Douglas County, CO teachers union - school district negotiations without violence

Wage and benefit contract negotiations last week between the Douglas County, Colorado School District and the American Federation of Teachers was expected to be disrupted in a show of union force.  It wasn't.

COLORADO SPRINGS, June 3, 2012 – Attending a public negotiating session one afternoon last week between the Douglas County, Colorado school district administration and the American Federation of Teachers Union was an eyeopener that revealed union attitudes.

It was not really a school board meeting; rather, it was a formal negotiation open to the public. Despite what one might expect from the spectacle of the teachers’ unions in Wisconsin, this was not a destructive free-for-all.

Rumor had it that unions were going to bus in hundreds of supporters from outside the district to disrupt proceedings. It did not happen. The meeting was orderly and cordial on all sides.  Warned about a potential large turnout, the meeting was moved to the gym of the Douglas County High School in Castle Rock. There were about a half dozen or so police present. Although it was almost boring at times, it was very revealing of union attitudes.

The local union members showed up in purple T-shirts and collected themselves at the north building for a march (or walk) together to the gym in the south building. They arrived relatively close to start time and so about forty were held outside the capacity-filled auditorium.

I’ve noticed a propensity for unionists to gather together in groups, identify with T-shirts and wait to be led by a leader. I shouldn’t be surprised. Their T-shirts were emblazoned on the front with “I make a difference every day.” Indeed they do, but I couldn’t help wondering what the nature of that difference was.

A couple of things in the negotiations stood out to me.

The first was the opening series of questions by a high school journalism teacher on the union side directed at the treasurer for the school district. He grilled her about capital expenditures, especially about why they were so high. She explained that some, at least, of the numbers were due to reclassification of funds caused by the way the state mandates reporting.

I wondered why he was so interested in the details. I couldn’t help wondering: was he looking for piggy banks to raid? Later, it was confirmed to me that this was exactly the case.

The second impression was about teacher pay. A young woman on the union side was very interested in the pay levels of new hires. Douglas County is moving toward market-based pay and pay for performance. She wanted to be sure that new hires would not get more than existing teachers. A teacher sitting next to me nodded approvingly at her questioning.

Playing out right in front of me was the nature of unionism and socialism: greed and envy. Surely that was the case here as the union sought to forward the interests of existing union members as against new hires.

Union support for “career ladders” would, no doubt, start the new hires right at the bottom regardless of prior teaching experience. This is not good for the new teachers but is also bad for existing ones: they are now stuck with the school district they have accumulated time with, for to move on means losing seniority and starting over again at the bottom.

There appeared to be some “suspended” bonus money not yet paid out and the union negotiator wanted to ensure that it was paid out evenly across the board. No reward for good performance apparently.

Consider how unionism plays out with two professions: teaching and information technology. The former is unionized; the latter is not. In fact, in the school district I worked for, teaching was considered a true “profession” requiring certification and all the usual guild-like qualifications.

Information technology, on the other hand, was simply a “classified” position on par with janitors, cooks, and bus drivers. I was certified to do substitute teaching. I was also trained, although not certified, in information technology. The vice principal at first thought that I might not want to do the IT substitute work because it was, well, lower grade work.

The pay was almost exactly the same and, being a capitalist, I gladly did both as opportunity allowed.

There are a couple of important lessons here. In the school system, where wages, prices and job structures are strictly controlled, information technology and teaching pay the same. When I left teaching to do information technology full time, my salary doubled. My skills were better rewarded and I was encouraged to increase my skill set. No one had to pass laws mandating an ever-increasing set of requirements to force me to continue to improve.

When prices are allowed float via market rates, work is paid according to its value in the market. School districts better able to attract better qualified science and math teachers which are chronically in short supply. Better teachers will be rewarded and all teachers, through competition, will be encouraged to do better.

The truth is that decent working conditions and other past, valid justifications for unionism in America have long been written into law. Today unions kill creativity and innovation, encourage conformity, and reward mediocrity.

Teachers constantly say they want to teach creativity and  critical thinking and to treat each child as an individual. How can they do these things when their profession requires exactly the opposite of them?

“I make a difference every day,” said the T-shirts. What kind of a difference are union teachers making in our children’s lives every day?


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Al Maurer

Al Maurer is a political scientist and founder of The Voice of Liberty. He writes on topics of limited government and individual rights.

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