Along with several thousand others, I attended a rally in support of the Carle Place teachers who have been without a new contract for about two and a half years. Although apparently willing to take a pay freeze of some length in the context of a new multi-year agreement, the Board of Education in this small community seeks to impose a new salary schedule for new teachers which would cause them to earn less into the future than currently employed teachers earn now.
After the demonstration in the streets of Carle Place was finished, ending with rallying speeches by New York State United Teachers President Dick Iannuzzi and American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, PCT Secretary Judi Alexanderson and I attended the regularly scheduled Board of Education meeting along with many members of the Carle Place teachers union. It was like entering a time warp.
The five member Board is all male, at least four of whom looked to be too old to have children in the school system. Beginning the meeting with what for me was an off-putting prayer, they went about their routine business, with the Board President making several condescending, patronizing remarks to the District Clerk, a female employee. The Board President read a letter sent to the community developing at some length the Board’s rationale for seeking to establish a two tiered salary schedule. In essence the Board argued that the average salary of the teachers is higher than that of many of the residents of the district – that the district had to have a “sustainable” salary schedule going into the future.
Yes, the Board is proud of the district which by any measure is one of the top districts in the state. Yes, they think the world of their teachers, but they simply can’t afford to continue to pay them at current rates. So, a new generation of teachers will have to subsidize the children of Carle Place. The words of the letter took me back to a time when a teaching job would not support a family – a time when teachers were obliged to work after school jobs and summer gigs to survive – maybe even a time when because most teachers were mostly women, it was assumed that they had men to take care of them so it wasn’t necessary to pay them a living wage.
The teacher unions, through enormous and often risky efforts, made teaching into a job with respectable rates of pay and good benefits. Some in middle class communities suffering from the mal-distribution of income and wealth in our country, having seen their wages stagnating, resent the salaries and benefits of unionized teachers. Rather than fight for their fair share of the American economic pie, they are led to believe that we are the cause of their economic anxiety – that somehow if we get less, their lives will be improved.
The evening reminded me once again of an experience I had as a young man of high school age. After a Friday night movie with some friends, we stopped at a favorite Flatbush Avenue deli to have a corned beef sandwich. When the waiter arrived to take our order, I looked up to find he was my English teacher, a bookish, scholarly man universally respected by the student body of my school. While I don’t mean to suggest that there is something undignified about the work of a waiter, work that I would later do myself while going to college, I knew even then there was something wrong that a great hardworking teacher like him had to still be working at ten in the evening because his family couldn’t survive on a teacher’s pay. The following year, the United Federation of Teachers led the first strike in New York State for the right to bargain collectively – a strike to change the deplorable economic conditions of teachers. That battle was won. The fruits of that victory must not be surrendered, whatever it takes – not to the Carle Place Board of education – not anywhere.