Yesterday, the Chicago Public School teachers walked out of the classroom after union leaders rejected a deal affecting salary/benefit increases and work commitments. The Chicago labor union, representing the third largest school district in America, turned down a deal that offered (only!) a 16% pay raise, increased health benefits, but required teacher evaluations to play a more central role in the determination of teachers’ performance and job security.
Aside from the walk-out turning more that 350,000 Chicago school-aged kids loose in a city that has seen crime/homicide rates rising drastically (check out this neat little site that allows you to check to see if there has been a murder near your house recently) and spontaneous flash mobs terrorize local businesses , an overlooked issue is the role that public sector unions should play the bargaining table at all.
There is nothing wrong with groups of workers coming together to use their collective voices to petition their employer for various changes, but it another story completely when these groups of workers use the strong arm of the government to gain considerable leverage in these negotiations. One of the most fundamental principals of a free society is the freedom to associate and contract with whomever you would like, and this fundamental principle does not suddenly disappear when one decides to start a business.
Leaving aside what this means for the political advantages that private sector unions have at the negotiating table, we should certainly question the very existence of public sector unions. When contract disputes arise in the private sector union employees sit across the table from management (that is from those who interest and money is at stake in the potential outcome). However, when public sector unions collectively “bargain” they are not sitting across the table from those who are ultimately responsible for the company’s cash flow (ie. the tax payers), and instead are sitting across the table from government officials, many of whom were elected with the financial and vocal support of the unions in the first place. They system inherently creates a conflict of interests. Given this system of “negotiations” it should be no surprise that the Chicago teachers already receive total compensation of $72,000 per year (plus benefits), vastly more lucrative than their private school counterparts.
However, perhaps the most important point here is the futility of government programs and their disconnect from achieving actual results. In private schooling, teachers are held responsible for the amount of learning that takes place within the classroom. In my short tenure as a private high school teacher I saw multiple teachers relieved of their jobs for failing to meet the school’s expectations. The school’s revenue depended upon families (the customers) truly valuing the education they were receiving for their money (the product). Government schools face no such considerations. Funds to run the school are taxed (which is a nice way to put ‘coercively extorted’) from the public and face no market forces in determining the best allocation of these resources. As such, we have a system that is constructed to benefit the teachers with lucrative salaries, while leaving the students in the wake of an abysmal academic track record (21% of 8th graders are proficient in reading and a 60% graduation rate, to give just two alarming statistics). Robert Wenzel of EconomicPolicyJournal.com put it best:
No one in their right mind would pay for what these teachers offer, if it wasn’t taxed away from them and funneled through the crony bureaucracy. If the coercion wasn’t there, there wouldn’t be a taxpayer in (Chicago) that would turn over a penny to these government hustlers.
While this situation is deplorable, negotiating ‘more reasonable’ contracts or ‘compromising’ on a middle ground solution is not the answer. The system, and the power structures that it creates, are at the heart of this mess in Chicago, and in other municipalities across the country.