Here’s the thing: I believe in unions. I’m not supposed to say that for a number of good reasons. But I think I might be over that now, being free to say the following.
The anti-union legislation now making its way toward passage in our state legislature is not only mean-spirited and unnecessary, but it’s the worst kind of shallow, cynical politics that this shallow, cynical country can produce.
Many of you disagree, but it’s quite clear to me that unions in general, and teachers’ unions in particular, are merely a convenient and nearly defenseless scapegoat for a group of politicians that is amoral. This is a group with the power to make decisions that can adversely affect the lives of millions of people, yet it considers more how those decisions affect its own members — or rather its members’ re-election campaigns — to either maintain or increase their power and its attendants.
That is politics, yes. But it’s also a decent clinical description of a sociopath.
I do not for one second believe that Republicans in the state legislature believe their rhetoric about teachers’ unions. In saying that I’m being generous to them, because if they did believe it, they’d be as gullible and incapable of critical thinking as they present themselves to be. Consider that for a second now, and then again after you finish reading how virtually every bit of factual information in this “debate” over unions has been distorted by officeholders currently waging a political war.
I’m a reporter. I can’t even say any of the above aloud under normal circumstances, let alone write it for publication, but there it is. I’d offer my letter of resignation, but I’m a freelancer, and I can’t resign from my non-job.
I’m also from Michigan, and that means I grew up believing that the labor movement is either directly or indirectly responsible for many good things, not just greed, graft, corruption, political manipulation, and the widescale theft of billions from public treasuries. Among them: the 40-hour work week; workplace safety regulations; whistleblower protection; some measure of dignity for people who work for a living; and more or less creating the American middle class. But then again, I was brainwashed. I’m sure if I were from Tennessee, I would know that Davy Crockett did most of that.
The last and best reason for me to believe in unions is that my wife, Jenny, who is by far the breadwinner in our home — somehow managing to outshine the $7,159 I pulled in last year by a factor of, let’s say, a lot — is herself a Metro Nashville Public Schools teacher, and thus, the current target of choice for the state GOP’s campaign of folksy divisiveness and arbitrary, albeit maybe focus-grouped, derision. (Or at least she’s one of a select few that includes women, non-Christians — especially Muslims and to a slightly lesser degree seculars — poor people, sick people, children unless they’re not born yet, the whole LGBT spectrum, all immigrants except the ones from business-y countries, and anyone uncomfortable with the idea of being armed all of the time. I think that covers the big ones.)
Jenny is also the Metro Nashville Education Association’s union rep for Cameron Middle School. She’s why I recuse myself from labor-issue stories, or for that matter school-issue stories, almost every time I’m asked. Strangely, then, she’s the reason I’m writing about them now.
State Rep. Debra Maggart introduced HB 130/SB 113 — which will abolish teacher unions’ collective bargaining rights, rendering the Tennessee Education Association and its locals like the MNEA essentially useless — at the beginning of this session. Soon after, the legislature began considering bills that would remove TEA representation on the pension board, make it illegal for public employee unions to collect payroll dues, and ban union contributions to political candidates — even though there’s been little talk of bans for similar member-advocacy organizations like, say, chambers of commerce. And let us not forget Rep. Glen Casada’s bill that would allow for unlimited corporate donations to Tennessee political campaigns.
A loss of bargaining rights will leave Jenny with nothing between her and lower wages, a reasonable pension and health care contribution, and undoubtedly, wide-scale layoffs at some point.Nothing, that is, save some good luck that a bad budget year and some uninformed political whim won’t conspire against her again.
A couple weeks ago, right around when Gov. Bill Haslam’s tenure reform plan passed the Senate — despite the fact that the entire idea depends upon new tenure-making criteria that have yet to be announced, meaning we don’t even have a plan for making it work well — Jenny came home from work, ate dinner and opened a bottle of beer.
“You have no idea what it’s like to get in the car, every day, to and from work, and listen to people in the news trashing your profession,” Jenny said.
