January 3, 2009

Wherego the Impressions Goes Public Opinion

Justin Katz

Union members and supporters in Rhode Island should contemplate hard where their self-imposed imperatives are placing them in the battle of messages. On their side is a dogged assertion that official processes don't weaken their hand even during financial emergencies:

[Union lawyer John] Leidecker also said state law says districts should adhere to the old contract until a new one is executed, and there aren't exceptions for a fiscal crisis. In addition, he said the committee members' decisions yesterday "further indicates their disdain for the process," particularly the arbitration process, which produced a "fair settlement."

It's understandable that the union would take that line; they've managed, over the years, to hone The Process in their favor, after all. However, regular folk tend to turn against tilted processes when they collide against reality and reason:

Mayor Joseph Larisa said: "East Providence is flat broke. The big labor contract that finally expired was as outrageous as it is unaffordable. Now that the damage has been done, the options left are a crazy 15 to 20 percent property-tax increase against our hard-hit taxpayers, bankruptcy or finally setting reasonable and fair compensation for all school employees. There is no fourth option.
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So at what point do the Taxpayers say enough is enough?

When do the Taxpayers shout down the uninformed Union apologists, the hand-wringers who mindlessly chant "Do it for the Children"?

Why does it have to take a complete financial meltdown before people start to question the utter unfairness and unsustainability of these nut-bag Union contracts?

When will the GA wake up in legislate the requirement that ANYONE receiving taxpayer funded healthcare must pay at least 25% of the cost?

When will the GA pass legislation making RI a Right To Work state?

When will the GA pass Pension Reform requireing minimum age of 65 before collecting a Pension, capping the payouts and preferably moving to Defined Contribution plans where the employee shares in the risk of the market (perhaps maintaining a mimimal Defined Benefit safety-net plan)?

"Tomorrow" would be a nice answer to the above 3 questions. It would then indeed be a Happy New Year.

Posted by: George Elbow at January 3, 2009 10:52 AM

The GA will do those things only when they start losing elections because they don't / won't.

As for the NEARI attorney (who I've met and is actually a nice guy in person) ... parse the words:

"said state law says districts should adhere to the old contract"

I haven't researched so don't know the state of the law in RI on this, but if it is an accurate quote "should" is far different from "must."

Posted by: Tom W at January 3, 2009 11:01 AM

This move is all about getting some run on the talk shows Monday morning (and possibly provoking a strike).
If the teachers are smart, they won't take the bait, or do anything in the classroom to jeopardize the kids' education.
However, the next SC meeting would be the appropriate time to raise some hell, now thta the Marquis of Queensbury rules have just been chucked in the dumpster. Keep the response in an adult forum.

Posted by: rhody at January 3, 2009 11:31 AM

You missed Leidecker's best quote:

“This crew in East Providence makes the management in the auto business look like geniuses. It was their own negligence and malfeasance that caused the [city’s fiscal woes]."

I find it rather ironic that the unions now blame "management", when management's biggest error in both cases (EP and the auto industry) was caving to past demands from the labor unions.

I guess in E.P.'s case, the unions can't understand that you can't get blood from a stone.

Message to Unions: There is NOTHING left. Unemployment is almost at 10% in the state. The Land of Milk and Honey is no more. If you don't like it, then leave and make room for younger teachers who don't cost as much.

Posted by: Anthony at January 3, 2009 11:31 AM

Little beacons of light out there in the darkness. Thank you, East Providence school committee.

This is not just an EP issue. Any Rhode Islander who cares about the future of the state should send a thank you note to the EP school committee and commend their courage.

Posted by: thinkabouit at January 3, 2009 12:15 PM

I don't think that there is a real solution for East Providence in their contract negotiations or any of the cities and towns facing declining revenues. And, I do not think that vouchers are a viable alternative to well funded public schools.

I do think there should be one contract, state-wide, that is negotiated every three years. There should be one school administration. The RI Department of Education is already redundant.

With a state-wide contract, administrative cost savings to school departments alone on legal fees would be enormous. Administrative functions could easily be modeled on any large successful school system in the country.
One contract, statewide, everyone gets the same thing.
Who would benefit? - students, parents of students, teachers, and non-parent taxpayers. Who would not benefit? - school administrators (by reducing their numbers), school vendors (by economy of scale), labor bureaucracies (by eliminating we vs them), labor attorneys (both sides), and school committee members who simply want to control. Throw in some private schools who would lose students to a stronger public school system.

Unfortunately, it is really not in the hands of the teachers, students, parents of students, and non-parent taxpayers. The choice and power to block progress is in the hands of the current beneficiaries of an inefficient and opportunistic educational system.
I would love to know the real line item cost of labor negotiations to schools over the past five years. How many new text books would it have bought? How many school trips could have been funded? Without the dismal effect of contract negotiations on education, how many more kids would have stayed in school?

Posted by: Robert Balliot at January 3, 2009 12:26 PM

PATCO time.

