One could say that teaching is in my blood since my father and my grandfather were teachers and my mother works as a secretary in the Wisconsin school district where I grew up. The advantage of coming from a line of educators was that I was inundated with a strong value for education at a young age. The drawback was seeing teachers’ value decline over the years, an observation which taught me that simply because life is good now, there is no guarantee it will always be good in the future.
Growing up, my family was solidly middle class. My dad made a good living as a teacher. My mom was able to stay home and take care of me and my sister and didn’t return to work until we were both in elementary school. Although we weren’t rich by any means, we never wanted for anything either. However, with the onset of the Great Recession, the situation for teachers changed significantly.
When my dad began teaching in 1980, teachers’ unions were able to bargain with local school boards for salary increases and benefits, and when compromises couldn’t be reached, arbitrators were called in to make decisions. By the end of 2011, arbitrators, as well as the qualifying economic offers that had replaced them in 1993, were gone and had been replaced by a one-sided system courtesy of Act 10, or the Wisconsin Budget Repair Bill.
Under Act 10, Wisconsin public employees are required to pay more into their pensions and foot a higher percentage of their health care bills, and while unions still exist in Wisconsin, they no longer have the power they did when my dad began teaching. The result is that educators are essentially forced to take whatever the school board offers them. As my father explains, the logic is “if you don’t like the offer, go teach somewhere else.” My father, feeling devalued and at retiring age, reluctantly stopped teaching in 2012 after 32 years at his school.
Pennsylvania is not Wisconsin, but if my father’s story illustrates anything, it’s the need for strong unions. When Governor Scott Walker (R) wanted to address Wisconsin’s projected state deficit, he went after public service workers. We can never know when circumstances are going to change, whether in the national economy or in the state of Pennsylvania. Who is to say that if Penn State were to face a projected deficit or needed to make budget cuts, graduate employees’ stipends and health care wouldn’t be on the line? I know I’m happy and well-cared for as a Penn State graduate employee today, but I don’t know whether I’ll be able to say the same tomorrow or four years from now. Do you? The answer to that question is exactly why we need a union.
This blog post was contributed by Katie Warczak, a Graduate Teaching Assistant in the English Dept.