Saturday, March 21, 2009

Teacher Strikes

(News-Herald, March 19) We’ve heard a long series of rumblings out of Cranberry School District about the state of teacher contract negotiations. Nobody likes to think about a teacher strike, but from out here in the cheap seats, it doesn’t seem unlikely.
Cranberry’s approach to teachers has always been puzzling. Given the most robust tax base in Venangoland, CASD could easily declare that they were going to become the premiere district of the region, a drawing card for new residents and growing economy, by upping their teacher pay just enough to outbid every other area district for the best teacher talent. Nobody sells a community with, “Come here. Our schools always get the last pick of teachers looking for jobs.”
(Before anyone asks why I pick on other school districts while never going after the one where I work, the answer is that my bosses and I are contractually bound to avoid picking on each other in public.)
I’ve some experience with the strike route—I was the president of the Franklin Teachers Association when we struck in 2002—so I can pass on a little of what I learned.
Teachers do not strike easily. As a group, we are big on behaving ourselves and following the rules. Yes, there are always some out front of the pack looking fairly agitated. But before anyone hits a picket line, there are many many meetings involving a hundred variations on “Isn’t there something else we could do instead??”
As with any high-charged time of stress and conflict, you have some choice about your opponents, but you can’t choose your friends. This is often unfortunate for both parties.
Some folks are surprised that teachers take some of this stuff personally. Those folks should not be surprised. Teachers identify closely with their jobs; for most of us, “teacher” is part of our identity. It’s not a suit of clothes we put for work; it’s our skin. If you say things like, “That’s just not a very important job,” we take it personally.
For many teachers, the hardest part of tough contract negotiations is confronting how little some people think of our lives’ work. It can be tough to be told repeatedly that your job is stupid and unimportant, or to face someone who is angry because you won’t just do as you’re told, as if you’re an unruly servant who insists on speaking even when not spoken to.
At the same time, teachers can get so caught up in our own work universe that we forget the universe that surrounds it. Invariably some teacher will trot out a comment like, “Do you know how much a teacher is paid in Mount Lebanon?!” The only appropriate response to that is, “Do you know how much a house costs in Mount Lebanon? Or groceries?” Venangoland-style teacher pay and benefits are not great compared to other corners of the universe, but we don’t live and work in other corners of the universe. We live and work here.
Every contract dispute gives rise to teachers who want massive raises plus ice cream on Sundays, as well as taxpayers who think that teachers should be paid no more than a fast food cashier. Both groups need a reality check.
A board may try to splinter a union into warring factions, or agitate the community. Sometimes it works. But it’s a short-sighted tactic; once the contract is settled, that splintered staff has to work with each other and the community to keep schools successful.
Both sides can get too heated. During our strike, we picketed board members’ homes. Heat of the moment and all that—I won’t make excuses, and I can only speak for myself. But that was a mistake; that was wrong.
And that great old line “This is our final offer” is just dumb. The final offer will be the one that both sides sign.
Teachers need to use PSEA expertise and experience, just as boards need to use PSBA. But those groups can only advise, and they will never know your community—where you will still live and work after a contract—as well as you do.
An unsettled contract is not a contest to be won; that’s why the best solution is a contract that both sides have reasons to dislike. An unsettled contract is a problem to solve, a problem that they share. The most important thing for all parties to remember is this: when the contract is eventually settled, everyone will still have to live and work together.

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