Sunday, February 27, 2011

How Dumb Are We?

How dumb are we? I think that's getting to be my favorite question. It was my father's favorite question too.

I'm watching the events in Wisconsin (and here in Tennessee where the state legislature is working on bills to eliminate teacher licensure and to limit collective bargaining rights to wages only -- excluding benefits and working conditions from negotiation), and I'm thinking a lot about my father, a highly successful businessman who was the CEO of a medium sized corporation that distributed heavy construction equipment and who passed away in 1995. We could use him right about now.

Year after year, Dad negotiated with labor unions representing the men (just men at that time) who serviced and repaired the equipment that they sold and leased at distribution centers around the mid-Atlantic and northeast. Some years, times were tough, profits were slim and contract gains were hard-fought and hard-won. Other years, times were really tough, nobody was making any money and contract gains were non-existent. Give backs were not unheard of. But other years, everybody was making money. Folks were building -- houses, manufacturing plants, even skyscrapers. And people who are building need BIG backhoes and cranes. And in those years, the union negotiators had only to ask and a healthy dose of the riches flowed to the union workers too. Those years of plenty were a time to save because all involved knew that it probably wouldn't last.

I remember one such period of prosperity well, because my father punctuated that period with a story about his negotiations. In good times, he told me, the union guys didn't know what to ask for. They asked for 2 or 3% because that's what they always asked for, and he was more than a little miffed that they hadn't done their homework and didn't know what they should ask for to share fairly in the company's success. So on one occasion, in negotiations when the union reps were asking for too little, he tried every tactful hint he could to suggest that they might want to ask for more. Nobody budged. In fact, they misunderstood his comments, thinking that he was trying to offer less. Finally, he invited the chief negotiator to the men's room where he informed him in no uncertain terms that he was a horse's a.. and perhaps a few other things. He told him that he owed it to his members to know what was possible and to ask for it. Sometimes union reps ask for things that just aren't possible because they have a routine, a habit that may not be right for this economic (and political) moment. Reading that moment and asking for what is possible is a skill and a responsibility. And sometimes what is possible is a heck of a lot more that you are used to getting. And sometimes what is possible is less, much less.

My Dad recognized that you can't get blood out of a stone. A company without profits could go bankrupt under the weight of salary and benefits commitments. BUT when the tap is turned on, you darn well better have your mug poised to catch the flow of the riches. And as a company executive, you better share the wealth. If you don't, you will not be worthy of the responsibility of running the company. You will have failed to live up to what that's about: the long-term profitability that only comes from a workforce that is and feels valued.

Now Wisconsin is not a private company. Revenue rarely "flows" from government entities and it is unlikely that there will be truly flush years (in most venues) to counterbalance lean ones. And it certainly does seem like the Governor of Wisconsin has stopped the flow for teachers (and other selected public unions) by turning the faucet on for small businesses in the form of significant tax cuts. That's a shift in balance he is entitled to make. But he is not entitled to misrepresent the reality of the situation nor is he entitled to demonize good people as unworthy of such "exorbitant" salaries and benefits. There is nothing exorbitant about teachers salaries OR benefits. (I find it particularly galling when people who make well into 6 or 7 figures a year and who collect both generous pensions and stock options discuss the exorbitant salaries of folks who may not be much above the poverty level if they are supporting a few kids.) If the government doesn't have the money to pay them, then that's a different issue. What can we pay? And whose willing to do the job for that amount of money and benefits? That's what's scares me about all this. Who enters a teaching profession with lower salaries and diminished benefits? We don't know the answer to that question; I'm not sure I want to take a chance.

But maybe this is one of those times when the pain really does have to be spread around to all of us. The teachers in Wisconsin seem to recognize that and have made the wage and benefits concessions. They have done their homework and come prepared to share the pain of the parents of the kids they teach. And still the Governor feels the need to demonize them. Name it. That's what he's doing.

And of course, we are not truly spreading the pain all around. We are removing mild discomfort from the very rich by cutting their taxes significantly and we are addressing the wild uncertainty that surrounds the small business owner by cutting their taxes slightly and acting as if that will help -- when what they really need is a regular and reasonable flow of loans from banks who are back to making lots of money by not lending except to those who already have lots of money. (See reference to tax cuts for the rich above.)

How dumb are we?

All I know is that, like Diane Ravitch, I stand with the teachers of Wisconsin (and very soon I'm sure I'll need to stand with the teachers in Tennessee). The Wisconsin teachers are prepared for these negotiations. They are ready to share the pain. But this conversation needs to happen year in and year out because things change. Economies shift and grow (even though right now it seems way too slow). And when our economy grows again, I want those union reps at the table, with figures in hand that reflect what the community can and should pay the highly educated human beings with families to support who teach their children. The CEO (or Governor) who limits collective bargaining rights, who breaks unions, unseats his or her partners at the table. I suspect that's exactly what Governor Walker wants.* And that is the real problem here.

* For more on what the Governor is really up to, check out Rachel Maddow ( You may or may not agree with her analysis, but it's pretty powerful.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Regarding "How dumb are we?". I work for the Green Bay Wisc Public Schools and a few signs at a rally against Gov Walker last week said it all "If you think education is expensive, wait until you see what STUPID costs"...."If Walker is the answer, how STUPID was the question"? There were hundreds more but I think you get the idea.....