I am a member of two labor unions: The Association of Pleasanton Teachers and the American Federation of Musicians Local 6 (I play trombone). In the last few months, I have been synthesizing some of my experiences where I have observed the importance of unions, and also their potential negative side effects. I would love to hear what my friends and colleagues have to say about some of my jumbled thoughts.
It seems that every time I do a non-union gig, something weird or unusual happens. Something as little as making announcements during my warm-up time, being asked to show up and hour early (without overtime) before a concert for some last-minute rehearsal (I said no), or being told the wrong start time, and consequently staying at a church service for an hour after the stated end time. (I stayed, and received no extra compensation for my time.)
All of these stories come to mind when I agreed to play for free at the church I attend with my family this Easter. When I said yes to my church, I felt like tried to check my “union” attitude at the door and wanted to serve Christ’s church however I was needed. Then I received the first e-mail about rehearsal times. 4 hour rehearsal on Tuesday, 2 1/2 hour rehearsal on Saturday, call time an hour before the 8:00 first service. My part in all of this consisted of playing five 3-4 minute long tunes, about 20 minutes of music total. My union sensibilities crept back into my mind. Much of the rehearsal time was spent with the vocalists working out parts around the piano. My thoughts were 3 fold:
1) If I were being paid and hourly rate, they would have had me come 2 hours later during the 4 hour rehearsal, and rehearsed the vocal stuff without me.
2) There are many people in the church who donate much more of their time and expertise than I do, and that humbles me. We are currently without a music pastor, and many lay musicians are maintaining the high quality of our program.
3) I am glad I brought a good book to read. (I am an orchestral bass trombone player, I know how to come prepared!)
On Sunday, I am embarrassed to say, I arrived a couple of minutes after the 7 AM call time. No need to worry, as rehearsal as far from commencing. the first thing that was rehearsed, at 7:20 once all forty musicians were in place, was a vocal solo accompanied by a single keyboard. This went on for about 10 minutes or so. After 7:30, the whole ensemble did a sound check for a couple of minutes.
In contrast, when I arrive at a union gig, it almost always starts and ends on time. Announcements are made after the clock has begun. They are brief. On the rare occasion that service goes overtime, I (and everyone else) get compensated. Our time is given a great deal of respect.
This brings me to my membership in the teachers’ union. In the 1980s the teachers in Pleasanton went on strike to demand more respect of their time, their professionalism and of course, to demand more money. Teachers are constantly being asked to do things that are not in their contracts. Much like the requests made of me at a non-union gig, teachers are asked sometimes to go on overnight field trips, spend non-paid hours filling out detailed report cards, bring home essays to correct, etc. In this context, I bring up that Pleasanton teachers were recently asked to work 2 fewer days and take an equivalent pay cut for the upcoming school year. For teachers who had gone on strike to gain the pay, benefits and respect that we current teachers enjoy, this was a tough pill to swallow. The pay cut would preserve programs for students, and jobs for our fellow union members. How responsible for providing programs to students are teachers? Are we entirely responsible, and should we carry a burden for a large chunk of the budget cuts through a cut in salary? (We would be providing a tremendous benefit to the community at no additional cost to the community.) Are we somewhat responsible or not at all? I found myself solidly on the side of “take the small pay cut for the good of our students and the teachers that were given lay-off notices (pink slips) for next year”. I had trouble understanding why any teacher would be again saving programs within our district.
I had a better understanding as to how some of my teaching colleagues could vote against taking a pay cut to preserve programs after this recent Easter. Since I was not being compensated for my time, it was easy for those in charge not to use it efficiently. If I don’t say to my church, “You can’t do that again next year, or I am not playing,” then they have no incentive to be more time efficient.
Similarly, if teachers simply say, “Don’t cut programs! Take some of my money!” this will automatically become the first choice for fixing budget problems. Other solutions will be skipped and avoided. It was remarkable to me when a young pink-slipped teacher voted NO to this pay cut, when he of all people had something to gain (the likelihood of his job).
I have been bouncing back and forth on these ideas. If you carry the “no cuts for teachers ever” idea too far, you can end up hurting students by allowing programs to be cut and newer teachers to be laid off. If you offer and inch in pay cuts today, you might be asked for a mile tomorrow. I am trying to find a balance between these opposing concepts.
Where We Are Now
The teachers in Pleasanton agreed to forego 2 days worth of salary and we will have a 2 day longer Summer… IF the communty matches our efforts. We traded less money for more time (furlough). The caveat is that the community has to come through as well, and a parcel (land) tax that will be put to the voters in Pleasanton on June 2 has to pass for the teacher 2-day furlough to occur. I like this approach because it ensures that everyone in the community will sacrifice, not just the homeowners and not just the educators.