Union busting won't help: Pennsylvania's problem is shortsighted politicians

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One would have to go back to Pennsylvania Gov. John Fisher, who ruled the state from 1927 to 1931 on behalf of the coal and steel barons, to find a state leader as anti-union as Gov. Tom Corbett. His efforts to starve and privatize public education and collapse public transportation while shielding gas interests from reasonable taxation and adequate health, safety and zoning regulation are stunningly bold. Once the teacher and transit unions are broken, can construction unions and state workers be far behind?

The governor's prescription for Allegheny County's transit crisis is to demand that workers who have already made numerous concessions take a knife to their union contract with no guarantee that any further sacrifice will trigger governmental relief. In this tactic, he is following the national Republican playbook to blame workers for the nation's economic ills. While the poor get poorer, the middle class gets squeezed; the irresponsible wealthy whose actions precipitated the crisis get richer and more powerful.

In this context, the heartfelt cry of leaders of three of Pittsburgh's most prestigious and progressive foundations to "protect our best teachers" in the city schools (Post-Gazette Forum, April 29) is the product of either naivete or bad faith.

While the authors pour honey on the teachers union's past efforts to cooperate with the school district, they go for the jugular by targeting "antiquated laws" that require layoffs by seniority. They focus on seniority as the root of the problem while passing lightly over the "cuts in funding for urban schools such as Pittsburgh's" that they themselves describe as "so deep that the very bones of education bear the marks." They might more usefully direct their attention toward the forces doing the bone cutting.

The fact is that transportation, education, health care and other essential services are under the gun because of an inequitable system that lays the burden of government on the middle class and poor. Giant nonprofits escape taxation entirely, and two-thirds of Pittsburgh's workers live outside the city and contribute little to its public transportation and schools. Private corporations shed crocodile tears over tax rates that are high in theory but contain so many loopholes that many of the largest pay little or nothing.

Meanwhile, the right-wing media beats up on bus drivers who make $50,000 or teachers with master's and higher degrees who make $70,000 as if these workers are responsible for the decline of the republic. The respected foundation executives would do well to look higher up on the food chain for the source of our problems.

Gov. Corbett prefers privatized for-profit charter schools where most teachers earn $25,000 to $30,000, drill students in test-taking to show "progress" and are at-will employees able to be terminated for good reason, bad reason or any reason. These schools are hardly incubators for citizenship.

In response to the foundation leaders, William Hileman of the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers provided a reasoned defense for seniority. The central rationale is to protect workers "against racial, gender and other biases in employment decisions. ... Giving employers unchecked power to pick and choose who stays and who goes infuses bias and subjectivity into layoff decisions."

In the 1930s, mostly female Pittsburgh teachers were lorded over by male principals. Teachers were terminated for getting pregnant. They were even fired for getting married!

The seniority system is far from perfect, but the union does not do the hiring. The union does have an obligation to insist that due process and fairness operate when someone is terminated for cause or lack of funding.

One way that some unions have responded to layoffs is by job-sharing, where more-senior workers voluntarily go on partial unemployment to spare younger workers from complete severance of employment. However, for the union to be targeted for attack by presumably well-meaning and powerful people without regard for the misguided ideological rationale that is the root of the crisis is unwarranted.


Charles McCollester is a retired professor of Industrial and Labor Relations at Indiana University of Pennsylvania and author of "The Point of Pittsburgh: Production and Struggle at the Forks of the Ohio" (cmccollester@verizon.net). First Published May 8, 2012 12:00 AM


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