WHEN SHOULD SELF INTEREST yield to civic duty? Let’s rule out sudden acts of civilian heroism and put aside those who risk their lives on a daily basis in the military, where a commitment to public duty above all else is part of the job description. Consider instead ordinary working people asked to decide between selflessness and selfishness when their jobs are at stake. How clear is that line?
That question has come up a lot recently in the public sector as well as private industry, as teachers have faced requests by school boards desperately seeking to keep a lid on property taxes, and the state has struggled to cope with a deficit unlike any in modern memory.
The choices seem stark enough; administrators at the top say to workers: Give up some benefits or wages or else we’ll cut jobs… a lot of jobs. In previous years it made sense for unionized workers to call management’s bluff. Layoffs in schools and government agencies meant bad press, reductions in service and, in some cases, a loss of campaign contributions. Sometimes voters punished the people at the top for going too far.
But the situation has changed now, with the woeful economy causing about two-thirds-of-a-million workers to lose their jobs each month nationwide. Predictions for a turnaround in job growth don’t look very good either, with experts generally agreeing that the job losses will continue at this rate through the end of this year. So how could anyone not want to work out a deal that would help colleagues keep their jobs, even if it means sharing a little hardship?
Not everybody gets a choice. In private industry, when workers don’t agree to concessions, management can and does lock the doors. But government works on different principles. A school district, for example, cannot decide it no longer will educate children. And while a school board can increase class sizes, eliminate courses and do away with sports, board members take such steps at their political peril.
The Hudson and Taconic Hills school boards are among those looking to reduce their personnel costs even though the federal stimulus package has given all districts some breathing room for the next school year. In both cases, school officials have proposed that teachers give back some of what they have gained in contract negotiations. In Hudson, the teachers don’t appear willing to agree. In the Taconic Hills district, the mood among teachers at a recent school board meeting was wary at best.
As a taxpayer, I want the teachers to get a grip on reality. No one teaching today has lived through economic times as troubled as these. Current contracts were negotiated under very different circumstances, and teachers, who are also citizens and taxpayers, take a big risk if they refuse to help districts through this rough period.
The public typically directs its displeasure at school boards and administrators when spending gets out of hand. But if teacher unions act as if their members are somehow exempt from the current crisis, they will weaken the credibility of the union and the natural good will people have for teachers. That erosion of support in the long term will make it easier for boards to cut jobs and benefits.
But boards and administrators get no free pass on this either. If teachers in a bargaining unit show a reluctance to make concessions on their wages and benefits, it probably has a lot to do with trust. Why give up something you have unless you’re sure the board has wrung out all the other, less significant costs in the budget? And it may also reflect how teachers have been treated by the administration: Do they get respect? Are they part of the policy-making process? And speaking of people who might consider themselves exempt from recessionary pressures: Who ever heard of a schools superintendent voluntarily taking a pay cut?
We urge teachers and their union leaders to consider wage and benefit concessions if those losses are the only alternative to lowering standards and laying off faculty. At the same time the rest of us should keep in mind that teachers are the people who protect the next generation from repeating our worst mistakes. If they don’t have confidence that school officials will make fair decisions about their future, it isn’t the teachers who are at fault.