A Philosopher's Blog

Social Stability

Posted in Business, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on April 21, 2011
Protest March - Organised By The Unions

Image by infomatique via Flickr

One challenge that faces all societies is the maintenance of social  stability. In general, stability is desirable (although not at any price). To use an obvious metaphor, society is like a ship. If it becomes to unstable, it capsizes and this will tend to be

One aspect to maintaining social stability is ensuring that people are willing (or forced) to remain within the limits of the stability of the system in question. Naturally, there are important moral questions about the methods that should be used to maintain stability and about whether or not specific systems should be maintained. However, I will focus on a limited aspect of this topic. To be specific, I will address the current attacks on public employee unions, such as state unions and teacher unions.

Aided by the Tea Party and the corporations using the Tea Party organizations as fronts, some Republicans were elected as governors and then began to promptly start attacking public employee unions. While Wisconsin has been getting the headlines, Florida has also seen a sustained attack on public employees (with educators being a prime target). Obviously enough, these attacks are not aimed at balancing the budget or reducing taxes. After all, the folks in Wisconsin agreed to accepts cuts in order to offset the deficit created by the governor when he cut taxes for corporations. Rather, these attacks seem aimed at breaking up unions that have traditionally supported Democrats and also at breaking the ability of educators and state employees to resist the ideological agendas of those behind these “Tea Party” governors.

Unions have, of course, been demonized as part of the attack. The problems in education have been laid at the feet of the lazy, incompetent and overpaid educators as well as the union that is supposed to be devoted to protecting the worst teachers and presumably also to destroying education. Other public employees have also been cast as incompetent parasites who have grown fat upon tax dollars stolen from the people. These unions are also accused of having too much political clout and influence. It has also been claimed that allowing unions to participate in the political process means that unions might end up in negotiations with the very people they helped elect, thus giving them undue influence.

While unions do have their problems and these need to be addressed, the broad attack on public employees and unions does not seem to be justified. If they were justified, then these attacks could be seen as contributing to social stability by addressing undermining factors.

First, the idea that the unions are somehow the cause of states’ financial woes seems to be untrue. After all, the real cause of the woes seems to the economic crisis which was caused by corporations who just happen to be the darlings of the “Tea Party” governors. Second, the claim that state employees are overpaid relative to private sector workers is deceptive. While it is true that public employees make, on average, more than the average worker this is because most public employees have college degrees. When the salaries are adjusted in terms of education, public employees are underpaid relative to comparable private sector workers. So, bringing the public sector on par with the private sector would actually require raises for the public sector workers.

Second, the idea that teachers unions are the death of education seems to be mistaken. While unions do follow practices (such as protecting incompetent teachers) that are harmful to education, it is the practices rather than the unions that cause the problems. After all, Finland’s top-notch education system is unionized. However, I do agree that many of the practices in education do need to be reformed. However, this does not require destroying the unions or demonizing teachers.

Third, the charge that unions create  a conflict of interest is worth considering. However, a conflict of interest would seem to exist for any group that donates to a political campaign. For example, the Koch Brothers helped bankroll Scot Walker and in return received various favors. Also, corporations donate vastly more money than unions. As such, if this money flow is a threat, then corporations are the far greater threat. The flow of campaign cash that buys influence is a serious problem, whether that cash flows in relatively small amounts from the unions or in oceans of cash from the corporations. A reasonable case can be made, I think, that the almost unrestricted power of money is creating significant harms in the American political system. Naturally, the corporations want to exterminate their competition (the unions) even though they already outmatch them with their contributions.

Fourth, while people (including state employees) like to joke about the laziness and incompetence of state workers, the reality is that they are no worse than any other workers. Just as in the private sector, there are good and bad workers. There seems to be no reason to believe that public employees are grossly incompetent across the board and should thus be replaced by the allegedly far more virtuous private sector workers.