Posted by: John at January 3, 2009 1:07 PM


I think it's easy to get caught up in the optimism of a statewide contract system, but here's a thought: Can you imagine the pressure that would be brought to bear in union negotiations were they to entangle every teacher, every school, and every town all in one negotiation? Do you wish to witness statewide work-to-rule? I sure don't.

I also don't wish to play right into the hands of a statewide organization with no comparable force on the other side of the negotiating table. The unions would have the resources — from statewide dues — to develop strategies to influence an even smaller group of people. Right now, they have to influence five to seven people per town (we'll call it, ballpark, 200 people in the state), and the scale is low enough that taxpayer groups can form to help counter their power. You want to reduce that 200 or so decision makers to just a handful?

Posted by: Justin Katz at January 3, 2009 2:06 PM

Can anyone point me to the law that suggests that it is illegal for the school committee to do what they've done - i.e. change the terms of employment when there isn't actually a contract in place?

It seems to me that if there isn't a contract, then they are at-will? Maybe there's some obligation to bargain, but they've done that, right?

Posted by: thinkaboutit at January 3, 2009 2:26 PM

I understand your point, Justin.
However, if the contract includes professional standards - then 'work to rule' is irrelevant as a tactic.
The negotiation processes at the local level has been plagued by destructive, we vs them tactics - on both sides.
The worse it gets, the more enriched the labor attorneys, arbitrators, and mediators become - billing by the hour.
The worse it gets, the more influence the labor bureaucracy has on it members - peddling the notion that their members are victims and making them believe it.
The worse it gets, while those special interests are being enriched with taxpayer dollars and union dues, the education system continues to spiral downward.

Posted by: Robert Balliot at January 3, 2009 2:55 PM

But there's nothing inherent in consolidation that will diminish "we vs them." It will just make it "all of us versus all of them" via a much smaller proxy group (i.e., whoever ends up making decisions on the taxpayers' side of the negotiating table).

Indeed, by "professional standards" you appear to be mandating extremely specific contractual language that will require even more complicated negotiations, even more sustained monitoring, and an environment even less conducive to quality teaching (which I don't hold to be amenable to strict A-thru-Z labor rules).

Furthermore, by what reasoning do you conclude that teachers will be less susceptible to union rhetoric about victimhood when the bogeyman isn't a school committee made up of a handful of locals, but official representatives of the state and its bureaucracy? I'd expect the victimhood claim to gain force in such a setting.

Posted by: Justin Katz at January 3, 2009 3:04 PM

Let's not lose sight of what is possible - at least theoretically - to provide a frame of reference.

This very month the General Assembly could just repeal the laws permitting collective bargaining on the part of teachers. Problem solved.

In its place, a package of competitive and fair compensation could be put in place - including merit pay / incentive bonuses; health care with reasonable "co-shares" and a defined contribution plan.

The fact that the General Assembly won't - certainly not so long as it remains in Democrat control, since the Democrat Party is itself controlled by the unions and poverty industry - illuminates the dangers of a statewide teachers contract "negotiated" by persons selected by the Democrat General Assembly.

The system we have now is dysfunctional and collapsing, but I wouldn't expect any relief by concentrating all power in the hands of the same clowns who've brought us RISDIC and Operation Dollar Bill and midnight bills giving state pensions to teachers union officials who weren't even employed by the state!

Posted by: Tom W at January 3, 2009 5:20 PM

“This crew in East Providence makes the management in the auto business look like geniuses. It was their own negligence and malfeasance that caused the [city’s fiscal woes]."

Wrong. It was a past school committee, which was bought and paid for by the teachers union with whom they colluded, which did this to us. The teachers union got treated great when times were good, and now that times are desperate, they don't think they should have to feel the same pain everyone else is. There's a new crew in town and they're not playing by the old rules.

I might remind you that the EP School Committee has precedent for their decision, as in Gov. Carcieri unilateral action with the state employees in the executive branch over the summer. Anyway, East Providence already de facto insolvent. We may get to the point where the city simply runs out of cash and can't make payroll, or will be forced to make substantial layoffs. Creditors are reluctant to lend to us, and vendors are simply not being paid and are now demanding cash instead of IOUs (I'm not sure they they'll go for my "fire 'em all and give the kids vouchers proposal").

Remember, the teachers contract accounts for about half of all city spending and nearly 80% of school spending. It's too big to ignore. Nibbling around the edge just isn't going to cut it anymore. We're getting to the point where a municipal bankruptcy filing is seriously on the table (of course, it would allow the contracts to be reopened, but it's a last resort). There's no reason for a city of 50,000 people to be held hostage to the petty whims of 500 people. We're not playing games anymore. We need to fish or cut bait this time around or it will never get done, even if it makes for some very painful decisions. No one wants to layoff people in this environment.

Work-to-rule, go on strike, be my guest. Two words: Contingency planning. Do you taunt a starving tiger when it's backed into a corner? Teachers, just ask yourself one question: "Do I feel lucky?"

PS Revoking a future 5% raise is not an absolute "cut", it's a reduction in the rate of increase. Did test scores go up 5%? No. Did anything else in East Providence improve by 5%? No.

