By ART CHANCE
I have trouble taking teacher strikes seriously; they’re generally either the result of hysteria or they’re a charade, and sometimes there is some of both.
You never know what the sentiments of the majority of the employees are; you hear the voices of the loudest malcontents and of the union leadership.
The “strike vote” is conducted by the union without any outside verification so the union can and does say whatever it wants about the vote.
In my time in labor relations I never saw a strike vote rejected and mostly the union said the support for the strike was “overwhelming.” That said, try as we might at times, we never could get one of the State unions to strike in my 20 years of dealing with them.
Teachers, or their union, on the other hand, almost always own their employers, the School Board. The two entities that have no part in teacher negotiations are parents and taxpayers.
All the school board elections are on an off-the-wall date rather than concurrent with the November General Election date. Consequently, the only people who vote are “super voters,” school district employees, and people with their hooves in the school district trough.
In the best of circumstances only a minority of the electorate pays property taxes and other than property taxpayers, nobody much cares what the “free babysitting” costs.
Back in the early 1990s, the Hickel Administration decided to fix the situation with teacher bargaining around the State. There was a mixed bag of local ordinances either controlling or prohibiting teacher and other school employee bargaining, plus state law that set out the contours and limits of teacher bargaining, but didn’t apply to non-certificated employees of school districts.
The Hickel Administration moved to put all certificated and non-certificated school employees under the Alaska Public Employment Relations Act (AS 23.40.070 – .260). Of course, the National Extortion Association (officially known as the National Education Association) was only too happy to help the Legislature with the proposed amendments to PERA. The Administration and the Legislature were stupid enough to listen to the union.
First they stuck in a silly advisory arbitration provision that requires the the selected arbitrator to have local knowledge. It isn’t always honored, but since the union and the school board/management are generally on the same side, it is easy for them to select a favorite who’ll play the game the way they want it played.
Then, when they assemble their offers to present to arbitration (and there are no rules for just how that is to be done), both the union and the school board put all sorts of “throw-aways” in their offer to make it look like management is doing its job and the union puts in stuff it doesn’t want and knows it won’t get so the arbitrator can make it look like s/he was being even-handed.
When the opinion comes out, it looks like each party got something and each party didn’t get things it wanted.
In reality, the union usually gets everything it really wanted and the things the employer got are worthless, meaningless, or both.
Then, more importantly, they put in a provision that says that a teacher strike can only be initiated after school has started.
There must be one regular day of school before the union can give the required 72-hour notice of a strike, so the kiddies have four days of school, the parents have discontinued their summer childcare arrangements. Then the school takes the babysitters away by closing down because of the strike.
So, that is the environment of teacher strikes.
We can now turn to the strike by Kenai Peninsula Borough School District teachers that appears inevitable on Tuesday.
First, as is usually the case, there is a lot of smoke and noise about money and not much of it is true. The Kenai school employees haven’t had much in the way of negotiated general increases in the last few years. Few employees in Alaska have, other than some that got in on Gov. Walker’s 11th hour largesse.
What the teachers and their unions never talk about is the step and column pay schemes that guarantee them a significant raise every year just for continuing to breathe and show up for a step increase, and if they take continuing education classes that everybody passes, they move up the column system and get a raise for taking the class.
If the Kenai Peninsula School District pay scheme is anything like the State of Alaska’s, the district needs a general personal services budget increase of over 3 percent every year just to maintain status quo and pay for step increases. Kenai is at least that much since they have both step and column increases.
But the real beef is health insurance costs.
Kenai was already paying very high health insurance costs, some $1,700 and change back a year or so ago, and they had a provision that if the cost of the plan went over that, the increase would be shared equally between the district and the employee.
Somewhere they changed that to a 70-30 split between the district and employee. The union wants relief from the cost sharing that will cost over $3,000 per employee and the plan cost is around $27,000 per employee per year, or about $2,250/employee/month.
By way of comparison, the State pays $1,530/employee per month for the very generous General Government Unit plan, a contribution that will rise to $1,570/employee per month in Fiscal Year 2022.
The GGU plan is 80-20, State-employee, with a stop loss that is $3,000-$4,000. I don’t know the details of the GGU plan, since the union runs it and isn’t very forthcoming about details, but all the other State plans get about the same contribution and all have at least some deductibles and co-pays, so the employee has to reach in their own pocket a bit for most healthcare. There are some deductibles in the Kenai plan, but nothing particularly substantial even in the so-called “high deductible” plan.
Both the district and the union have made lots of noise about high costs in their service area, but the State plans also cover high cost, some of them very high cost, areas.
So, here is what I think is the real issue: A union-bought-and-paid-for School Board gave the union/employees control of the plan.
The plan has an elaborate Benefits Committee that has almost no management representation. That committee has the power to set the benefits and other provisions of the plan.
In sum, the district has lost all control of health insurance costs because it gave the control away. The union wants its gold-plated Cadillac plan, doesn’t want to pay anything for it, and wants the Kenai Peninsula’s taxpayers to pick up the tab.
I don’t see any way to get the toothpaste back in the tube. A legitimate management would just ride out the strike, but there really is no downside for the teachers; Little Johnny is guaranteed his 180 days of “education” so if they strike for a week, a month, or whatever, the days they missed just get tacked on to the school year. The only people who are out anything are the taxpayers and parents who had to disrupt their life because of childcare issues.
Kenai Peninsula School District healthcare costs are obscene. No sane management would have given away the right to control the plan, but the good people of Kenai elected a Board to run the schools, and now they get to pay for it.
Art Chance is a retired Director of Labor Relations for the State of Alaska, formerly of Juneau and now living in Anchorage. He is the author of the book, “Red on Blue, Establishing a Republican Governance,” available at Amazon.