Protecting public education through local collective bargaining
As I write this article, teachers in Oklahoma and Kentucky are starting their second week of striking. [Teachers in Oklahoma ended their walkout on April 12.] Due to decades of neglect, conditions for students, faculty and staff in those states (and West Virginia, which recently settled its strike) are appalling. From out-of-date textbooks and unsafe buildings, to low wages for teachers, the tipping point for accepting those conditions was finally reached.
Most teachers I know try to work with what they have. A few of my colleagues may be disgruntled, but seldom is our entire membership enraged at the same time. One of the big differences, in my opinion, between teachers in these states and in CH-UH is that they do not negotiate contracts locally. In this district, we negotiate contracts directly with a locally elected board. School board members represent the communities’ interests and values, and we have succeeded in reaching agreements for a long time. Teachers in states that have a single contract for the whole state have little say about what goes into their contract.
Another difference between CH-UH and those states is that they are so-called “right to work” states. This means that unions must represent everyone in the bargaining unit regardless of whether they are union members. In Ohio, no one is required to join the union, but must still pay a fair share for representation.
Contracts in right-to-work states are weak because there is little in the way of a unified voice at the bargaining table. Management knows that there is no collective will, so there is little effort toward fairness or compromise.
Concerns are more readily heard and acted upon when teachers are in discussion with administration on a constant basis. In CH-UH we discuss hard issues—such as textbook adoption policies, class sizes, services for special needs students, student behavior and expectations—more often than wages and benefits. The teachers union does not always agree with management on these issues, but at least we talk about them and seek solutions. These discussions help shape the priorities for contract negotiations.
Some of the serious issues that are commonplace in Oklahoma simply don’t happen here. They have 50-year-old textbooks, broken chairs, little or old technology, class sizes of 40–60 students, and many more signs of complacency and neglect. We have none of those problems here. Our differences with management usually have more to do with philosophy and priorities, not neglect.
My hope is that when this article is published the strikes will have been settled in a way that ensures a renewed commitment to public education. I fear, however, that it is going to take a large infusion of money to make those schools habitable and safe, to buy and maintain updated curricular materials, to invest in current technology, and to pay teachers and support staff fair wages.
We know from our own experience in CH-UH that keeping current with the needs of our students, maintaining and updating our buildings, and providing competitive wages to attract and keep highly qualified teachers is an expensive undertaking. Our community’s support of our schools proves that our citizens value public education. My pride in our community grows even deeper as I read about places that allow their public institutions to languish and fall into disrepair.
Ari Klein is a lifelong community member, math teacher at Cleveland Heights High School, and president of the Cleveland Heights Teachers Union.