consciousness altering substance is not used alone but is part of some communal ritualized behavior. In our society, drug taking tends to be a lonely business. How often do we hear of an overdose victim found alone in his home? Prince immediately comes to mind.

It seems to me we spend very little time thinking about what it is about our culture that makes for our cycles of mass drug abuse. Surely, how we live, how we earn our livings, how we raise our children, what we really value are factors. I don’t claim to know for sure. Yet I suspect that our preoccupation with matters economic and almost no time spent on the philosophic is rendering us an emotionally and spiritually hollowed out people who increasingly long for escape. Until we address what it is about us that that lures generation after generation to free themselves from the angst of living as we do, the only thing to speculate about is what drug will serve as their next vehicle of escape.

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Our Word Must Be Good

The decision this morning by the President to end the DACA program is but the latest example of racism cloaked in legal mumbo-jumbo. Put in the mouth of our racially insensitive attorney general, this decision will have a profound impact on the lives of some 800,000 young people currently living, working and going to school in the United States. Perhaps even more importantly, at a time when trust in government is at what I suspect is an all-time low, it will seriously erode whatever faith in government remains.

The people covered by DACA, the so-called Dreamers, answered the invitation of the United States to register for DACA status and thus obtain two year renewable permission to work, go to school and participate in the Social Security System. The federal government now has their names and addresses. In good faith, these people, who know no other country but the United States, trusted our government trusted us, to abide by the terms of the invitation. That trust has now been betrayed in our name by a miscreant president who clearly cares more about keeping a campaign pledge – red meat thrown to racists and economically anxious Americans quick to believe that their economic plight is caused by illegal immigration – than he cares casting 800,00 innocent people adrift in legal uncertainty.

When President Obama issued his DACA executive order, he was speaking for us to 800,000 people literally indistinguishable from countless other Americans except that they were brought to this country by illegal immigrant parents. Most know no other country. They have been raised American. To any reasonable mind, they are American. Our word to them must be made good. Promises like this must be kept if government is to be trusted.

Today’s post is a milestone. It is the 1000th I have written. Thank you for staying with me. I trust the next thousand will continue to merit your attention.

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Decorating is Work that Must be Paid

In my last post, I advanced the notion that if teachers are expected to decorate their classrooms, they should do so on school district time. Gifting hours of their labor to school districts should not be a requirement of the job. And yet it is. I never met an elementary who started the school year with an undecorated classroom.

This morning I go to the EdWeek website only to find a video clearly aimed at propagating room decoration as part of a teacher’s job. Watch this video. Listen to how one teacher talks about having spent 25 vacation hours setting up her room. Damn it, if setting up one’s classroom before the start of school is mandatory, then teachers ought to demand that they be paid for their time. Interestingly, in my days in elementary school, most of my teachers spent the first few days of class having us them set up our classrooms for the new term. Imagine trying that today.

As many of my teacher friends begin the grind of a new school year, I like to take this opportunity to wish them all a professionally gratifying school year. Remember, your year can always be even more gratifying if you find some time for your union.

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