Fifth, while there are no doubt public positions that are unnecessary, most jobs do seem to actually be important and useful. In any case, the “bloat” of public employees is probably comparable to the bloat that occurs in any organization. Naturally, useless positions should be trimmed but it should not simply be assumed that most positions are useless.

In light of the above arguments, it would seem that public employees and the unions are not a threat to social stability.

However, those attacking them seem to present such a threat. While the power of unions has decline severely over the years, they do still present one of the few sources of organized resistance available to public employees. Naturally, those who wish to be rid of the unions claim that they are not needed to protect public employees. After all, no one wants to do anything bad to them…and if they did, the public employees would surely deserve it.

However, this is clearly not the case. After all, the “Tea Party” governors have engaged in a full scale attack against public employees (especially educators) and seem intent on cutting wages, benefits, job security, jobs and so on. In short, there is a clear and present danger against public employees.

While public employees have been cast as greedy and useless parasites, it is important to remember that these are the people who perform such “useless” tasks as putting out fires, protecting citizens from crime, teaching the children, and so on. In short, they are an essential part of society. They are also fellow citizens, friends, and neighbors. That is, they are part of the community.

Destroying the unions and savaging public employees will not solve the economic woes created by the corporations. It will not fully offset the lost revenues from giving corporations tax breaks. Rather, doing these things will mainly damage key aspects of society and create instability.

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12 Responses

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  1. frk said, on April 21, 2011 at 9:58 am

    Unions don’t train teachers. Institutions of higher learning do (or should). Truly poor teachers should never be given the opportunity to stand in front of the classroom. They should be directed down a different educational path while they’re in college.Unions don’t hire teachers; school boards do. Unions can’t fire teachers; school boards can. Unions don’t evaluate teachers. Administrators could and should perform fair evaluations on a regular basis. Such evaluations would require “competent” administrators– preferably individuals with successful teaching careers behind them.

    The above goals should be easy to achieve. Hire good teachers, based on sensible expectations. Evaluate those teachers regularly. Work with teachers who have problems, and if they’re uncooperative or incapable dismiss them. Period.

    The tenure bugaboo would have to be dealt with. If teachers currently get tenure after three or five or ten years teaching, evaluations during that pre-tenure period should be very, very rigorous. And follow-up sessions should be held in which the teacher, a ‘competent’ supervisor and a qualified colleague/mentor would work to resolve any problems that were identified during the evaluation process.Every attempt should be made to overcome whatever weaknesses that the training, hiring, and evaluation process had “overlooked”. The process by which this ‘retraining’ is achieved should be in the school’s contract with the teacher.There should be no surprises. . .

    Which brings us to the tool(s) used for evaluation. During their very first teacher training course in college, teachers-to-be should be given a copy of the evaluation form(s)***, told up front that this is what will be required of them in the classroom and warned that, if they fail to perform up to the standards outlined on the form(s) they WILL be dismissed from teaching within the pre-tenure period.

    ***”Aha!” you may exclaim. No such forms exist. “Yes,” I would reply. “And the fact that they don’t represents a problem at least as large as any described above.`There should be no such thing as a North Dakota teacher evaluation form of a Sutcliff County teacher evaluation form, or a Hound’s Tooth High School evaluation form. Good teaching is good teaching. This must be true, because there are so many people out there who can identify the good and bad teachers they’ve had. 🙂

    I can say, without hesitation that identifying good teaching and creating nationally recognized teaching standards is one aspect of the education process that must be nationalized.

    Let local boards establish curriculum requirements, choose textbooks, whatever. If Podunk School District wants to teach creationism and omit evolution, that would be “no skin off my nose”. If they want to eliminate the arts from their program, so be it. Let local citizens who want local control agree or object; they’ll suffer the consequences of their idiocy. At least the teachers who are teaching the material will be doing so according to recognized standards and they won’t be the scapegoat when Johnny comes home from college and tells his parents that in his basic science course they’re teaching something about people descending from apes, and the tests are sooo hard, and all the other students can’t believe he’s never heard of evolution. Ma, where do babies come from?

