Earlier this week, members of the Providence Teachers Union ratified a new agreement with the Providence Public School Department by a margin of 868 to 79. In the next week, I’ll be publishing the views of PTU members and others on the meaning of the new contract and what the next three years may hold. This first edition features the voices of two PTU members who voted “no” on the contract. This may seem odd, given the overwhelming approval of the contract, and so I’d like to take the opportunity to solicit responses from the majority who voted “yes” as well. If you’d like to submit your response, please simply email it to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. My commentary will follow the responses.
I am only slightly surprised that the contract passed so overwhelmingly. Most people only wanted job security. What they do not seem to realize is that without taking the mayor to court on the illegal firing, we do not really have job security. I said all along that what Steve Smith should have done was fight for seniority first for the 125 teachers who did not get jobs. Then negotiate the contract. As it stands, the 125 are employed, but not by seniority, so they may be subbing for the next 3 years and then what? I did ask about seniority during the meeting, specifically if a school closes at the end of the 3-yr contract, does seniority come into play? He said yes twice, but I pointed out that it did not this time around. He said that was why they had filed with the court. I did not continue to point out that it was never decided, so no precedent has been set. Steve did use bullying and scare tactics to get it passed, which I thought was quite out of line. Again, not surprising. I also think people were relieved that we didn’t lose even more than we did, as rumors of a 10% pay cut were flying before the contract was finalized. My final thought is that the union has played right into the mayor’s hand by insisting on no layoffs for 3 years. Now the mayor can demonize the union (somewhat rightfully in my opinion) for wasting taxpayer dollars on teachers who are not needed. Again, the issue should have been seniority, not hiring back all teachers.
My take on the contract is that we have succumbed to the politics of fear. This is the epitome of bully politics. Teachers being held by their feet over the ledge and being asked to “sign or else.” It makes me squeamish. What aggravates the nausea is the obvious fact that you have the mayor holding one leg, and Steve Smith holding the other. He was already offering up the option of firing the sub pool to a school board determined to shut down schools months ago. It was clear then that he saw those teachers as a chip to be bargained with.
What good is a job if it keeps you from doing what’s best for kids? What good is a contract if it gives everything that the district wanted (less pay for PD, increase in healthcare buy-in, reductions in sick time, and my personal favorite: Article 8-31, Site Based Management–Deleted in its entirety ) …and nothing to those of us who have pleaded for real reform? I personally want to make a t-shirt of this one (The elimination of Article 8-31) and wear it on the first day of school. The message is clear. We do not want you to control your own affairs as a neighborhood school. We will spend any amount of money, throw anyone under the bus, twist as much of the data as we can… to have complete control.
Professionalism=silence. Accountability=control. We hear it over and over again. This particular teacher body’s lack of faith in the legal process (in which we were actively pursuing several suits against the state), lack of faith in the power of collective open dissent (and there is still so much quiet dissent amongst our members), and lack of faith in our students, their families, and their communities (as allies in this struggle) is startling, and I believe it is the lack of faith in these very things that has moved so many to ratify this contract this week.
It will be our job as teachers to renew the people’s faith in the above things to ensure the resiliency to resist later when we are attacked again. We have released the beast from its day in court, and no anti-layoff clause will hold under the clarion call of empty coffers down the road. Trust me, it will come. The question is, will we fall for the shell game again?
First, on the method: I first solicited responses from PTU members in the CDPE. I will say that there are members of the CDPE who voted yes, and others who voted no; I’m willing to bet that the people who voted yes in the CDPE will likely give the strongest defense of the “yes” vote that will be given, and I look forward to publishing their comments!
That said, I think the fact of an organized coalition means that we’ve entered an era of greater scrutiny of the union’s actions, and of greater introspection about what we as teachers should expect and should do. The fact that I received the two “no” responses first is an indication to me that people are thinking things through more thoroughly, and doing so collectively–which is a major step toward an energized and self-activated membership in the PTU. The importance of this cannot be overstated. I would add that the size of the “no” vote is actually significant, a reflection of that greater introspection. In a union without people independently organized to have the conversation, I would have expected to count the “no” votes on two hands.
Lastly: if this contract, in its economics, were offered to my local, I might have to vote yes for it: our proposed salary adjustments are far worse, we already pay more for healthcare, etc. But were I a Providence teacher, I would have voted no precisely on the basis that this contract ratifies the Mayor’s illegal actions since February. That is a major concession, and in my mind it makes the key provisions of the contract, especially the no lay-offs clause, extremely suspect. This is why it’s important to carry on the discussion between those on both sides of the vote–when the Mayor attacks again, he’s not going to differentiate between those who accepted the deal and those who opposed it. The key now will be to expand the organization of all those who want to defend Providence’s public schools, teachers and students. I think we all know we’re not out of the woods yet.