Posted by: Dwight Johnston | March 29, 2011

Misguided Anger

For decades everyone seemed okay with the job security and pensions for public workers. After all, they were paid less than similar workers in the private sector, and most large private companies had pensions as well. Over the past decade, that has changed. Public sector wages, on average, are now higher than in the private sector. And, most large private companies no longer offer pensions. They have replaced pensions with 401k matches, but the safe, secure pension for life has all but disappeared. Suddenly, the equation of private/public sector jobs changed. It didn’t happen overnight, but the recent struggles with unions in Wisconsin have brought the shift out of the dark and into the light.

But there is something else at work here. It’s clear that pension reform in the public sector absolutely must be reformed. Not all public pensions have gone overboard, but the ones that have are getting all of the attention. Cutbacks are necessary, not optional. Here is the strange development. The Wisconsin fiasco has resulted in what seems to be an anti-teacher sentiment. Taxpayers, at least the vocal ones, have expressed outrage at the pensioners. Various groups, led by Tea Party types, have developed and us vs. them attitude toward teachers. The facts are that the majority of pensioners are not living in the lap of luxury provided by fat pensions. Most pensions in the public sector are modest. There are certainly well-publicized abuses, but that’s the minority.

But news outlets and ultra-conservative groups have seized on this to rile up constituents. I’ve heard more than one commentator on a certain network speak derisively of teachers and their “part time” jobs. Personally, I have never known a single teacher who walks away at 2:30 with no further obligations. But certain parties have successfully managed to direct anger toward teachers in particular. The primary argument is that this is “our” tax money, and that is why we have a right to be so outraged.

Fine. It is coming from tax money, but that’s the deal with public jobs. But consider the real villains here. Big banks, big lenders, and big securities firms are the ones that were primarily responsible for the economies woes over the past few years. Yet, you hear absolutely no expressions of outrage over what they did. The companies are printing money again, courtesy of the Federal Reserve’s largesse, and bonuses are flowing in the land of milk and honey called Wall Street. A lot of taxpayers, outraged at those fat cat teachers living off our tax dollars, seem to believe that letting banks off of the hook for the financial disaster is just fine. Regulations or retribution for their actions? Forget it. They are making money again and costing the tax payer nothing, so it seems. Just stop and think. The costs to taxpayers by the actions of bankers dwarf the costs of pensions for teachers. How about the hundreds of billions of tax dollars for Fannie and Freddie? How about the hundreds of billions of tax dollars for the increases in necessary unemployment and welfare payments? How about the huge amount of wages they cost the 8 million unemployed people as the result of their actions? How about the still unknown costs of bailing out the likes of AIG, GM, etc?

Tax payers are absolutely right to be angry over where our tax dollars are going. But we should stop and think about where the big tax dollars have gone and are still going and why. It’s not teachers in Wisconsin.

I am not a conspiracy theorist. I won’t say this is all part of a plan by rich conservatives and conservative groups to divide the country even further. I think it’s more of a case that most people in the U.S. are still searching for an outlet at which to vent anger about a world that has simply changed. The housing debacle and the losses in the stock market have completely altered the views of what Americans thought their futures would look like. Most Americans cannot grasp the concepts in the investment banking industry that wrought what we have, and therefore cannot focus their anger on something they can’t understand. But everyone can understand pensions, and, abetted by certain groups and news outlets, they have found an outlet for their anger. I don’t have a solution for this. I just hope that someday we can all figure out where our anger should really be directed. Unfortunately, that might take another financial debacle.

Pushing for pension reform is the right thing to do. We’re actually facing several years of needed but painful reforms. The tax system will someday be reformed, which will likely include goring some sacred cows like mortgage interest deductibility. Medicare and social security changes are simply inevitable. But let’s not direct anger at those on the receiving in of various benefits. The world changed because Wall Street changed.

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Responses

  1. I was teacher for many years in the US and abroad during a time when teachers were deservedly respected. While I did not teach long enough to earn a pension, I endured ridiculously low salaries and 60-hour-plus work weeks teaching in the classroom, developing syllabi, researching, preparing lectures and in-class activities, counseling and tutoring students in my office, and endless grading when I knew I spent more time providing feedback on a paper than the student had used in writing it.