Then she broke down. It was maybe 8:30 p.m., less than an hour after she’d gotten home from a day that had begun before 7 a.m.
Jenny had been, for a few days at least, on a sort of high from the March 5 TEA rally at the Capitol, which brought thousands of teachers from around the state and country. Now it looked as though it would be little more than a morale-booster for those members, who’d understandably grown frustrated. Jenny already makes less than half of what some of her college classmates earn. Even if she sticks around for 20 years, that disparity would remain.
And by law, her union can’t even go on strike.
But the underlying theme of her breakdown wasn’t really a fear of losing collective bargaining. It was more that she thought she was doing a good thing becoming a teacher, and she thought other people generally agreed. She loves her job, of course, but it can be very difficult. There are 60-, 70-hour weeks with no overtime pay. She spends all of her alleged free time at work sitting in pointless but mandatory meetings or talking to parents on the phone or helping her kids with one thing or another, which is why most days she sprints to the bathroom when she comes home from work — during the school day, she’s not afforded the minute or two it takes to go to the bathroom.
Then, night after night, she sits at our dinner table, sometimes for hours, doing even more work. Counting that, she makes about $10 per hour by my calculations. Not counting it, a whopping $13, which wouldn’t be too bad if not for the aforementioned college degree.
For all of that, Jenny gets to listen to Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey call her mediocre.
Jenny’s very basic problem, as I took it, was that she stopped believing that people were grateful to teachers, and beyond that were mindful of their interests, or at the very least weren’t particularly interested in demoralizing and terrorizing them more than what’s normal. That isn’t saying that she didn’t know, intellectually, that there were a lot of anti-teacher politicians, even a lot of moral human beings who must have been the ones who voted for them.
But something shifted that night, and on a gut level she got that she was the momentary It, the thing that would be railroaded and marginalized for the sake of some ultimately low-rent gain, another bad deal made by our state government. In this case, it was easier school board negotiations — for the school boards — and another few years of guaranteed travel per diems and black-tie fundraising dinners for the most vitriolic members of the legislature. More importantly, though, she got that a lot of humans were buying into this, and so now there wasn’t much anyone could do.
That all caused a kind of existential crisis chain reaction in the house that ended with me and my work. So when I got an opportunity to abandon some rather prudent rules I’d set up for myself based on years of journalistic obedience, I didn’t hesitate.
Phony popular myths about unions, in particular teachers’ unions, are driving a lot of this furor. Particularly glaring among these are the frequent and bewildering accusations of teacher greed. In a few short years, it seems we’ve gone from making sad jokes about how little money teachers make to suddenly accusing them of making too much. I’ve seen people throw around figures like $60,000 or $80,000 a year. It’s odd — and it’s largely false, at least in this state.
Take a look at the Metro Nashville Public Schools pay schedule. MNPS teachers, college graduates all, start at about $34,000 a year. That’s not so monumental a piece of news as their salary caps, which are $66,000 — a salary about on par with the current U.S. median family income — only after 25 years of experience and a doctorate. Name another career that requires a Ph.D. and 25 years’ experience for that amount of money. I’ll start: Poet. That’s all I can think of.
To compare, according to a February analysis by The New York Times, the average salary of a Tennessee private sector worker with a college degree is $55,000. Since, according to U.S. Census data, less than 8 percent of the population over 25 years old in Tennessee has attained more than a bachelor’s degree, that figure can be read as a measure of B.A. and B.S. degree income. In Memphis City schools, it takes 15 years for a teacher with a bachelor’s to earn that much. In Nashville, the top salary for teachers with a bachelor’s degree is $51,370.
Then, of course, there are pensions — subject of much false accusation by those on the political right.
