After the Big Branch Mine disaster earlier this month, I was reflecting on something I remember a college professor telling me about unions in coal mining. Her take was that European Miners Unions for a variety of reasons, were able to concentrate their efforts on improving working conditions, and the overall safety in the mines, while U.S. unions concentrated on improvements in pay. The results were more injuries and fatalities in U.S. mines. Her thesis was that miners essentially paid with some of their lives for a salary that allows a family to live on one income with nothing more than a high school education in one of the most depressed job markets in the country.
While I work in a relatively benign profession in terms of workplace safety as measured by fatalities, working conditions are much more than just safety. All of the recent cuts in education funding aren’t just about jobs, and salary, but will also affect working conditions. These cuts are being paid for not just by firing teachers, but by raising the number of students in the classes of teachers left behind, and elimination of services that support students, and teachers. That’s what’s in the balance when locals make salary concessions.
Most locals seek to maximize pay for their members, which is always seen as good. I wonder how the merit pay proposals in Washington D.C. and my district fit into this? Is is a win-win, or is something being compromised for students, and workers that may not be obvious when looked at from a purely economic point-of-view.