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Pay no attention to the people behind the curtain

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

792 days late, I have a contract; it's bad

About noon today, the Marquette University professor who was arbitrating the contract dispute between my union--the Milwaukee Teachers' Education Association--and the MPS Board came down in favor of the Board.

I was mulling the news over on the drive home and heard the local NPR newsreader point out that the District's proposal, which the arbitrator "found more reasonable," gave teachers a raise but required them to contribute toward their health care. The way it was framed, it sounded as though the union's proposal did not have a raise or a contribution to health care. This is not true--in fact, in the initial implementation, the union's proposal required more teachers to pay in for the health care. This distinction was lost in the run-up to arbitration, and seems lost now. Even Alan Borsuk's story, linked above, neglects to mention that the competing proposals both required teachers to pay for health care. The only dispute between them was who pays and how much.

And it is in those devilsh details--who pays and how much--that the Board's plan is most insidious. It is part of a pattern designed, from my perspective, anyway, to break apart the union. I have written before about how the small high schools movement seems designed to cut out the union and balkanize formerly large, unified staffs. This decision, in favor of the Board, splits the union between younger, healthier teachers and older, less healthy teachers.

See, the union's proposal required all represented employees to pay 1% of their base salaries as co-insurance, thus minimizing the hit for the poorest employees and sharing the cost of the plan among everyone. You know, like a unified workforce. The Board's plan only jacks up payments for employees in the Preferred Provider Option (PPO) plan. Those in the HMO plan actually have their benefits sweetened. Thus, those employees who need the extra and more varied coverage the PPO provides will take the full force of this settlement. So, in fact, for the local NPR station to report that teachers will have to contribute to their health care costs is a lie: Only those who are in need of more serious care will have to pay. The healthy ones don't--and, as MPS self-funds (which in itself is probably a bad idea), the very foundation of insurance is shattered: In a normal plan, the healthy pay to offset the costs of those who are ill. Here we have the opposite.

The effect of the decision will be to drive employees into the HMO and away from the PPO, and as more teachers "pay nothing," they will more likely urge quicker settlements that leave PPO participants holding the bill. All along, I heard impatience from teachers in my building who wondered what took so long. And the division is already apparent: As I broke the news to staff today, several teachers asked me what the point of having a union is, anyway, if we're just going to get screwed. Another, when I told him the arbitrator favored the board, said, "Great! I'm in the HMO, and my life just got better!"

Jay Grenig, the arbitrator who decided the dispute, of course couldn't take any of this into account. He had very specific responsibilities defined by the state, and I'm sorry he found that the Board's proposal was a better deal. I believe that, long-run, there will be serious consequences for the union and the district as a whole.

I do have to wonder, though, if he didn't sit on his decision until today on purpose: He promised he'd be done by the end of July, but he may have known that announcing in favor of the board on July 31 would have led to hundreds of retirements during August. Today was the first day of school, and, as it is, I expect there will be some faces absent tomorrow, following this news, that had been in school today

Hey--at least I can stop saying I've been working without a contract since July 1, 2003. Now I can say that I've been working without a contract since July 1, 2005. Woo. Hoo.

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