April 25, 2007

Bad labor history award of the week

This week's historical illiteracy award goes to the Education Partnership for a phrase in its report Teacher Contracts: Restoring the Balance. I'll let others address the merits, because this one is an education historywhopper:

Today's teacher contracts reflect an earlier era in America: the age of the rise of industrial unions, during the 19th and 20th centuries, when a factory system rigidly governed work outputs. (p. 6)

There's a substantial error in chronology: anyone know when the Loeb Rule was created in Illinois that destroyed the Chicago Federation of Teachers for decades? The first teacher strike? The huge wave of strikes and collective bargaining agreements? Hint: "the rise of industrial unions" was centered around the Loeb Rule, not the rise of teachers unions in the late 1960s and the 1970s.

There are also significant slippages in conceptual understanding: First, teachers unions represent largely public employees, not the private employees whose collective-bargaining rights are protected by the Wagner Act. While much of labor law is in common (state agencies overseeing public-employee collective bargaining frequently follow NLRB rulings), both the politics and the details of organizing are different with public employees.

In addition to that subtler point, it is either ignorance or deliberate misreading to claim that collective bargaining agreements are the detritus of industrial organizing. They're legal documents, and the nature of labor law means that the history of those agreements contain the practical solutions to a number of problems over the years, including the history of arbitration decisions that determine interpretation.  That fact doesn't mean that contracts can't change: they can.  But any union leader knows to be wary of a four-word phrase: "Let's simplify the contract."

Finally, the proposal to allow a state agency to wipe out contract language whether that contract language is demonstrated to be related to educational failure or not is a sideways attack on collective bargaining (and some fellow unionists would claim it's pretty direct). Would the Education Partnership want to eliminate clauses that allow teachers to take a lunch? That's implied in the proposal. In reality, the teaching conditions in the early 20th century, during "the age of the rise of industrial unions," were sexist, humiliating, underpaid (and unpaid too often in the Depression), and unsupported. What balance is the partnership trying to restore?

Listen to this article
Posted in Education policy on April 25, 2007 11:05 PM |