The needler in the haystack.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Teachers' contract: A hopeful sign?


Signs in support of Plainfield's teachers union are sprouting up.

Plainfield Today reader JoAnn Bandomer recently shared a photo of the sign above on her Facebook page. It strikes me as a hopeful sign in the overlong struggle by the Plainfield Education Association (PEA), the union representing the district's teachers and staff, to get a new contract.

JoAnn and her husband Ken are both retired from service in the Plainfield Public Schools and fondly remembered by many PHS graduates. Their support of our kids and our community is an inspiration and plunking this sign on their front yard is just one more example of stand-up people standing up for fairness.

I am an indefatigable enthusiast of public schools and unions.

I believe the invention of free public education in America to be one of its chief contributions to democratic societies worldwide.

If I had not learned my 'reading, writing and 'rithmetic' in the humble three-room country schoolhouse I attended, there would have been no Yale or George Washington University in my future. There would have been no future really, and no participation in the stew of American political life. So, three cheers for public education -- and the teachers who devote their lives to it.

My father went to work as a welder in a locomotive factory at age 15 in the middle of the Great Depression after his father died behind the plow in his fields one summer afternoon.

It rivaled Blake's dark satanic mills. Through the struggles of the Steel Workers Organizing Committee, a union was formed that wrestled a 40-hour work week, fair treatment and shop rules from the owners. Thanks to the CIO, our family was able to enter the middle class, to own a home, to make way for the kids to go to college. Hurrah for the unions!

Over the past fifty years, the gains that trade unions made have been steadily eaten into. One can no longer even think that a job in industry could pave the way into the middle class or last into the indefinite future.

The situation is somewhat better for public worker unions -- though unions are under attack here, too -- primarily through the drive for charter schools and against tenure practices.

The Plainfield Education Association (PEA) has conducted several informational pickets outside PHS over the course of the negotiations, but no progress has been reported.

Of course wages and working conditions are at the heart of the negotiations, and members of the public are encouraged by the likes of Chris Christie and others to think of teachers as incompetent, greedy and unfairly sheltered by contract provisions.

Well, there are always at least two sides to the story. The union has not always been good at getting its issues and its point of view out front -- and the Plainfield union is no exception.

I remember the employees of the municipal bus company where I went to college were deadlocked over contract negotiations with the owners. The owners had gone to court and gotten an order forbidding a strike as the buses provided an 'essential public service'.

The drivers and others picketed the business at the car barns in a really out-of-the way location. And it seemed fruitless.

It was only after they began to hand out leaflets to the general public at the main bus stops in the downtown area that the company sensed an impending public relations disaster and settled with the union.

I have long thought that the PEA needed to reach out more to the community to show that what is good for the teachers is good for the school district and ultimately for the whole society.

Perhaps the PEA should consider holding its informational pickets on Kenyon Avenue before school, while students are arriving. The discussion that would generate would be truly an exercise in small-d democracy.

And negotiations might move along more quickly.

In the meantime, the yard signs such as the one sported by Ken and JoAnn Bandomer are a good idea, and a hopeful sign.



  -- Dan Damon [follow]


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