Striking: the Gordian Knot

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I sit down to write today with a heavy heart. Yesterday our local teachers went on strike. The thought just makes me sick – sick in the same way I feel when I drive by a bad car accident. No. Worse. I know these people. I’ve taught with many of these folks, sat through interminable faculty meetings with them, grabbed hurried lunches with them, pulled out my hair with them. Many times in my career I felt frustrated enough with administrative decisions that I wanted to walk out. I know what they’re feeling.

But I don’t believe in unions. I never joined the union. I was forced by Oregon law to pay my “fair share” dues, but I had a certain satisfaction in knowing I had exercised what little freedom that left me. I did once win a NEA national curriculum award for a program I helped develop; that’s funny, I guess.

Part of my animosity towards unions is built into me. When I was nine, maybe ten years old my dad, who was a member of the International Typographical Union, was appointed to run an audit on their books; some skull-duggery was afoot. He had to hole up in an un-named hotel in serious secrecy because his life was being threatened. He caught the embezzler whose name I clearly remember all these years later, and that he’d snuck off with $25,000, a lot of money in the 50’s. The whole thing scared me and left me with a bad taste in my mouth for unions.

I also find my personal beliefs in conflict with the whole concept. The boss is the person who took the risk of building the business; he or she has the right to choose what the wages or salaries are. The idea of public schools, of course, muddies that water, but ultimately the entire community is the boss, the school board the representatives of that community. I also think that when we work for someone else we are responsible for being our very best. If our best is not good enough to win the boss’s favor, then we’re not in the right job. As you can tell from my piece in American Thinker this week, I’m all for teachers-who-can’t being out of there.

My most cherished belief is that God controls my life, my prosperity, my preferment. To rely on a union, fraught with corruption, sworn to an anti-God mentality, and intent on protecting mediocrity, would be blasphemous. If God wants me working, He’ll see to it that I have job doing what He wants me to do.

I quit teaching once. I gave up trying to please the unreasonable folk in the teacher certification office. I just threw in the towel and figured God would find me something else to do. I got a substitute certificate and actually taught most of the time on that for several months. Then, out of the blue I received a letter from TSPC (Teachers Standards and Practices Commission) telling me that they’d made an error and they gave me the certificate I deserved. I felt like I’d been picked up by the collar and ushered back into the ring.  

And I suspect that partly I’m cranky about unions because I was fairly good at what I did, but I didn’t earn any more than other teachers with my seniority no matter their abilities. I was an English teacher and spent an unbelievable number of hours grading papers – at home, in my “off” hours. One day in a faculty meeting our principal was haranguing us about putting in our time. He pointed out that we were contracted for 40 hours and we needed to work those hours. I was thunderstruck; he only expects 40!!!? Gees. All those lost weekends, lost evenings I didn’t need to do? How was anyone getting out of there in under 40 hours? That incident put a kink in my attitude for a while, but the papers stacked up and if the kids took the trouble to write them, then I should read them. So.

Mostly I’m against the unions because both the NEA and AFS are leftist organizations that push leftist ideas. They support Democrat candidates and use teacher dues to do so. They wield terrible, unfair political power and that power has elected socialist leaders who have created this sluggish economy that has left our teachers poorly paid. Karma?

But, back to this current, local crisis: no good can come of it. OK. Strictly speaking, that’s not true – God will find ways to bless many in this mess. What I mean is that no one is going to come out of this unscathed.

The teachers are not going to get more money – there isn’t any.  This valley and this state are not doing well. Our governor (supported of course by the OEA) just blew $200 million on Oregon’s spectacularly horrible health care web site. And this state has never recovered fully from the spotted owl fiasco over 20 years ago (and the owls are still dying). There is no money. The finality of that needs to start sinking in for all of us, here and on a national level.

The teachers are not likely to get the working conditions they want either. The district appears to be treating all the teachers like they’re whiney incompetents. The teachers want a prep period – that’s reasonable. Good teaching doesn’t happen automatically. Of course good teaching may not be a high priority.  And everyone is so deeply dug in that I don’t see much relief in the offing.

That blank stubbornness isn’t winning the school board any PR points.  They’re in an impossible situation, granted. And the lack of respect for the union is understandable – unions don’t breed excellence. But they didn’t need to be so ugly about it – leaving union negotiators sitting around waiting all night for not a single concession.

But the kids. Oh my, the kids. In order to continue “school” students are being shuffled to other school buildings where they only attend half days. There are 13,000 students in this district and you can imagine the number whose parents are counting on the schools to babysit for their children (another whole cauldron of problems). Those parents are in a bind and a lot of those kids will be left on their own. Many students here depend on school for breakfast and lunch. How will that work? And what will they learn? That it’s ok for grown-ups to leave them?

This strike has my stomach churning. Many of these teachers are dear friends of mine. Many of the administrators are, too. Quite a few of the teachers are my ex-students. A lot of the teachers are off-the-charts good at what they do and what they do is one of the most important jobs a person can have. But the union mentality has caused this. A school is no place for groupthink.

Years ago I stumbled onto a strange thing while hiking at the coast: a large garter snake and a lizard locked in mortal conflict. The snake had a good toothy grip on the lizard’s upper jaw. The lizard was locked onto the snake’s lower jaw. They writhed about on the trail and disappeared into the bush. I’ve always wondered if they both died or if one was eventually triumphant. But there was no way both could come out ahead. That’s how I see this strike. I pray I’m wrong.