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Pay no attention to the people behind the curtain

Sunday, September 25, 2005

The newspaper can't stop lying about the Milwakuee teachers' union

It's been a little less than a month since an arbitrator decided in favor of the Milwaukee Public Schools administration's proposal for the 2003-2005 contract. In that time, the local newspaper has repeatedly misled the public about the results. I noted here that the paper started doing it in their very first article about the settlement, and they have kept it up.

What's the lie? Let me show you two examples from this week, and see if you can spot it:
#1. Both [subjects of the artcile] are Milwaukee Public Schools teachers and, under a contract settlement imposed by an arbitrator, they must decide between an HMO-style health care plan or the less-restricted health plan they have been on. [. . .] Until now, the more expansive health care plan, a preferred provider organization known within MPS as the Aetna plan, has cost the Strongs almost nothing out of pocket. It has been the choice of more than 85% of MPS employees. Under the arbitrator's ruling, if the Strongs stick with the Aetna plan, they will pay a significantly larger portion of their health care costs than they have paid until now [. . .]. The arbitrator, Marquette University Law School professor Jay Grenig, cited the high cost of health insurance for MPS in ruling for the school system's proposal.

#2. An arbitrator decided in favor of the administration's proposal in late August, meaning that teachers will soon shoulder a larger share of their health care costs.
Did you see that? In both stories, the implication is that the district's contract proposal required teachers to pay for their health care, and that the union's proposal did not. This is a lie.

Anyone who closely followed the contract arbitration--followed it in any news sources besides the newspaper, anyway--knows that the union's proposal actually required teachers to pay more than the district's proposal did. This is not my opinion; this is indisputable fact. Take me, for example. If the union plan had been selected, I would be paying about $960 for family health care this year (save your snide remarks--this is a significant jump from nothing, and would have required some budget recalculations here at casa folkbum). Now, if I moved to the HMO and maxed it out, I'd pay only $450. On the Aetna plan, assuming I stay healthy and don't need more shots in my back, I might pay $300 or $350 ($200 deductible plus 10% coinsurance; not counting my back stuff last year, we didn't have $1500 of medical costs), with a worst-case max of $600. And for teachers higher on the salary scale than I am, the union's plan would have them paying even more*.

So there you have it: The paper, playing up the fact that the union lost in arbitration, adds insult to injury by insinuating that the union's proposal didn't ask teachers to pay for health care when, in fact, it did.

Unions in general--and teachers unions in particluar--are easy targets for lazy right-wing thought (see Owen's reflexive union-bashing, for example). Yet in this instance, MTEA stepped up, took responsibility, and proposed a fairer, more reasonable solution than the district's single-minded inflexibility allowed. So the district refused to settle, sent the contract to arbitration, and, after the newspaper's lying spin, looks like the hero.

This is especially frustrating when you consider all the positive work that the teachers' union does. MTEA regularly runs workshops and classes for professional development; its TEAM program is a model for the entire nation; and it coordinates with the national union to provide help closing the achievement gap. I defy anyone to name a single other union that uses so much of its dues to help its members do their jobs better. Some people complain about the use or misuse of dues without recognizing that the vast majority comes back to the schools after all.

And yet, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, following its conservative education editors' lead, would have you believe the union is the cause of all that's wrong in MPS. This is a lie.


*You may be wondering, then, why I supported the union in this over MPS. It's simple, and I outline it in that first link above: The district's plan is stupid and dangerous. As long as we keep self-funding, we can't keep dividing teachers into the camps of healthy teachers and ill teachers in different plans, especially when the healthy people contribute little to the cost. The union's plan would have shared the costs among all members of the bargaining unit.

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