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Sunday, March 21, 2010

FROM WALLINGFORD Teacher layoffs - paradigm shift

This week’s edition of FROM WALLINGFORD was written by my counterpart Stephen Knight

As published in the Record Journal - Sunday March 21, 2010

“We must hang together, gentlemen … else, we shall most assuredly hang sepa­rately.” — Benjamin Franklin

If the Connecticut Education Association (aka: teacher’s union) had that as its credo, the substantial layoffs in the Wallingford school system that are loom­ing might be avoided, But, alas, layoffs are being touted as the only possible way to address the town’s budget shortfall for the coming year. The suggestion to reopen the contract between the CEA and the BOE, and thus avoid these devastating dislocations to so many lives, has been dismissed by union leadership. They will have none of it.

Why is that? Well, there are two reasons that they are unable to bring themselves to doing so: 1) they have never had to, and 2) there is too much else at stake. This is not, mind you, a condemnation of the CEA. Far from it. This is just a picture of the reality that has been constructed over a long period of time, a pathway that they walk that has been built stone by stone over many decades.

First of all, neither the union nor the government has ever faced quite so stark a situation. It has become obvious to most of us that the taxpayer base is plain tapped out. Up until now, for as long as any of us can remember, contract negotia­tions have gone like this: The two sides meet. The town says “We have no money.” The union says “You’ll find it.” They talk. They come to an agreement. The union goes to its members and says “we fought hard and got you this.” The town goes to the taxpayers and says “you’re lucky it wasn’t more.” Everybody stays put. Taxes go up. Everybody moves on. Today negotiations are like this: The two sides meet. The town says “We’re $4 million short. We can’t raise taxes. The state is cutting our funds. We need to talk.” The union responds “You always say that. We have a contract.” The town says “But really. Something has to give.” The union responds “We feel your pain, but we have a contract and we aren’t touching it.” The town says “But people will lose their jobs.” The union responds “If we re­open the contract once, we’ll be doing it forever. No can do.” In other words, they have no idea of how to surmount this ob­stacle, and even their legal advisers are telling them: better to throw forty teach­ers under the bus than to risk setting a precedent you will have to live with in the future. It seems counterintuitive to the stated goals of unionism, but that is the re­ality.

Which brings me to my second point: Unions are no different from any other or­ganization. While the mission statement may say otherwise, the number one goal of the union is survival of the organiza­tion, the same as it is for The March of Dimes, the Red Cross, the US Army or Microsoft. In this case, the union has made a choice that its bargaining position for the future will be irreparably harmed if it concedes to renegotiate its contract with the town. As much as they regret it — and I truly believe that their leadership does regret it — they see these laid off members as casualties that have to be borne for the long term protection of the union’s position.

There will be more dislocation to fol­low. There is a paradigm shift taking place in our economy here in the 21st century, and our comfortable and familiar 20th century methods of coping with these shocks to our system are obviously inade­quate. These forty are a testament to that fact.

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