Thursday, March 24, 2011

Rights for South Carolina's workers too costly to profit margins

The same issue of Columbia's Free Times that included the great letter from Joanne Hafter featured an article by Al Dozier on the "tough times" facing unions in our state.

It called to mind what my civics teacher told us was the fundamental definition of a labor union: "Working people working with other working people to achieve mutual goals and improve the lives of all working people and their communities." He was a great civics teacher, one of the best.

Dozier, in his article, recounts the highlights of a recent meeting of union and professional association leaders in Irmo. Hoyt Wheeler, a USC instructor, told the group that "unions historically have provided important access to justice for workers by providing a collective voice that otherwise might not be heard. But they are unpopular in South Carolina, with a membership of only about 4.6 percent of the workforce, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ 2010 figures."

I wonder why that is. But I suppose I don't have far to wonder; South Carolina has always had a love affair with cheap (or free) labor. The English Barbadians who climbed off the boat at Charles Towne in 1670 had their chests carried off the boat behind them by slaves. When slavery was abolished, the same wealthy and increasingly industrialist class refused to pay wages to free blacks and turned to poor whites to supply the cheap labor, in sharecropping and factory work. Mill villages with mill churches and mill stores, and mill scrip to pay mill wages, were just an extension of the old plantation system.

We even exploited children -- kept them ignorant, stunted them with poor diets, paid them a pittance and made them part of the formula for ramshackle rental housing so it was necessary for them to work rather than attend school, assuming a school existed close enough to attend.

Let working people work with other working people to organize themselves, improve themselves, empower themselves and help themselves as a class into better economic conditions? Never: Do that, and cheap labor won't be as cheap. Progress is too costly. Better for the profit margin to keep people ignorant and disorganized.

Anyway, Dozier's article mentions the pay-for-test-scores scheme that Superintendent Mick Zais is foisting on South Carolina's teachers, and it was refreshing to hear that someone is standing up and saying no to Zais's dodge.

His pay-for-performance proposal, a measure designed to base teacher salaries on the success of their students, is opposed by the South Carolina Education Association.

Panelist Jackie Hicks, president of The SCEA, said making teacher pay dependent on student success has already been proven ineffective because so many other circumstances come into play.

“We do not support that,” Hicks said. “But an awful lot of people do and we will hear a lot of conversations on that.”

Hicks helped lead the March 12 rally at the State House to protest legislators’ plans to cut $700 million from the state budget by making severe reductions to Medicaid and education programs.

The SCEA also opposes the use of vouchers to pay for private education, a policy
advocated by many Republican leaders in the state.

Hurray, President Hicks. Teachers in South Carolina need a champion, someone not afraid to fight for them. Timidity, niceness and ga-ga (go along, get along) leadership have gotten us precisely where we are, and it's going to take leadership with a fighting spirit and stamina to get us out of the morass.

The discussion drew comments that educators should speak with a more unified voice on state issues and turn out in larger numbers at the polls.

Hicks replied that SCEA members did have a good turnout, but more statewide efforts need to be made by others in the education community.

Most teachers are performing well in spite of difficult circumstances, she said.

“I’m sick and tired of hearing how bad our teachers are. We are doing a fine job in South Carolina, considering what we are dealing with.”

Yes, yes and yes. Teachers -- educators at every level, really -- have to know that the profession is larger than themselves, that it was built on the backs of educators with lesser resources and personal means, and that present-day educators have a moral obligation to consider the profession that they will leave to the next generation of educators, and the generations thereafter.

I know too many educators personally who have refused to participate. I know one who was a fantastic teacher, Ms. B, who used that as her reason for not stepping up and helping to speak out when administrators abused others: I'm a good teacher, she said, as if it nothing bad would happen to good teachers. But, like nearly everyone else, she had a bad year, too, stemming from matters with a teenage daughter at home, and suddenly she was under attack, too. For some of our colleagues, it was a bitter pill to swallow, to defend Ms. B when she had been plainly apathetic about the same injustices to others for some years. In the end, she lost a great deal of respect, lost a leadership role and only worked for another few years before taking early retirement.

Other excuses are just as maddening. "My husband doesn't want me to get involved" is one. "I'm too busy" is another, when everyone employed by a school district is, by definition, too busy. And "I can't afford it" is the one that galls me the most, knowing that for generations, teachers who earned far less -- only a few thousand dollars a year in the 1950s, 1960s, etc -- and who raised larger families in those times, still banded together and made their contributions, often with the urging and blessings of their spouses who understood the importance of working and fighting together for progress. For these educators, the profession and its impact on their communities and their state was far more important than one's own career.

Anyway, conversation in Irmo ultimately turned to Governor Nikki Haley and her anti-worker bent, Dozier writes.

There is anti-union sentiment everywhere, and it is very evident in the administration of newly elected Gov. Nikki Haley. Haley stirred up a hornet’s nest with comments she made upon appointing Catherine Templeton as head of the department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation.

“We’re going to fight the unions, and I needed a partner to help me do it,” Haley said of Templeton, a Charleston lawyer who has experience in legal battles with unions.

Because working people in South Carolina, working with other working people in South Carolina to achieve mutual goals and improve the lives of all working people and their communities in South Carolina, are far too great a danger for a governor of South Carolina and her corporate campaign contributors. Such liberty is too costly to the profit margin.

No comments:

Post a Comment