Children First

One of the surprising attacks on unions of late is that they try to raise wages and benefits and improve their working conditions for the sake of their members.

Big secret: Just as every corporation is in the business of trying to improve their profit status and the dividends of their “members.”

Some professions or special interest groups do it by forming things called Associations, who “bargain” for them by sharing information and lobbying legislators and the general public. Part PR firms and part lobbyists—plus professional improvement.

That makes sense for professions in which most employees are independent entrepreneurs—they are boss and employee rolled together. Like doctors and lawyers often are. But even “independent” plumbers create unions to set wages.

Even though airline pilots are paid well, they work for companies and thus formed unions. They worry about safety (that was, in fact, the basis of Air controller strike and the famous Reagan firing of them. They argued that their working conditions were not appropriate for insuring the safety of airline passengers, et al.)

In some small firms, it could be argued that employees are satisfied with approaching the boss him/herself to ask for a raise. Some have unilateral contracts that spell out promotion policy, salary scales, etc.

Would most employers—including families who hire servants—pay better just for the good of society? If they can find just what they want at appallingly lower wages would they voluntarily offer to pay more? On occasion, would we all pay our fair share of taxes, for that matter, on the basis of conscience? For myriad reasons, the answer to both questions is—no, or rarely.

There is absolutely nothing unworthy about joining together to demand the best we—individually or collectively—can get for ourselves, our colleagues or our fellow citizens. It’s the American way. During the long cold war we even in part defined democracy by its free trade unions. The right to freely assemble on behalf of shared interests is at the heart of democracy. I am perfectly ready to accept that we all hope the tax code will favor us. But…. we are counting on a system of government that is not prejudiced against our particular tax bracket. That’s the rub.

Does a Wall Street banker, for example, really try first to figure out whether it is good for the average bank employee before he asks for a bonus or bargains for a better severance package and pension? Do we expect him to? No! We expect that his or her Board of Directors will be worrying about its affect on the company before granting that compensation, and our government will worry about its impact on those who invest their money in the bank.

At the heart of capitalism, in fact, is precisely the idea of each of us seeking our best return on our money—the market will work out the negative side effects to the advantage of all. And, if it does not…. that there is somewhere to appeal to.

Of course that is hardly quite how it works, but it is irritating to hear its cheerleaders condemn teachers for their paltry efforts to imitate them. The search also for security works for rich and poor alike. It amazes me how very very wealthy people worry even after they have enough money to keep their grandchildren financially secure forever.

Teachers bargain—and like everyone else those they bargain with are supposed to be concerned with the larger effect. That teacher unions have so often shown concern for the effects on the students in their bargaining is a blessing. Maybe bankers do too (though I would like to see the evidence of that).

And does not everyone deserve due process right? Its not my lawyer’s primary concern whether I am guilty or not, although a lawyer can decline a case if he/she dislikes it too much. Court appointed lawyers do not have that privilege, because a right to due process, to appeal decisions, is offered to innocent and guilty, rich and poor, alike. Until proven otherwise… we are all innocent in the eyes of the law.

But, in fact, unions too try to dissuade their members from some grievances, and even occasionally refuse. But, that is a double edged sword. Often the reasons for the union’s disinclination is because they are “in bed” with management or do not like the complainant for other reasons. And when union President Al Shanker claimed that he would advocate for the students if they were union members he wasn’t being crass. There are other nonprofits whose duty it is to do that.

But he did not therefore claim that teachers as a whole had no moral obligations to think about the welfare of their students. Yes, occasionally it is hard to separate the two. But it is a fact, not an opinion, that class size matters to any teacher who intends to do more than give a wonderful lecture series to his audience. Actually I sometimes prefer a huge audience to a small one when I have come to give a performance.

But if held accountable—morally if not legally—for every single member of the audience understanding what I’m saying in the way I intended them to—well, I do not pretend I can do that to an audience of much more than maybe 20—even if they each come to me in clumps of every 45 minutes for 5 hours a day. And especially if I do not just want them to be able to recite back to me what I have said, but use it in a different context.

Stuff like that seems to us teachers like “common sense” and we are not surprised when people of wealth and power choose schools with very low teacher/pupil ratios. From infancy until graduate school—they know it matters. If we use their student’s future income as our only proof, we may find that class size does not matter much. Who knows—except that we all know that social mobility being what it is—very low these days—wealthy people will do pretty well regardless and poor people will do pretty badly regardless. But, actually I suspect—just a hunch that class size will matter MORE even on such a silly outcome tool for the poor than for the rich. Yet… the rich actually have always gone to schools with low class sizes. How come? In fact the very very rich have often chosen a one-on-one ratio for their young—the grand tradition of the 19th century well-to-do: tutors, until the time came when they needed to expand their networks of peers!

In short, teachers’ self-interests can sometimes conflict with their students’—but rarely. Sometimes it is of no difference in terms of outcomes—even real ones. And most of the time I would ague that most of what teachers collectively have fought for is precisely what the parents of the rich get from expensive private schools. In a real libertarian’s dream, the gap between the two would be much vaster I assume, since there would be no government to help make up the difference. Each child will get what his/her parent’s can afford or what they need in order to be more equal?


p.s. I am ignoring in this pro-union defense all the other lobbying and support roles that teacher unions take on issues affecting working and poor people in general.