By Vincent Carroll
The Douglas County Federation of Teachers is approaching its PATCO moment. That’s when it discovers that the other side is utterly serious and that the ground beneath it has begun to give way.
When more than 12,000 members of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Association walked off the job in August 1981, Ronald Reagan issued an ultimatum that some observers thought was a bluff. He gave PATCO members 48 hours to get back to work or be fired.
And the nation quickly learned he meant it.
To be sure, the Dougco union is nothing like the muscle-flexing lawbreaker that PATCO became. Indeed, nothing would make this union happier than the survival of the status quo. However, the board isn’t about to tolerate the status quo, and the union contract expires on June 30.
Board members don’t like the fact that the district serves as a collection agency for union dues, a major part of which are siphoned off to the union’s national headquarters. There they are used to stifle school choice and other reforms as well as shore up the Democratic Party.
They don’t like having an exclusive bargaining unit that has become increasingly hostile to the district’s agenda even though that agenda has been endorsed by voters in two elections, including last November.
They don’t like paying salaries of union officials who aren’t in the classroom, or listing them as employees so they’ll be eligible for a public pension.
They want to base teacher salaries more on performance and market demand — paying a premium for hard-to-find specialists, for example — not on longevity in the classroom or advanced degrees that don’t seem to correlate with better outcomes.
Not only does the board appear united on these and other goals, its members actually seem resolved to push them through as well.
If so, the union has two unappealing options. It can agree to the list, in which case it will wield much less clout in the future, no longer speak for all teachers, and probably represent a shrinking membership.
Or it can reject them, in which case its days could well be numbered.
Indeed, union officials may already have sized up their predicament, because they recently offered concessions that would have been unthinkable not long ago.
Board president John Carson tells me, for example, that at last Friday’s negotiations the union agreed the district could stop deducting dues from teacher paychecks and reimbursing the union.
When Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and that legislature eliminated automatic dues withholding, public unions “experienced a dramatic drop in membership,” according to The Wall Street Journal. So this concession by the Dougco union was huge.
Unfortunately, Carson added, the union “wants to reserve the right to sue us” over the change — a reservation he says is a deal breaker.
Carson isn’t issuing threats. He says too much has been made of the June 30 deadline and that “we’re not closing the door on negotiations if we think they’ll be productive.” But he doesn’t seem inclined to get wobbly, either.
To be sure, teacher unions are hardly the primary reason for this nation’s K-12 education woes, and there is no intrinsic reason they should be part of the problem at all. But the fact is they often are. For decades, they have chosen to resist valuable reforms, from charter schools in the 1990s to more recent attempts to revise tenure and seniority privileges and to include student performance in teacher evaluations.
If the Dougco district wishes to experiment with more innovative and potentially productive ways of delivering education, it will no doubt find the transition easier without a reactionary union habitually digging in its heels.
And incredibly enough, the district may not have one by the start of the next school year.
E-mail Vincent Carroll at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @vcarrollDP.