    I write this because, like you, I continue to have great personal regard for teachers and great empathy for the incredibly hard work they do, but I decry what some teachers’ unions have become and what they have done to a respectable and vital profession. And I decry those teachers who have let this happen.

    I was a dedicated teacher, devoted to my students’ well being and proud to make a palpable difference in their lives. Never in my wildest imaginings would I have abandoned my classroom to break the law or defame a public official as some teachers did on behalf of their union in Wisconsin.

    There was a time when public sector unions contributed to public welfare and the protection of employees. Unfortunately, they have gradually redefined their social and economic mission as an ideological one, moving from organizations dedicated to serving the interests of their members to entrenched power centers whose primary motive is to retain their privileges, protect their management prerogatives and advance their own political agenda. They have become the very “corporations” they profess to deplore.

    What we have seen in Wisconsin are militant organizations not adverse to breaking the law when it suits them, abandoning their original mission, and aggressively invading the social and political arena to achieve their ends.

    The thuggish spectacle of these unions and their collaborators in Madison, Wisconsin, occupying the state Capitol, comparing a majority-elected governor who ran on a platform of reform to Hitler, influencing legislators to abandon their sworn duty and responsibilities, issuing death threats against fiscally responsible legislators and holding the law in contempt is only a sign that they have become, not genuine defenders of workers’ rights, but a destabilizing menace to public well-being and budgetary responsibility. And now, they are spreading their political, not educational, agendas to other states like Ohio and Indiana as well.

    Perhaps it is inevitable that human institutions often deteriorate over the course of time and conclude by abusing the mission they had initially espoused. Many banks and even some credit unions are prime examples in this recession. But at such times, courage and hard thinking are needed to ensure renewal of their original purpose and a return to their founding principles.

    Sadly, I must conclude that some teachers’ unions in the U.S., once necessary and beneficial, have degenerated to such an extent that their core function is no longer to deliver the best possible education for their students while providing a decent living for educators, but to exploit the taxpayer, to expand entitlements and exemptions, and to preserve the conditions under which not merit but mediocrity in education increasingly flourishes.

    The real issue is not whether public employees should have the right to bargain collectively (despite this red herring being thrown about by union leaders), but whether public employees should be answerable to the people who pay for their salaries and benefits, or to the political party they helped elect.

    These unions and others like them have now become the bane of public life and it is time that new leaders (or if necessary, the government — that is, decent, sensible and trustworthy government) act to rein in their profligacy, the subordination of their true mission, and their autocratic methods. Ronald Reagan did it with the Air Traffic Controllers’ public union when they went on strike illegally, and it is heartening that Governor Scott seems to have found a way to prevail in Wisconsin.

    Even more important, however, it is time for respectable educators of true purpose, selflessness, and honor take an honest look at what their own unions have become and act in the public interest, in their students’ best interest as well as their own to become again what they were dedicated to be in the beginning. Because they are teachers, I have hope.

    • Well said Sharon – of course. As I said, I am not a union fan, and reform is a necessity. But, I still think the focused anger has as much to do with the general financial disaster as problems with unions. I still believe the biggest villains are on Wall Street.

  2. Interesting points by both … In pondering the costs to taxpayers by the actions of bankers, elected officials in Congress and at the state level, unions and yes even teachers … I believe the teachers are the least of our concerns. Accountability and education reform is needed, but that is a different discussion.

    I can’t help but wonder if rather than laying off teachers, forcing furlow days, and all the other cuts that the state of California is making to the middle class, they should consider reducing the salary of the thousands of state workers in higher paid jobs or at a minimum NOT give them pay raises! The last pay raise for the superintendent was 6%. If we simply did a salary freeze for the state of CA, just 8 jobs could pay for one teacher!!!

    Here are some of the numbers to consider: 6% raise Adj Salary
    Average CA Teacher annual salary: $ 67,932
    Average CA state employee salary: $ 65,484
    Average CA Superintendent salary: $ 158,622 9,517 $149,105

    Los Angeles County Salaries:
    Dir of Children & Family Services: $ 214,206 12,852 $107,037
    Board of Supervisors Deputy III: $ 113,869 6,832 $201,354
    Reg Admin Children & Family Svs: $ 118,645 7,119 $111,526
    TOTAL Savings 4 jobs: $36,321


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