Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Contract Negotiations: It's all in the family

One of the myths mentioned in The Washington Post article "Five Myths About Teachers Unions" is that teachers unions are similar to private-sector unions.

    "Teachers unions are not like private-sector unions in some fundamental ways," note the authors. While private businesses can go bankrupt, public schools cannot. So, what happens to public schools when their fund balances run out? At that point, the schools become insolvent (unable to pay their debts). According to the Post article, the possibility of bankruptcy "generally creates a check on [private sector] unions' demands at the negotiating table because neither side wants an employer to downsize or go out of business." Since public schools cannot go bankrupt, no such check is put on teachers unions.

    Public schools have been forced to downsize. According to the NY Post, "Gov. Cuomo’s Budget Division update for the first quarter of the current fiscal year now pegs next year’s projected deficit at $982 million, which is significantly up from the original forecast of $950 million."  Representatives from the SED and the NY Department of State are predicting that recovery from the Great Recession might start to be seen in five years. However, a NYS fiscal recovery in that time period is by no means certain.

    While teacher union leaders generally do not want schools to downsize (i.e. eliminate jobs), at the PCSD, the  teachers union president told the superintendent several years ago that the district had too many teachers. (This was in response to the superintendent asking for contract concessions in order to save jobs.) Some wonder if self-interest drove Mr. Vaccaro's response. No shared sacrifice there.

    Additionally, the concept of having two sides at the  negotiating table has been affected by the fact that many teachers' unions endorse candidates for Boards of Education; put up candidates who are family members of union members; and then succeed in getting them elected because the unions often dominate the voting. Why? Because there is generally a poor showing by the general public at school budget votes and candidate elections. According to The Washington  Post article, "Autoworkers don't get to pick the board of directors of the car company; but teachers, in effect, can."

     One need only look at the many family relationships between current PCS BOE members and union members. For instance, Board president Chris Cowen's wife, Heather Cowen Wilson*, is a PCS teacher and a member of the teachers' contract negotiating team. As soon as experienced Board members [with no conflicts of interest] were gotten off the BOE last year, a teachers' contract was hastily settled (without having an attorney review it and without the labor-relations specialist - hired by the District through BOCES- aware that a contract had even been ratified). This contract included provisions that legal experts have told BOE members never to include in labor contracts. This is certainly not good for arm's length negotiating** that is needed on behalf of fairly representing the public's interest. As someone said, it's like asking your husband for a raise & better benefits and then telling him he does not have to pay for it. A man cannot answer to two masters.

    All in the Family was a great television show but is anything but a great negotiations concept.

     * According to an analysis of the Salary & Benefit Reports (compiled by the PCSD), Mrs. Cowen is one of the highest paid teachers generally receiving over $100,000 per year in salary and benefits.  
     **The arm's length principle (ALP) is the condition or the fact that the parties to a transaction are independent and on an equal footing. Such a transaction is known as an "arm's-length transaction". It is used specifically in contract law to arrange an equitable agreement that will stand up to legal scrutiny, even though the parties may have shared interests (e.g., employer-employee) or are too closely related to be seen as completely independent (e.g., the parties have familial ties). (Wikipedia)

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