  2. jelillie said, on April 21, 2011 at 11:10 am

    I understand and agree with many of the things which you have stated in your blog. Still while knowing what not to do is good it cannot compare with knowing what to do. Someone, somewhere is going to have to sacrifice something and the answer to the who the where and the what would be extremely helpful to the me who reads and sees no easy way out of this current predicament. What I can say is someone somewhere had better give up something before the whole shooting match blows up in our faces.

  3. frk said, on April 21, 2011 at 3:37 pm

    Knowing what to do is important. Unfortunately, for every problem there are at least two opinions (conservative, liberal) about what the best solution should be. There are, therefore, at least two views of what should not be done. Our Founding Fathers understood this and made a mighty attempt to create a document that would successfully create union where divides, great and small, exist.

    That the Civil War and the Great Depression and two World Wars did not destroy us is testament to the strength of the document they penned. But our having survived those tests is not sufficient proof that we will survive the next test.

    Our current situation combines problems similar to all of the above. Survival will require great wisdom of our leadership and unlimited selflessness on the part of our citizenry. I don’t see much evidence of either . I see posturing politicians and a public that is unwilling to sacrifice for the bounties that this country provides.

  4. T. J. Babson said, on April 21, 2011 at 4:45 pm

    Mike, let’s say you retire someday and after a couple of years you decide you’d like to teach a philosophy course at the local high school. You won’t need a salary–you are just interested in inspiring a love of philosophy in the next generation.

    Do you think the union would allow you to do this?

    Do you think the non-unionized private school would allow you to do this?

    Which is best for the kids?

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on April 21, 2011 at 6:20 pm

      Yes, I think the union would let me do that, at least at the schools I am familiar with. They are usually very happy to get people to help out. Of course, I am sure there are some schools that would be against that sort of thing.

      Some private schools probably would, some probably would not.

      Well, it would probably be best for the kids if I didn’t teach them. 🙂

      • T. J. Babson said, on April 22, 2011 at 10:54 pm

        Well, it would probably be best for the kids if I didn’t teach them. 🙂

        A love of philosophy is indeed a dangerous thing…

        BTW if you ever see the book: “Why Literature is Bad for You,” it is definitely worth picking up. Quite a good argument in favor of its thesis.

    • frk said, on April 21, 2011 at 7:01 pm

      Speaking for myself here, not for the professor. Refer to my 9:58 post above if clarification of certain requirements is needed.

      If the administration and the school board can create a new position without displacing properly qualified, certified, and duly evaluated professionals, I’d say they should give the ol’ prof a shot. He should be allowed to work, however, only if he is properly qualified and certified to teach at the specific level, if he submits to the same evaluation requirements as other teachers, and if he is subject to dismissal if he fails to meet those requirements. Finally, he should be required to perform a reasonable number of the extra duties other teachers are required to perform on a daily basis: homeroom, study hall, and lunch supervision . . . These extra duties must become part of the requirement because they are part of the complex scheduling procedure which allows students to fit in both their required classes and their enrichment classes (like the professor’s, likely :). Otherwise, by using up a block of available time for a likely small number of students, other students may be left with unscheduled blocks of time in their daily schedule. Thus, to satisfy his whim/yen/god-like-needs he’d be loading more extra duties onto other good teachers and making their jobs more difficult with his “generosity”.


      If current positions in the local high school are currently filled by properly qualified and evaluated teachers, I’d say the retired professor should peddle his lofty skills elsewhere. There are plenty of private schools out there–schools that aren’t required to educate everyone or meet some truly half-a**ed NCLB requirements– that would be more than happy to help a doddery philosophy professor die with a laser pointer in his hand.
      He could become a septuagenarian entrepreneur and create a series of DVDs on philosophy. Or develop up a Wiii game: Aristotle v. Nietzsche Handball, for example.

      Just my opinion, for what it’s worth. I think cases where such an issue would arise would be few–especially if the sensible and fair requirements I presented above were in place.