Posted by: Will at January 3, 2009 5:21 PM

Robert B. -

Justin is 100% correct.

The idea of solving our problems via consolidation or a "state-wide contract" is rubbish.

It is something people trot out everytime there is a new contract and an unwillingness to go to the mat to force the long over-due reforms required in the nut-bag Union contracts.

The last thing we need is to give up local control to a handful of thiefs in Providence. Can you point to a single state agency that has done things right? Are you not aware of the mess we are in at the State level?

We need to push, encourage and support School Committees like EP that are finally (albeit late) standing up to the Unions and saying "NO".

Simultaneously, we need to put a mountain of pressure on our elected officials in the GA to put forth Collective Bargaining reform, including making RI a Right To Work state.

Every chance we get, we need to publicly ask our Reps and Senators why they think it is fair for them to receive Free Healthcare, or ask why they are not enacting Pension Reform, or why they are not putting forth Collective Bargaining reform, etc.

Every time they are on a talk show, we need to call them and hold their feet to the fire. We need to write letters-to-the-editor calling them out by name and putting them on the spot.

We can no longer be shoulder shruggers with the defeatist menatality of "ah, what can you do".

Posted by: George Elbow at January 3, 2009 5:58 PM

Howdy George,

I have had the honor to meet and train quite a few individuals in state government that do a great job. I have also been impressed by the work of several of the state departments. I don't think it is fair to equate all state government with the criminal and unethical side of the equation. As far as the we vs them rhetoric goes, I have heard the same thing from labor attorneys that have been involved in every contract I have worked on. I have heard the same we vs them rhetoric from every union official that I dealt with. It is all designed to manipulate, instigate, and infuriate. Real negotiation, like good diplomacy, is a thoughtful process. I can't imagine how you would go about creating a uniformly thoughtful process without removing personality from the equation. And, the makeup of local government committees is based on personality and politics - many of those personalities are way over the top. Infuriating and instigating them is an art form in this State.So, I agree with both you and Justin that you are 100% right about who gets what and how.
However, the issue in my mind is how do we pay for quality, affordable public education. I think the solution is a statewide contract in a state that's about as wide as many counties are in full-figured states.

Posted by: Robert Balliot at January 3, 2009 6:32 PM

Robert -

You wrote "the issue in my mind is how do we pay for quality, AFFORDABLE public education".

We agree on that.

But just take a look at the EP situation in which the Union's argument was that affordability should be ignored and, rather, the deciding factor should be what other districts are paying.

The point is that these brain-washed moronic Union hacks don't live in the real world and could care less about "affordability". It is all about ENTITLEMENTS for these leeches.

The last thing we want is for them to be able to hold the entire state hostage via one contract and, as Justin astutely pointed out, to be in a position where they only have to convince one small group to buy into their "Do it For the Children" BS.

Also, with respect to your comment that we are "in a state that's about as wide as many counties are in full-figured states."

That comment goes to the tired old argument that we need to Consolidate because we have too many districts.

But the facts don't support such a misguided view.

RI, with 4,479 students per school district, is far more efficient than the Nation (3,161 students per school district) and neighboring states such as Mass (2,492 students per school district); Conn 3,036; NH 1,246.

Where we are blowing it is in Union salaries & benefits.

Consider the following (from “NEA Research 2007”):

Students per district:

161,237 - Total # of Students in Rhode Island
36 - Total # of Districts in the RI
4,479 - # of Students per District in RI

48,727,536 - Total # of Students in the US
15,416 - Total # of Districts in the US
3,161 - Avg # of Students per District in the US

971,909 - Total # of Students in Mass
390 - Total # of Districts in MA 2,492 - Avg # of Students per District in MA

576,772 - Total # of Students in Connecticut
190 - Total # of Districts in CT
3,036 - Avg # of Students per District in CT

205,567 - Total # of Students in New Hampshire
165 - Total # of Districts in NH
1,246 - Avg # of Students per District in NH

Indeed, RI has more Students / District than many other states and more than the National average.

Now let’s take a look at Salaries and the low number of students per teacher ratio that RI has:

Students per Teacher:
11.1 – RI
15.6 – US
13.2 – MA
13.5 – CT
13.3 – NH

Teacher Salary as a % of Median Household Income (2005/2006):

104.4% - RI (Teacher earns 104.4% of the State's Median Household Income)
102.1% - US
99.6% - MA
97.9% - CT
74.9% - NH

Indeed, the problem is NOT due to too many school districts. Rather, where we are blowing it is in Union salaries & benefits.

Again, our RI Public Employee Unions could care less about Affordability.

What we need is a GA that puts forth common sense Collective Bargaining reform and local School Committees (like EP) that are smart enough to say "No" to the Unions.

We don't need Consolidation to accomplish either of the above.

The Consolidation argument is merely an excuse and a crutch for those that are too weak to do what needs to be done at the local level and at the GA.

Posted by: George Elbow at January 4, 2009 9:05 AM
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