Teachers and Autoworkers — Connecting the Dots

I was heartened to read Bob Herbert’s column ( link included below) in today’s New York Times in which he compares the plight of American teachers and the public perception of the American Federation of Teachers to the plight of the auto workers and the perception of the UAW. I have often thought about these two groups of working Americans who have been vilified by the so called liberal press and demonized by the American public. By juxtaposing the situations of American public school teachers and American autoworkers, Herbert exposes the dangers of blaming these workers for the economic downturn and the consequences for all of us if we insist that they alone bear all of the weight through unreasonable concessions.

American teachers have been called lazy, unqualified and caring only about our bottom lines ( as if that’s a crime!!!) by the likes of Michelle Rhee and corporate cronies who want to take over public schools and run them like businesses ( another great idea — see Wall Street — Why is it okay for then to think about their bottom lines?)

I have been trying to express my consternation at the ways in which the auto workers are being hauled over the coals for being greedy enough to demand job security and health care when executives and investors in the industry expect and and take ridiculously high dividends, salaries, bonuses?

Herbert compares the plight of the workers themselves — teachers who spend their own money on materials the system doesn’t supply, who take students on field trips on the week-ends, who stay up past mid-night every night preparing lessons for and grading papers of over 165 students ( 5 classes of 33 students each) — and auto workers who labor in factories their entire adult lives only to be told to get off their “high horses” when they demand health care and job security. Why, Herbert asks, are ordinary working Americans like teachers and auto workers expected to make the largest sacrifices during an economic downturn which is hurting them more directly than it’s hurting the executives and investment bankers in their respective abilities to take care of their families and secure their futures.

In the column Herbert goes on to discuss the concessions that unions must make, particularly in these difficult times and I find myself agreeing with this also.
Years ago, my colleagues and I were stymied in our efforts to institute real school reform in Philadelphia because the union leadership refused to budge on seniority rights in staffing. The union has since moved away from this pig-headed position of the mid-nineties to one of supporting site selection of staff — but not until many of the successful small schools within a school that were established in the 1990’s collapsed because they were forced to accept the appointment of teachers who did not wish to work as part of a team. Through it all, I never lost faith in the union – just its antiquated and short sighted leadership.

In the piece Herbert focuses on AFT’s president Randi Weingarten’s defense of teachers as hard working, dedicated people who make personal sacrifices for their students. But he also notes her willingness to make concessions about tenure, teacher assignment and merit pay. He goes on to make the comparison to AUW’s president Ron Gettelfinger and the concessions that his union has already made and the ones that still need to happen. But, and this is the point of his column as I see it — those concessions should only happen within a context in which all parties — executives, investors, suppliers, dealers etc — adjust their expectations for compensation and profit as well.

Do we really want to blast American workers out of the middle class?

Why is it for instance that the media finds it untenable that people who labored on assembly lines for 35 years of their lives have health care when they retire? Would it be more American if as Herbert writes, “after 30 or 35 years on the assembly line, those retirees had been considerate enough to die prematurely in poverty, unable to pay for the medical services that could have saved them?” While I applaud Herbert’s shining a light on this incongruity, I don’t think he goes far enough in pointing out the hypocrisy — no — the absurdity of expecting the auto workers to pay the greatest price for the failure of the auto industry, while the executives have earned obscenely high pay and bonuses.

There will be no fair concessions in any union contract without a public appreciation not only for the work that teachers and auto workers do, but the contributions we make to the stability of our communities.

Thank you Bob Herbert for connecting the dots in this increasingly complex picture.

A Race to the Bottom by Bob Herbert
New York Times Op-Ed Page
December 23, 2008

Marsha Pincus

Marsha Pincus is a post-mid life woman, riding the Age Wave and writing for her life.

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  1. I, also, was so very taken with Herbert’s comments in the NY Times today. I have been waiting, waiting for someone to say this in a very public forum. I think you have further connected the dots, as workers continue to take the heat for the disaster that was propelled by the top and teachers take the heat for under funded schools for poor children, and, increasingly, are not even given the respect we once felt when we had some responsibility (and excitement) for developing curriculum and assessment for students we knew well.

  2. This is a wonderful comparison; hauntingly accurate. Thanks for pointing it out. Social change is happening at such a fast pace these days that I often find myself taking time to keep track.
    I used to think that all the finger pointing in education shifted every decade or so. First teachers, then students, then parents, then administrators. Not sure any more. Teachers are so vulnerable in more ways than I’d first imagined. Especially from those who have never been in the classroom. I once got bashed from a Ph.d candidate (with 3 years teaching experience) who observed on and off for one semester. I don’t expect everyone to understand or agree with everything I do or say, but they sure as hell should be willing to talk to me about it. I’d like to think my 33 years means something. Apparently not. Bottom line for me is to ask deep questions about what it means to be educated.
    Studs Terkel found out in his book Working that a person’s work is their identity. We’re creating a nation of people who have no idea who they are.

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