Occasionally unions are a good tool for righting genuine injustices in the working world, but often they later become organizations focused on their own self-perpetuation. Because all union members pay the same dues, this self perpetuation often takes the form of protecting bad workers from the consequences of their actions. The good workers, after all, will almost certainly be treated well by their employers anyway, so the only service the union can provide when there are no real injustices to fight is to take care of workers who are incompetant or just don’t care — allowing them to do the minimum and still get annual raises rather than pink slips.
In a windowless room in a shabby office building at Seventh Avenue and Twenty-eighth Street, in Manhattan, a poster is taped to a wall, whose message could easily be the mission statement for a day-care center: “Children are fragile. Handle with care.” It’s a June morning, and there are fifteen people in the room, four of them fast asleep, their heads lying on a card table. Three are playing a board game. Most of the others stand around chatting. Two are arguing over one of the folding chairs. But there are no children here. The inhabitants are all New York City schoolteachers who have been sent to what is officially called a Temporary Reassignment Center but which everyone calls the Rubber Room.
These fifteen teachers, along with about six hundred others, in six larger Rubber Rooms in the city’s five boroughs, have been accused of misconduct, such as hitting or molesting a student, or, in some cases, of incompetence, in a system that rarely calls anyone incompetent.
The teachers have been in the Rubber Room for an average of about three years, doing the same thing every day—which is pretty much nothing at all. Watched over by two private security guards and two city Department of Education supervisors, they punch a time clock for the same hours that they would have kept at school—typically, eight-fifteen to three-fifteen. Like all teachers, they have the summer off. The city’s contract with their union, the United Federation of Teachers, requires that charges against them be heard by an arbitrator, and until the charges are resolved—the process is often endless—they will continue to draw their salaries and accrue pensions and other benefits.
“You can never appreciate how irrational the system is until you’ve lived with it,” says Joel Klein, the city’s schools chancellor, who was appointed by Mayor Michael Bloomberg seven years ago.
Neither the Mayor nor the chancellor is popular in the Rubber Room. “Before Bloomberg and Klein took over, there was no such thing as incompetence,” Brandi Scheiner, standing just under the Manhattan Rubber Room’s “Handle with Care” poster, said recently. Scheiner, who is fifty-six, talks with a raspy Queens accent. Suspended with pay from her job as an elementary-school teacher, she earns more than a hundred thousand dollars a year, and she is, she said, “entitled to every penny of it.” She has been in the Rubber Room for two years. Like most others I encountered there, Scheiner said that she got into teaching because she “loves children.”
“Before Bloomberg and Klein, everyone knew that an incompetent teacher would realize it and leave on their own,” Scheiner said. “There was no need to push anyone out.” Like ninety-seven per cent of all teachers in the pre-Bloomberg days, she was given tenure after her third year of teaching, and then, like ninety-nine per cent of all teachers before 2002, she received a satisfactory rating each year.
“But they brought in some new young principal from their so-called Leadership Academy,” Scheiner said. She was referring to a facility opened by Klein in 2003, where educators and business leaders, such as Jack Welch, the former chief executive of General Electric, hold classes for prospective principals. “This new principal set me up, because I was a whistle-blower,” Scheiner said. “She gave me an unsatisfactory rating two years in a row.Then she trumped up charges against me and sent me to the Rubber Room. So I’m fighting, and waiting it out.”
The United Federation of Teachers, the U.F.T., was founded in 1960. Before that, teachers endured meagre salaries, tyrannical principals, witch hunts for Communists, and gender discrimination against a mostly female workforce (at one point, there was a rule requiring any woman who got pregnant to take a two-year unpaid leave). Drawing its members from a number of smaller and ineffective teachers’ groups, the U.F.T. coalesced into a tough trade union that used strikes and political organizing to fight back. By the time Bloomberg took office, forty-two years later, many education reformers believed that the U.F.T. and its political allies had gained so much clout that it had become impossible for the city’s Board of Education, which already shared a lot of power with local boards, to maintain effective school oversight. In 2002, with the city’s public schools clearly failing, the State Legislature granted control of a new Department of Education to the new mayor, who had become a billionaire by building an immense media company, Bloomberg L.P., that is renowned for firing employees at will and not giving contracts even to senior executives.
Bloomberg quickly hired Klein, who, as an Assistant Attorney General in the Clinton Administration, was the lead prosecutor in a major antitrust case against Microsoft. When Klein was twenty-three, he took a year’s leave of absence from Harvard Law School to study education and teach math to sixth graders at an elementary school in Queens, where he grew up. Like Bloomberg, Klein came from a world far removed from the borough-centric politics and bureaucracy of the old board.
Test scores and graduation rates have improved since Bloomberg and Klein took over, but when the law giving the mayor control expired, on July 1st, some Democrats in the State Senate balked at renewing it, complaining that it gave the mayor “dictatorial” power, as Bill Perkins, a state senator from Manhattan, put it. Nevertheless, by August the senators had relented and voted to renew mayoral control.
One thing that the legislature did not change in 2002 was tenure, which was introduced in New York in 1917, as a good-government reform to protect teachers from the vagaries of political patronage. Tenure guarantees teachers with more than three years’ seniority a job for life, unless, like those in the Rubber Room, they are charged with an offense and lose in the arduous arbitration hearing.
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The abuses documented here are almost uminaginable: A teacher written up for having been so drunk on the job she was found unconscious in her classroom by her students, who was nonetheless returned to the job. Over a thousand teachers who haven’t worked in over six months because they were let go by their previous schools and either have not accepted or have not been offered another position, yet collect full salary for doing nothing at home. And on and on.
President Obama has on occasion spoken out against this kind of teachers union activity, putting protecting bad teachers far ahead of teaching students, but he has yet to actually take any actions against the teachers unions which are such a high profile part of the Democratic coallition. Nor has the New York state government, also in the lock of Democratic interest groups, been able to do anything about this appauling situation. So although there is some good thinking coming out of a few Democrats, standing up to the teachers unions on behalf of actually educating children (and come to that, on behalf of the many teachers who do good work and would greatly benefit for a more performance-based work environment) is thus far something only really happening on the GOP side of the aisle.
This kind of foolishness, which ties exactly with my father’s experience of being forced to join a public employees union which established a union shop in the community college that he worked for, is why I support Right To Work laws.