First, there is what teachers actually receive in yearly pension payments. Luckily the Tennessee Consolidated Retirement System has a pension calculator on its website. So I pretended that I was 65 years old, a 30-year veteran teacher whose salary maxed out at $50,000 (this more or less represents the average teacher retiree, according to TCRS financial reports). Unlike my employing government, for which contributions fluctuate depending on need, I’ve been paying my legally required share of 5 percent gross income — $2,500 average in my highest paid years — regardless of whether TCRS has had a good or bad year. This entitles me to $1,968 per month, or $23,616 per year — not a lot considering how little I’ve likely been able to save on my salary.
Governments, on the other hand, were paying less than 4 percent of their total covered payroll for teacher retirements until 2005, when it increased to 5.5 percent. It’s up to 6.42 percent now, still less than half of government contributions for state employee and higher education pensions, both more than 13 percent.
Political rhetoric would also lead you to believe that the state pension fund — the TCRS, which manages pensions for nearly all public school teachers in the state — is bankrupting us. But the numbers don’t bear that out.
TCRS is among the highest-performing pension funds in the country. According to its annual financial statement, TCRS outperformed 83 percent of similar funds nationwide last year, netting a return of more than 10 percent. This followed two straight years of multibillion-dollar losses, but even that kind of helps my point: Our consistently well-rated pension fund, which is an investment instrument, took some losses on the market. While those losses, and consequently the higher contributions, are unfortunate, it’s an expense that the state has committed itself to, and the state has an obligation to it. I doubt that our fiscally responsible GOP leadership can argue with that sentiment.
The state’s pension contributions have increased from $200 million in 2001 to upwards of $600 million in 2008, before decreasing somewhat in 2009 and 2010, to $578 million. Adding $258 million in local government contributions to that, the total was $836 million from governments versus $250 million from member contributions.
But take a closer look. The state contribution refers to total public dollars going into funding the State Employees, Teachers, and Higher Education Employees Pension Plan, which manages the plan for employees of the state itself, public colleges and universities, and nearly every public school teacher with a pension plan statewide. That funding doesn’t all originate from state tax dollars. For teacher pensions, the state-managed money comes from the local school districts that employ them.
According to a Metro Comprehensive Financial report, last year MNPS spent $21,246,078 on its TCRS contribution, 3.3 percent of its overall budget. And since the MNPS budget is ultimately folded into the overall Metro government budget, this represents only 1.4 percent of the pot.
Metro will spend more this year — $25 million — as part of an incentives package for Omni’s planned convention center hotel. Speaking of which, Metro could be on the hook for up to $40 million per year in payments on the Music City Center debt, more than $600 million in bond issues, not including interest, that use Metro property tax revenues as collateral. A feasibility study by HVS Consulting predicted that Metro’s debt payments would likely be covered by hotel tax revenue increases resulting from new convention center business. It’s probably worth noting that HVS’ analysis predicts a 127 percent increase in convention center-generated hotel room nights by 2017 and uses a rather high figure of $144.62 (2009 dollars) as its per-person hotel room night cost.
If you divide the $578 million the state spent on pensions last year by 76,000 — the number of people currently receiving those pensions — you come out with $7,510 per state-worker pension. About half — 38,117 — of those pension recipients are retired teachers, meaning state government pays out an average of $3,755 per teacher.This isn’t even fair, though, because it fails to take into account the fact that government contributions to teacher pensions — again, at 6.42 percent last year — cost so much less than other pensions.
Last year, the Tennessee Department of Correction paid more than $75 million to fund three prisons — Hardeman County Correctional Facility, Whiteville Correctional Facility and South Central Correctional Facility — run by Diamond Level Campaign Patron the Corrections Corporation of America. Those three prisons reported a combined population of 5,143 prisoners, at a cost of $14,700 per.
To review: That’s $14,700 per medium-security inmate going to a (locally owned!) company that has been sued in each of the 19 states where it operates prisons, and is currently being sued for allegations that guards at its Idaho Correctional Center were running a gladiator school for inmates. But the great moral-fiscal — note that this conflation of morality and fiscality is not the author’s own — danger is the $3,755 per person that governments pay out to help keep 38,000 old teachers alive.
