Thursday, February 24, 2011

Some Perspective on Teachers Unions

Jonah Goldberg has an article up at NRO, "Public Unions Must Go." In it, he compares the rough origins of the private-sector labor unions with their public counterparts:
Traditional, private-sector unions were born out of an often-bloody adversarial relationship between labor and management. ... Day-to-day life often resembled serfdom, with management controlling vast swaths of the miners’ lives. Before unionization and many New Deal–era reforms, Washington had little power to reform conditions by legislation.

Government unions have no such narrative on their side. Do you recall the Great DMV Cave-in of 1959? How about the travails of second-grade teachers recounted in Upton Sinclair’s famous schoolhouse sequel to The Jungle? No? Don’t feel bad, because no such horror stories exist.

Well, actually those horror stories do exist. You just have to go back to the Depression (or earlier) to find them.

My father, James C. Adell, was one of the founding members of the Cleveland Teachers Union, which affiliated with the CIO(?) in the 50's. According to his biography, Cleveland teachers faced challenges when the school board ran short of money:
"He returned [from a summer session at Teacher's College] to John Hay High School in September, 1932 to face a salary cut of 15 percent for all teachers."
Apparently, Mr. G. A. Gesell, the finance director of the Cleveland schools, was working at reducing the school debt, in part by short-changing the teachers.

Daddy was prevented from giving a speech at the 1932 Thanksgiving Convention of the Central Association of Science and Mathematics Teachers. It ended up on the front page of the Cleveland Press instead, thanks to Scripps-Howard Science Editor (and friend) David Dietz:
"There is a move under way to wreck the American schools and to curtail the opportunities for education which previously have been considered the right of every American child.

"Schools in many parts of the United States have not opened this year. Many Ohio schools did not open. Many others are operating only three days a week.

"Teachers who invested thousands of dollars in university graduate courses, teachers who have acquired higher degrees and spent their whole lives improving their technique of teaching, now find themselves out of jobs. Many teachers are still waiting for their salaries. Pay cuts have been universal.

"Unless the teachers take action, they will be made the goats of the depression. The earnest advocates of the curtailment of American education will get their way unless the teachers who are interested in education, and the ordinary citizens of the nation who are interested in getting their children educated, unite for political action. For this convention, saving the schools is more important that improving techniques."
Earlier in the bio came this tidbit:
"Saturday, February 25, 1933, Adell deposited his salary check at the Cleveland Trust Co. Rumors of banks closing started mild runs on the banks. Monday, February 27, the Cleveland banks limited withdrawals on all accounts to 5 per cent and the Guardian Bank allowed only 1 per cent. Wednesday, March 1, 1933, Adell's salary check was returned from the bank. Thursday, March 2, 1933, he could not get his salary check cashed any place. Money stopped circulating. ... For his March salary, Adell received $137.79."
In a letter he wrote to department store executives on April 10, 1933, he put it stark terms:
"As compared with our salaries of last March, in this March pay the teachers received [42.5 cents] on the dollar -- a reduction in our purchasing power of [57.5%]. ... The school teachers accepted a 15 per cent cut last fall without a murmur. But this drastic and uncalled for cut in March has made the teachers desperate and has undermined out efficiency for public service."
One story I heard growing up was that at some point, the teachers were paid in scrip when the school board's cash ran low, while the unionized janitors were paid in cash. To my father, that seemed immensely unfair.

My mother was a teacher in the Louisville, Kentucky, schools during this period. They never had the cash flow problems that Cleveland did. My parents agreed to disagree about whether unionizing teachers was good for the profession. (Looking at the debacle in Wisconsin, I'd say most of her predictions have come true.)

Mother also related that at the gala celebrating the affiliation with the CIO(?) in the 50's, there was zero recognition given to those who had founded the union (Local 279 of the American Federation of Teachers) two decades before. After that, he started voting Republican!