There was a time when public school teachers plied their trade in relative anonymity, content in the knowledge that their noble profession was respected (if not adequately compensated) by their community. Teachers were seldom mentioned in the media; and when they were, it usually involved a commendation or warm “human interest” story.
Today, we read about teachers being arrested for sexually molesting their students, and, increasingly, being charged with gross incompetence — being accused of a level of ineptitude that renders them “unqualified” to teach. In the first instance, the guilty teachers are stripped of their credential and carted off to prison, in the second, they continue teaching. Why? Well, if one believes the myth, it’s because their big, bad union won’t allow them to be fired.
Union obstructionism is cited by the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) as a major cause of the startling decline in student performance. Despite so many obvious factors — staggering shifts in demographics, increased transience, language barriers, the breakdown of the nuclear family, and a lack of state funding for education — the chief culprits have been narrowed down to incompetent teachers and the evil union that “shelters” them. Take Ariana Huffington, the liberal pundit and self-promoter. She’s swallowed the trumped-up charges and gone on record, blaming the union for the state’s low test scores.
But these are the same unionized teachers who ran the classrooms at the same unionized schools back in the glory days when California’s public school system (K to 12) was the envy of the nation, routinely ranked among the top two or three in the country. How can it be the union’s fault? How can the same teachers who were credited for California’s success now be identified as the root cause of its failure?
The LAUSD isn’t helpless. They find a snake in the woodpile, they can get rid of it. The District can fire its teachers at any time, for any reason, without explanation—for up to two full years from their date of hire (compare that to the standard 60 or 90-day probationary periods found in most industries). After two years, they are required to show cause for terminating a teacher. What’s so wrong with that?
Union members in this country get fired every day, for infractions ranging from absenteeism to insubordination to DOJ (drunk on the job). The notion of a union contract containing language that would somehow “exclude” an employee from the disciplinary process is nutty.
Think about it. Even if a union negotiator were arrogant or twitchy enough to request such “immunity,” what company would ever agree to it? What management team would sign a contract that, effectively, abrogated its right to manage? Yet, the myth persists; people go around saying that all a union worker has to do is sweat out his/her probationary period, and they’re home free. After that, management can’t touch them.
The record will show that AWPPW Local 672 is no candy-assed union. Over the years, the local has filed hundreds of grievances, dozens of ULPs (Unfair Labor Practice charges), and half a dozen lawsuits. Twice they went on strike, shut it down and sent everyone home. By post-Reagan, west coast standards, Local 672 was militant .Yet, diligent and prickly as the union was, people were still fired. They were fired because management, unlike the LAUSD, was neither spineless nor lazy. Rightly or wrongly, the managers did what they thought had to be done, and the union executive board responded in kind. Someone needs to remind the LAUSD that you’re not supposed to whine about the other guys; you’re supposed to act. That’s why you sign a contract, to delineate the boundaries.
At Local 672, discharges were treated as economic homicide. All terminations were appealed, no exceptions. When an appeal was denied, the local had to decide whether to accept the verdict, or send the case to arbitration, the final step in the process. Employees whose grievances weren’t sent up had no choice but to stay fired or sue the union. While a handful of members threatened legal action, only two actually did it. Both lost. As for arbitration rulings, the union’s record was spotty: Some grievants won reinstatement; the overwhelming majority did not.
Yes, it’s harder to get fired from a union shop than a non-union shop, but that’s one of the sterling virtues of a union. A boss can’t just walk up and fire you because he wants to give your spot to his wife’s nephew, who’s looking for a summer job before returning to college. In a union shop there have to be grounds for dismissal.
It was unions, after all, not congress, the church, or philanthropic organizations, who first outlawed child labor, mandated equal pay for women, and introduced industrial safety codes to the workplace. Heroically, unions beat everybody to the punch. Protecting workers is what unions strive to do.
Finally, if unions are the ones responsible for preventing management from firing its deadbeats, how do we explain the conspicuous incompetence found in so many non-union facilities? The truth is, like it or not, the woods are full of marginal workers. Having a union to blame simply gives a weak employer an excuse. If there were Moslems to blame, instead of unions, they’d blame the Moslems.
DAVID MACARAY, a Los Angeles playwright and writer, was president and chief contract negotiator of the Assn. of Western Pulp and Paper Workers, Local 672, from 1989 to 2000. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org