#332 – Dick Bernard: Part 2. On the treatment of "public servants"

A reader took umbrage at something I said in yesterday’s post on the Wisconsin stand-off at the State Capitol.
The comment was succinct: “Enough of the…bashing [of the power group to which the writer belongs]. Please remove me from your email listing and future emails.” The writer is a prominent actor in the political arena with a lot of influence in the legislature.
I decline to remove the writer from the distribution list. He can delete the messages or mark me as spam.
Initially I was puzzled by what the writer could be reacting to. But as I thought about it today, there were a couple of comments in the previous post which could be interpreted as “bashing” of his constituency.
But I left out of that post most of the rest of the story.
My parents were career public school teachers in the good old days before there was any such thing as “teachers rights”. They were phenomenal people, both of them. No taint of scandal or performance deficiency followed them in their career (excepting my mothers first year as a teacher, in 1929-30, when she was scarcely 19, and several of her country school students were almost her age. She resigned at Christmas time and went home.) Both took their work very seriously. But they were always – always – outsiders.
They, especially my Dad, kept records. As I write, in plain sight in front of me, is a brown folder which contains 67 of their teaching contracts. Four of my mothers contracts in the early 1930s escaped the folder, but all the rest are there. For a total of 71 years they taught public school in numerous places.

Every single one of these contracts was ‘at will’ of the local school board which could decide whether or not to rehire for the following year, whenever it wished. There were even circumstances, in the 1930s, when the tacit agreement was that the contract, even if signed, may not mean anything. They’d be paid if the district had the money. Long and short: every year when they signed their contract, they knew it was for a single year. The next spring they could be let go for any or for no reason whatsoever. Cause didn’t matter. There was no due process. They were well educated migrant workers.
In return for that contract, they did everything that was asked, and more. Dad didn’t like to coach, but sometimes he had to coach because there wasn’t a coach available. Often there were implicit rules that married couples wouldn’t be hired because, together, they made too much money, by community standards. Those community standards required them to do certain things, and not do other things. Sometimes those were in the contract; sometimes not.
By 1948 they had five kids, but could never plan anything for sure past the end of the school year. Perhaps they’d be back; perhaps not.
Those stories don’t appear in the folder in those pieces of paper called Teacher Contracts. The rest of the stories took life through the stories my Dad told me in later years.
They retired with dignity, living in tiny houses and a frugal lifestyle. It took two retirements to survive.
They didn’t complain.
So when I watch the fat cat politicians and others posture in Madison and elsewhere, and watch those union members in the street challenging what lawyers would describe as ‘arbitrary, capricious and unreasonable’ attempts to remove hard fought rights, I side with those folks on the street. They’re fighting for survival.
I don’t really care about the details of the items at issue. That is for the parties themselves to sort out in two-sided collective bargaining.
My parents are long dead. I do wonder how they’d see the situation in Madison these days.
They didn’t bash their school boards. They just moved on, and uprooted we kids each time that happened.
But, unfortunately, plenty of those boards well deserved some bashing….

#331 – Dick Bernard: Part 1. "On, [the public employees of], Wisconsin!"

Thursday afternoon, February 17, we went across the Mississippi River to see a music program at a local suburban St. Paul elementary school. The performers were about a hundred fifth graders, one of whom was our grandson. The audience was classmates from other grades, and the usual assortment of parents, grandparents and others. It was standing room only in the gymnasium.
It was a great program – they always are. Classroom teachers, and all public school employees, on average are genius level when it comes to working with kids. The average civilian would hardly last a day with one-fourth of the students a normal teacher is assigned each and every day. Ditto for those cooks, custodians, secretaries, Principals, etc., etc., etc. Occasional problems? Sure. There are, after all, nearly 50,000,000 kids in those places called “school”.
Thursday we watched one of this large elementary schools music teachers work his magic during the impressively choreographed and timed program with his young charges. Thursday evening the program was repeated.
Teachers – indeed, all school staff – are to be celebrated.
But those same employees are certainly not to be tolerated if they get uppity, and wish to share a tiny bit in the riches of this country.
Across the river, down the road perhaps 300 miles in Madison Wisconsin, at the same time I was listening to my grandson and his classmates, teachers and other public employees were engaging in rarely seen huge protests over an arbitrary attempt to strip them of rights and benefits under the guise of balancing the state’s budget. At this writing, it appears that the employees, with the help of Democrat legislators who literally left the state to prevent the dominant Republicans from achieving a quorum, will manage to at least minimize their losses in the short term, and bring powerful public attention to the problem of attempts to break unions, particularly unionized public workers.
I taught public school (Junior High) for nine years, followed by 27 years of representing unionized public school teachers. Union dues paid my salary and helped fund my private pension. I grew up in a teachers family, and on and on and on. So I am not unbiased when I cheer on those valiant souls who challenged the Wisconsin Governor and hopefully cause he and his slash and burn allies to regret their move (such unanticipated results do occur from time to time.) It’s past time to take a stand.
Public workers are essential to the public good, and not ‘essential’ as defined by those who would wish them to work as, truly, “public servants”.
Many years ago I heard the issue defined well by a colleague: “public employees are the last to reap the benefits of prosperity, and the first to be burdened by the costs of recession.” He was speaking an abiding truth. The public employer gets the leftovers, if there are any, and were anti-union forces to get their way, the good old days of “come to the table and beg” would again become policy.
Probably half of my nine years of teaching were in those “at will” days where the teachers got what the school board wished to give, which usually wasn’t very much.
By happenstance, my career as union staff coincided exactly with the beginning of collective bargaining in my state, and while both sides made mistakes that first year nearly 40 years ago, and later, we did learn, and collective bargaining has worked reasonably well ever since.
Actually, it would work even better for ALL parties, including the public, were the bargaining playing field opened to include all of the abundant issues which face public education, but managers are afraid of bogey-men that exist in their “minds eyes” about allowing practitioners to – horrors – have a say in education policy.
Get rid of bargaining? Honest managers would agree that unions bring stability to employer-employee relations generally. I know. I did the work, and I know people who worked on the other side of the table back then.
I applaud those courageous workers who when faced with an arrogant challenge by a wet-behind-the-ears new Governor took to the streets and made the national news.
May they be an example to their colleagues everywhere.
The writer taught junior high school geography from 1963-72; and from 1972 to the end of his career in 2000 was field representative for the Minnesota Education Association/Education Minnesota. A career long primary interest has been positive relationships between public schools and the public at large. In addition to this blog site, he retains a site with ideas for better public school engagement with the non-school community. You can access it here.