These anti-teacher and anti-union bills will produce, at best, little savings for school districts and the state, but the effect on workers could be devastating.
See, for example, last year’s decision by MNPS to privatize its custodial services, an idea floated by Superintendent Jesse Register, who did the same thing when he worked in Chattanooga. The contractor, GCA Services, let go of nearly every MNPS janitor and reduced wages for those jobs significantly, despite Register’s promises to the contrary on both counts. Also, GCA is known for having hired criminals and sex offenders into schools it contracted for in other cities, an interesting choice for MNPS given that it nearly drained its legal liability account last year losing big-ticket lawsuits. All of that for about $5 million in savings — $5 million that was added to the district’s charter school funding request this year. There are, of course, no teachers’ unions at charter schools.
Of course, every time Tennessee governments, state and local, hand public money over to private business interests, it’s framed as an innovative public-private partnership, not misspent tax dollars. Haslam certainly knows that from his time in Knoxville.
Over the past decade, Knoxville public dollars — in the form of land acquisition, tax abatement and development zone grants (which are really intended for revitalization efforts in very poor neighborhoods) — have gone into a new home for the E.W. Scripps-owned daily newspaper the Knoxville News Sentinel, which the city claims created or retained 543 jobs. Fifty of those were eliminated a few years later, and all suffered significant cuts to benefits and salaries.
That was in 2002, before Haslam. Not to be outdone, the former mayor’s administration smoothed out property acquisition for Scripps Networks’ new Knoxville headquarters. Then there’s his marquee project, the South Waterfront, a condo-developer free-for-all that the city has spent millions on and dedicated millions more in incentives to since it was unveiled in 2006. Nothing’s really happened yet, though, other than Knoxville being sued by one of the waterfront’s lead developers.
I can also get very annoyed with unions in this state. As a group, and most especially the TEA and its locals, they can be quite timid, unwilling to participate in the public debate until the very last moment — when it’s too late, like it might already be now. They seem allergic to press relations, which when public perception is such a big problem, is quite stupid.
I don’t think they made enough of the fact that the collective bargaining bill was drafted by the Tennessee School Boards Association, the very people with whom the union negotiates — which is, to me, a glaring conflict of interest. I don’t think they’ve made enough of the fact that this is all about political patronage: Republicans don’t get money from unions and Democrats do. Bill Ketron himself has admitted that’s what is really driving these anti-union bills.
This should be insulting to Tennessee taxpayers and voters, who are not here to watch public officials take a pre-existing, half-formed prejudice and then attempt to legitimize the myths supporting that prejudice. It is, of course, all the better if the prejudice is against a group with limited power, like unions, which are weak in Tennessee already.
Even better for Ramsey, Ketron and the gang might be unions with a lot of women in them. You’ll notice how much harder this national debate has been on the teachers’ unions as opposed to firefighter or police unions, for instance. It’s hard not to think that there’s an element of, “Well, it’s mostly
secondary incomes anyway. Their husbands will take care of ’em” to all of this.
They do this and call it populism. It’s not. It’s a mob mentality masquerading as populism.
If we are indeed capable of wisdom and perspective, we might be able to wonder whether that’s not a new thing, whether this country’s seen its kind before. And if we’re brutally honest, we might acknowledge that history rarely looks kindly on it — and that history is, at moments like this, ultimately divided into the Right and Wrong sides.
The Wrong side has always been composed of living people who likely don’t realize, in the moment, that their actions and beliefs would one day be judged as bankrupt. At one time you could have asked some of them, ordinary mortal humans like Joe McCarthy or George Wallace, how it feels to have your life worked over like that, your ordinary mortal human actions retold over and over again as the bad guy part in a morality play for so many consecutive years. It would have to be a kind of living hell, made all the worse by the fact that it was the hell nearly everyone thought they deserved.