Teachers Protest, But Is Anybody Listening?

California State Capitol [genericsla]
Getty Images / Justin Sullivan

Liberal activist and actor Warren Beatty was the guest speaker, but the celebrities of the night were sitting in a table just down from the podium.

It was the annual “Rage for Justice” dinner at the Beverly Hills Hotel sponsored by the Foundation for Taxpayers and Consumer Rights (now called “Consumer Watch”). The crowd of trial layers, Democratic party activists and others were celebrating the defeat of all five of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s ballot measures in the 2005 special election.

The toast of the night went to those at that for mentioned table. They were members of the California Nurses Association. The union had harassed Schwarzenegger throughout the campaign as they would do years later with Meg Whitman.

“They are incredible,” one of the dinner organizers told me with great enthusiasm. “Do you know how well they research? Nurses have the highest approval and credibility rating of any single occupation. It is incredible.”

The CNA never attempted to take over the capitol building in Sacramento. That, right now, is the goal of a another union. And it raises the question of how differently members of these two unions are perceived by the public. The California Teachers Association is one of the largest unions in the nation.

Ask any lawmaker in Sacramento and they will tell you (off the record) that for years there was not one piece of legislation that passed both the state Assembly and state Senate without CTA approval. That has changed slightly because of pressure from low income communities that have felt the brunt of union regulations such as the “last hired first fired” tenure policy.

Such an incremental slip isn’t the only issue for the CTA leadership as the union protests budget cuts this week. “Waiting for Superman”, the documentary from the same producer who put together Al Gore’s “Inconvenient Truth” didn’t help. Neither does the recent news that the state commission that handles teacher credentialing often waited years before pulling the license of teachers accused of misconduct with students.

And, while schools are populated with dedicated instructors who undoubtedly do deserve a raise, there is ample evidence that there are plenty who don’t. The public is starting to learn (or experience) the “dance of the lemons” routine that principals go through every year. Since you can’t fire an incompetent teacher you simply try to get them to move to another school.

Union leaders normally talk less about their members than they do the “students they teach”. But even teachers I’ve talked to fear that is now being seen as a marketing pitch rather than reality. This is the teachers union after all.

As Albert Shanker, the late head of the United Federation of Teachers once put it, “When schoolchildren start paying union dues, that’s when I’ll start representing the interests of schoolchildren.”

The fight in Sacramento is currently over the budget but it also involves the court of public opinion. The CTA needs to win that fight but it may take more than a rotunda sit-in.

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