Friday, February 18, 2011

Unions - other than marital, for a change

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My first teaching job in 1995 was a long term substitute position in a small Capital Region district.  It was my first experience with being in a union and I had mixed feelings about being a member.  While I understood the necessity of a union historically, there were some aspects that I found puzzling.  For instance, since I was the only librarian for 3 elementary buildings I had a large population of students to provide instruction - which kept me pretty busy.  I felt that it was important for all students to have library skills and literature lessons and I re-worked the schedule so that I could accomplish this goal, which meant that I was teaching more classes than the contract specified.  Because I was only initially there for a  4 month maternity leave, I was allowed to alter my schedule without a problem, and I did my best to meet the needs of my students and teachers.  Things went well and the librarian for whom I was filling in extended her leave until September 1st, from the original May return date, which gave me another few months of employment and health insurance coverage.  Since the district did not have a position for me in the fall, I was able to qualify for unemployment insurance that summer for the only time in my life, and had the opportunity to COBRA my health care.  Terrific.  In late August I received a phone call from one of the principals I had worked with offering me the chance to return to the position as the teacher had decided to extend her maternity leave - again.  I thought that it was wonderful that this new parent elected to remain at home with her daughter, but, there was a part of me that recognized how absurd it was that:
  • She could continue to extend a leave numerous times (ultimately she resigned).
  • Had the district known in June that she didn't plan to return in September, I would not have qualified for unemployment benefits, thus saving the state a few thousand dollars
My next position, south of Albany, provided yet another educational experience for me.  I was fortunate enough to be able to devote my attention to a single school population and spent a lot of time organizing and automating my library.  In addition to a collection of materials that sorely needed to be weeded, I inherited a full time assistant who was incompetent.  She had been with the district for a number of years and was on her second lap through the library, having already proven her lack of ability in at least 3 other assignments in the district.  As the new person, I was put in a position of collecting anecdotal evidence against her and then testifying against her in a hearing to terminate her.  Apparently, this how civil service employees are disciplined or dismissed.  The day after the hearing we returned to our neighboring desks - talk about awkward!  She was ultimately fired after a decision was reached some 8 or 10 weeks later. See, there is a system to remove ineffective employees, it is a tedious and meticulous process to arrive at that outcome, but certainly not impossible.

Permanent position number two was west of Albany.  The district was progressive, had amazing technology and provided me with an extremely generous budget for purchasing library materials.  During my time there I made an effort to attend school board meetings in the district where I pay taxes, Albany.  At one particular meeting I expressed my opinion, during the public comment period,  that Albany teachers needed to begin contributing to their health insurance premiums.  At that time (as recently as 8 or 9 years ago), there was no member contribution to individual health coverage.  Within days, the president of the union where I was employed, publicly chastised me for expressing my personal opinion at a meeting in the city where I reside.  Excuse me?  Membership in a union does not mean that I will be muzzled, ever. 

And, now I work in a district just south of Albany,*  a district where I've always imagined I would complete my professional teaching career.  You see, once teachers reach a certain level on a salary schedule it no longer becomes economically feasible to change districts because of the salary reduction we would experience as new hires.  Most districts have a formula when they hire experienced educators - perhaps 1 for 1 for the first 3 years of experience and then a diminishing scale such as 1 for every 3 years experience.  Meaning, that my 15 years of experience might place my on a salary schedule on par with someone with 7 years professional, full time experience.  Oddly, the same formula does not pertain to administrators who almost always increase their salaries as they change districts - and frequently are able to negotiate a benefit where they bring their accumulated sick, personal and vacation time with them.  The union in my present district has been nothing short of generous with the givebacks we've provided to the resident taxpayers during these tough economic times, but still it seems to me that teachers, as well as other public employees, are being vilified for the salaries and benefit packages we receive. It is public knowledge, so I'll tell you right here, I make just under $60,000 a year with 15 years experience and a Master's degree.  I think it is a fair salary and my biggest fear about working in a district that will potentially eliminate 40+ teaching positions this year, is losing my health insurance benefits, benefits for which I contribute 20% of the premium cost. 

What's the point of this tedious description of my professional experiences with unions, both positive and negative?  I suppose I wanted to express my own mixed feelings about the union to which I am obligated to belong. I find the NYSUT headquarters in Latham to be an ostentatious embarrassment, I resent the solicitations I receive in the email from my union promoting insurance agencies and rental car companies and I find behavior such as this reprehensible.  I also have an understanding about the advantages of collective bargaining and don't ever want to go back to the days of male teachers being paid more than female teachers or faculty being denied academic freedom.  It seems, however,  that a discussion regarding the true purpose of a union is long overdue.  I have always been proud to be a teacher and would like to also be proud of being a member of a union. 

*I've had tenure in all three of my permanent positions.  I've changed jobs to decrease my commute and to improve my working conditions, always of my own volition.  I don't want anyone to get the false impression that I've not been able to retain a job!

1 comment:

  1. In my first job, when I questioned the older teachers about the benefit of the union, I was treated to MANY stories about the "bad old days" - my favorite was when a teacher was ORDERED to give blood - literally - to keep her job.