As was the case prior to the last election, the Hilliard Education Association (HEA) – the union representing teachers and other certified staff in our school district – invited the candidates for School Board to participate in their process for selecting who the HEA would back in the upcoming election. All three of the EducateHilliard.org candidates – Justin Gardner, Don Roberts, and I – participated in the interviews (here are my comments). Yesterday we all three received letters from the HEA telling us that we would not be getting their support.
Instead, the HEA will be supporting incumbents Andy Teater and Lisa Whiting, plus Chris Courtney, the candidate supported by the Hilliard Democratic Party.
Let's remember that this time next year our School Board will be engaged in negotiating a new labor agreement with the HEA as well as the classified staff union, OAPSE Local #310. The outcome of that negotiation will be heavily influenced by who sits on the School Board, and the unions are not going to let that be left up to chance. They picked these three people because this is who they want to be negotiating with – not Justin, Don and me.
Here's one thing I want to be clear about: WE ARE NOT ANTI-UNION. Unions play an important and valuable role in our society by giving workers the strength of numbers when negotiating – even demanding – better compensation and working conditions. I grew up in a blue collar family in West Virginia, perhaps one of the most unionized states in our country, with some of the most dangerous occupations. I have no doubt that the prosperity enjoyed by my generation was facilitated by the struggles of our union forefathers.
However, that doesn't mean the unions should get whatever they want. The historic role of the union is to level the table when negotiating with the ownership of a company. Instead of being indentured servants of the powerful coal mine operators, the union leaders could sit down at the bargaining table knowing that until the owner and the union came to a compromise, no one was going to make any money. It is a kind of economic "mutually assured destruction," and the stakes run high, as do emotions. The "mine wars" in Mingo County WV were just that – not a euphemism, but a real war in which people died.
The risk to the owner is that the customers will find other suppliers if the work stoppage lasts too long. The risk to the union members is that the owner will find another way to make money, and just shut down the business. For both parties, a work stoppage is generally a bad thing.
The situation is fundamentally different when the employer is a public entity. For one thing, there is no "owner" per se. The organization is by definition an entity operated for the common good of the people, who are represented by a School Board elected from the members of the community. There is no profit objective, and the money being put on the table is that of the people, not the Board's. And it's a lot of money – to the tune of $140 million per year and growing rapidly.
On the other side of the bargaining table are the unionized workers – or more precisely, their union officers. They will be joined by professional negotiators from the state organization, the Ohio Education Association.
The process is, by design, an adversarial one. The School Board, representing the people, take a position of wanting to spend less on employees, while the union leaders, representing their membership, will want to get more. A give-and-take process follows until the parties find a mutually acceptable answer.
Here's where labor negotiations in private industry are radically different than those between School Boards and teachers: the teachers get to hold the kids of our community hostage. If the town steel mill shuts down during a strike, everyone's kids still get to go to school. If the teachers go on strike, the kids get hurt – particularly those in high school, many of whom are getting prepared to compete for a spot in college.
And so we have this situation where parents of school age children are almost frenzied to make sure the schools stay in session and the teachers are happy, to the point that just about any levy on the ballot, regardless of size, will get their support. Anyone who offers any criticism of the status quo is immediately branded an enemy of the state – because such is person is perceived to be a threat to their children. I understand this completely. I have voted in favor of every single levy that has been on the ballot for precisely this reason.
But we have been led to a dangerous place, and both our School Board and the union leaders are complicit. This dangerous place is one where critical decisions are being made on emotion rather than reason. It is this way not because the people of our community are irrational, but rather because the only thing they have to go on is hearsay and emotion.
That is the fault of our school leadership. For nearly a decade, I have recommended to our School Board that they get ahead of this looming crisis, starting with the creation of a program of community education about school economics, of which labor relations plays a large part. There have been at best feeble attempts (e.g. the ACT Committee and the Treasurer's Committee), with no real impact.
Once the smart and talented people of our community have a better handle on how school economics work, then we can have an informed and rational conversation with the teachers about compensation. Just as diplomacy is better than war, a rational and empathetic conversation between the people of our community and the teachers is better than a strike.
But just as we cannot say that our country will never go to war regardless of the threat, we can't say the School Board will never press issues of great importance to the point of a teacher strike.
So it's up to you – the people of Hilliard – to decide whether you want your representatives on the school board to be those chosen by the teachers' union, or by independent thinkers who understand the proper role of our School Board.