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Public employee unions, thoughts on teacher pay

Recent comments on this page from readers (they continue this week) about unionized government employees prompt one to ask how we got to this point.

As we enter an age of shrinking public revenues amid calls for a drastic reduction in the role of government in our republic, we find ourselves debating over whether governors should be trying to bust up public employee unions, or greatly reduce their power to hold taxpayers hostage.

Remember that FDR himself, the patron saint of intrusive government, declared that public workers should never be allowed to form unions. Such a system is fatally flawed, reasoned this liberal icon, because public unions aren’t really bargaining with management.

FDR was fine with private sector unions, except when they threatened national security, and reasonable people concur that, despite the corruption endemic at the leadership level, labor unions cleaned up a lot of messes in the private sector.

The natural tension at the bargaining table when representatives of the workers meet with management representing industry owners and stockholders carries with it a certain grudging honesty.

When public employees bargain with agency management who are also paid by public funds, guess who’s not at the bargaining table?

You guessed it; the taxpayers.


So we get to the crux of the current debate. Can we, or should we, tolerate public union contracts replete with unrealistically early retirement dates, virtually no fund pay-in by employees compared to the private sector, sweetheart health care plans that also require comparably small pay-ins and work rules that stifle efficiency.

The answer is no, we can’t and shouldn’t.

The reason the debate has heated up on both sides is because government at all levels is broke or, in the case of our own county commission, making up the shortfall using reserves that won’t be there for long.

Public union contracts bloat themselves in good times (and “management” allows it) with lavishness that can’t be tolerated as bad times squeeze the flow of money.

• And in a somewhat related item, we read in last week’s Press that Baker County public school teachers got raises ranging from $300 to $8600 (the latter for the most senior).

Again, the “bargaining” between the teacher union and administration was between two groups of public employees. Granted, many of them are taxpayers, but none have an “arm’s length” position outside the school system.

The average teacher pay in Baker County is $42,701. Beginning pay is $34,168 and a teacher with a bachelor’s degree can max out at $59,000. If they have a master’s, add $2625; a specialist’s degree $3676 and a doctorate $4798.

Not bad.

Some teachers are probably underpaid based on performance; others by contrast are overpaid. But it’s safe to say (and the unions fiercely resist slotting by performance) that Baker County teachers as a group are not underpaid.

Those of us in private business know very well what the market demands for workers with degrees, and in many cases that floor is being lowered as the economy struggles. You can bet that won’t be happening to public school teachers.

Granted, teachers put up with a lot of stuff many of us wouldn’t: the bureaucracy, the political correctness, uncontrollable students who can’t be disciplined, the uncaring parents.

But then — and this drives many teachers nuts when it’s mentioned — how many other jobs at that pay level have the summer off, generous holiday breaks and an equally generous smattering of holidays and planning days without the kids?

Teachers should keep this in mind when they calculate where they fit in the labor market. They can argue convincingly the bureaucracy that public education has become is stifling, that many times barriers are placed in their way when it comes to efficient use of their time. They can argue they are unappreciated, particularly by parents who contribute little themselves to support the system. They can argue they aren’t respected by society as “front line troops” preparing children for life.

But they can’t argue convincingly they are underpaid.

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