Among the maneuvers for which one must watch when engaged in political dialogue is the rhetorical jujitsu whereby one side manages to force the other into defense of something that the defender actually opposes. A textbook case may be found in the health care debate, with “public option” and Medicare-for-all advocates’ attempting to force free-marketers into a defense of the status quo. In actuality, the latter are no less enthusiastic for reform; they just think it must be done in the opposite direction from the Democrats’ plan.
A more effective version of the political technique traps one side in a defense of a system that actually favors the other. A local example of this ploy has emerged with the sudden push for binding arbitration of Rhode Island teaching contracts. Looking to Connecticut, supporters declare that binding arbitration is a fair and balanced means of resolving the negotiation standstills that plague Rhode Island communities. It saves towns from the pain of such practices as “work to rule” while protecting teachers from cold-hearted school committees that would like nothing better than to lash them into contracts bordering on servitude.
The options that follow from this positioning of the problem are to support binding arbitration or rally on behalf of the power and authority of school committees and administrators. The catch is that Rhode Island school committees have been magnificently undeserving of defense.
In East Providence, the previous chairwoman was the former president of the secretaries’ union (and had two daughters and a son-in-law on the payroll). The chairperson before that was married to a middle school teacher. At the time that the Chariho school committee pushed out reformer Bill Felkner because he had also won a seat in his town’s council, six of 11 members had family working in the system.
Family members, retirees, and teachers from nearby towns are common characters on Ocean State school committees, as are community-minded locals with little concept of the games the unions are playing.
And so we get Rep. John Savage, R-East Providence, himself a retired teacher and principal who is married to another retired teacher – using a House Minority Office letterhead to lay out various statistics to prove that, in our neighboring state, binding arbitration falls out pretty evenly, perhaps even favoring management. Although Savage doesn’t supply the citation, his source appears to be a 2006 Program Review and Investigations Committee report from the Connecticut General Assembly, and it’s critical to note that, on wage increases, which compound year to year, the unions won 58 percent of the time; on another hot item in negotiations, “health insurance premium cost share issues,” they won 59 percent of the time. In a system that favors unions, one would expect arbitration to be a little bit closer to balanced than less contentious negotiations. What’s astonishing is how little it has saved taxpayers. By Savage’s numbers, 12 percent of contracts in the study went to arbitration, resulting in salary increases of 2.39 percent instead of the 2.48 percent average procured through completed negotiations.
In these most hard-fought disputes, arbitration lowers union members’ raises by nine-one-hundredths of a percentage point. Conspicuously absent are any instances in which union-member remuneration actually decreased, or even dipped below a 2 percent increase.
From a strategic perspective, then, binding arbitration is a fail-safe that the unions can grab as a lifeline when administrators, elected representatives and taxpayers mount an effective resistance to their inexorable absorption of municipal and state resources. That our typically inert General Assembly could find the matter worthy of action at a time of fiscal collapse should be no surprise. With dire necessity and residents’ political will changing the character of school committees, the union string-pullers wish to ensure that the system never backslides past the favorable status quo. •
Justin Katz is administrator of
AnchorRising.com, an independent media and conservative analysis blog.