  5. T. J. Babson said, on April 21, 2011 at 9:32 pm

    My understanding is that if you want to teach in a public high school, you need to have all sorts of credentials that have nothing to do with whether or not you actually know your subject. These rules were put in place because of union demands.

    Wouldn’t it be great if a retired businessman, for example, could teach kids how to start a business?

    Doesn’t happen because of the unions.

    • frk said, on April 21, 2011 at 10:32 pm

      “Wouldn’t it be great if a retired businessman, for example, could teach kids how to start a business?”

      Yes, it would be great. . . IF he could teach. Just standing in front of a class and blathering about one’s personal experiences and successes is not teaching. The fact that you were successful starting a business forty years ago is no guarantee that you know squat about starting a business in the 21st Century.

      There must be standards for teaching skills. How does one create an organized lesson plan? Or effectively evaluate a student’s success? Or know what questions to ask and when and how to ask them?

      Let’s watch your retired businessman run 5 forty-minute classes with 25 students per class, dealing with students of widely varied abilities and backgrounds. Let’s see him handle kids whose livings don’t depend on whether He approves of their actions or not. Who may not, frankly, give a d*rn whether they disrupt his presentations or not. Respect isn’t guaranteed by repeating the phrases “When I started out in business. . .” or “When I made my first million. . .” Some kid in the back row is going to say, “Give it up, Grandpa. I’m not so stupid that I don’t know my limitations.” Is the businessman going to fire the kid? Does the businessman have the tools in his kit to deal with that child?

      And, of course this is yet another hypothetical–like the retired philosopher. In reality, how many retired businessmen would want to do this (other than the few exceptions who have appeared on tv shows and written books on their experiences)?How many schools could scrounge up enough kids to take a course in running one’s own business?
      Likely, at most, his course would be a “filter” course. Like panning for gold. Run a bunch of kids of questionable interest and ability through the course and see if gold flake or two shows up at the end. The businessman my not find the sacrifice worth the paltry reward. Along the way Mr. Businessman is going to have some hard work to do, working in deep mud to get to the gold. I’d give the retired philosopher better odds of succeeding.

      • Michael LaBossiere said, on April 22, 2011 at 11:02 am

        Teaching kids today can be a real nightmare. I did some subbing while I was waiting to go to grad school and this motivated me to get my PhD and teach at the college level. I had to use so much of my time and energy maintaining order and dealing with problem children that teaching was a secondary concern. Of course, kids are more inclined to try to mess with subs.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on April 22, 2011 at 10:59 am

      Schools do require teacher certification for full time teachers. The certificate was originally intended to help ensure that educators had at least a minimal education that was relevant to the field. Subs don’t need this certification. I’m not sure of the exact rules governing the sort of scenario in question, but I have taught in summer programs for public school kids without any special certification.

      I’m sure some schools would be fine with people teaching special classes, while some schools (like the ones that expel kids for having aspirin) would probably have such people arrested if they approached the school grounds.

      • frk said, on April 22, 2011 at 12:31 pm

        Even if they offered to teach for free , TJ’s hypothetical philosophy prof and businessman would likely have to undergo basic certification requirements (such as a valid college degree, and the successful completion of basic teacher training). The college prof would likely be able to use his prior teaching experience for credit, but he may still be required to complete a few courses to prepare him for teaching students with a broader spectrum of abilities . The businessman could, on the other hand be required to complete up to 24 college credits in teacher preparation. And needless to say, most school districts require the person in front of the classroom to pass
        a criminal records check , a child abuse history clearance, and a federal criminal history record check.

        Please note that these are general requirements from one particular state–Pennsylvania. Requirements in Louisiana or Utah, for example may vary greatly. The fact that they do vary so much, or at all, is just one more thing that the the union should not be blamed for.

        Uniform requirements should come from the US Department of Education and should be enforced by the states and their local districts. Otherwise we might find our hypothetical businessman–who may also be a hypothetical pervert 😦 — shopping around until he finds a state that doesn’t care what kinds of teachers its kids are exposed to.

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