What’s It Got to Do with The Price of Eggs?
Very smart people insist on comparing teachers to their college-educated counterparts in the private sector. Though I question the validity of such comparisons, I remain in the minority with my objections. So, we turn to the comparison and measure for ourselves. Spoiler alert: it’s more contrasts than comparisons.
Teachers’ jobs are ridiculous; those of us with skin in the game know this and do not, indeed cannot explain it to non-practitioners. Words usually fail, but here is another attempt because I love the attempt. Imagine teaching your own kid for six+ (or more) hours a day how to be computationally and linguistically and culturally and socially and scientifically and emotionally and psychologically and historically and empathetically and mechanically and physically literate. And of course, you would not settle for basic literacy, you would strive for sophistication. Now multiply that by 70 or more kids who are not your blood, kids who must be forced and tricked into enlightenment. Now, do it every day. Yeah, it’s a tough gig. But it’s one we love! Those of us who choose to answer that call have no real regrets. We complain about very little (to the public). Save this one thing.
Save this one thing!
We hate begging for an adjustment to our salary to keep pace with the price of eggs. And yet, we always seem to be in that kneeling position, and it wears thin. We kneel pleading before an unsympathetic school board, and we kneel in obedience to the self-serving commands of our Union.
Here, I make a correction and a plea. I cannot speak for all, but only for myself. But if you lend me your ear, I think you may find a kinship of ideas that bind us. I am tired of kneeling; I am weary of genuflecting to one and begging the other, all at the same time. A life on my knees does not suit me. You?
So, to the comparison. Our salaries are based on calendar years and education levels, but the comparisons really do end there. The rest is contrast as you can see for yourselves.
Teachers are contracted to “work days” that align with the students’ attendance, more or less. 180 days of 70 to 100 kids a day. Add on an extra dozen days or so for meetings and trainings. We have more days off than our private sector counterparts. If you are willing and capable to get the degrees and certifications necessary to be “highly qualified” enough to carry a roll book, you, too, may live this dream. That is not sarcasm.
The chart from the Economic Policy Institute suggests almost 30 years of flatlined wages. That’s us. I mean, that is literally my and many of my colleagues' careers' timeline right there. In the absence of politics or bias, this is observably and objectively a bummer. It also does not bode well for newcomers nor those approaching retirement. It bodes well for only the power brokers who have gamed the system somehow, tilting the table always in their favor, the LAUSD & UTLA.
Despite being touted as the 4th largest economy in the world, California teachers lag behind their similarly college-educated peers.
How have the District, Unions, and State failed so spectacularly where its teachers and education workers are concerned? There’s time for that and blame to go around.
But first, let’s see how our two organizations are faring. How’s the pay thing working out for the folks running the show in LA Unified? Read it for yourselves. Wow, am I right? Spending on out of classroom personnel is beyond control. And half a million bucks for some out-of-towner glory seeker who doesn’t know the difference between Pacoima and San Pedro? How about UTLA? Hmm, that’s a lot of six-figure incomes right there for folks who clearly have failed to do even the most basic job: recruit and maintain positive conditions for their employees (LAUSD) and complete their mandate to secure a contract for its members (UTLA).
With respect, these two organizations have failed for decades in basic and fundamentally unforgivable ways.
Though it does not please me to write it, when you’ve been swimming in a putrid lake for so long, you lose grasp of what fresh water tastes like. I offer the lake metaphor for dignity and self-worth of the rank-and-file such as myself. Maybe we can start to see ourselves in a better light, as people deserving of dignity; you know, the thing we give our kids every day we are on the job.
I remain optimistic because I believe there is a simple solution. And the cherry on top is that it is a solution that ends the disputatious relations between labor and management. It ends the contentious and drawn-out negotiations that only ever leave damage. I grow tired of someone else profiting from me being collateral damage. This solution would allow all parties to disengage from the salary dispute. With dignity. It truly is a win win.
It is called a cost-of-living adjustment (COLA). It is fair and objective. It is nothing new. It has been around since 1975. It came about because of high inflation and stagnant wages. Sound familiar? It is how the Social Security Administration calculates collections and disbursements.
It is the standard by which we measure livability.
Think of it this way: if eggs are more expensive, you’d breathe a little bit easier knowing that your salary will be adjusted based on those costs. It is simple, elegant, and fair. It has a floor of zero for capitalism’s “down” years. Every bull must have a bear, or so they say. And if they do not say it, they should! it sounds right.
The costs in question are calculated based on what we spend on energy, food, entertainment, and shelter. The Consumer Price Index or CPI. One year compared to the next and indexed to reflect the difference in percent from one year to the next. Simple. All we need is a salary as a starting point, and we already have that.
What we spend on eggs or milk is my favorite analogy because it is so easy to understand. The price is at eye-level, and I see it every week. Look at the volatility of the price of eggs and
compare it to the stagnation of our wages. UTLA got us a whopping 3% in the past 2 years. Eggs are up 70% in the past year alone. Um, take that in. We cannot expect a 70% salary increase, but a COLA is the next best thing for public service employees such as we are.
I expect next year’s COLA to be one of the higher ones, historically speaking. Is that what UTLA will negotiate? Fool me once… I suspect another backroom deal that protects both behemoth organizations and keeps us angsty and unsatisfied. But there is a more dignified path forward.
Look, I do not want to be hateful, but the truth is both organizations came into existence around the same time. So, it is natural to compare UTLA’s performance with that of the annual cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) index. There is no comparison, only a stark contrast. Since 1975, the COLA index has increased by 181.7%. How’s UTLA doing? In that same time period, teachers’ salaries have increased 69%. That is an embarrassing contrast no matter how you slice it.
As for the District, its obsession with star-powered superintendents has blurred its vision and purpose and decency. A governor, an admiral, and a capitalist walk into a public schoolboard meeting, what’s the worst that could happen? Seriously, what can a person who makes half a million buck possibly understand about the workers and families of this district? Nothing, that’s what. And school board members who all collect six-figure salaries. It is obscene.
We’re talking about decency, dignity, and fair play here. A cost-of-living adjustment for LAUSD teachers just makes sense considering the spectacular failure of both sides (UTLA & LAUSD) to negotiate a salary that even remotely keeps up with the cost of living. In the past fifty years, wages for the average teacher have remained relatively stagnant while inflation has climbed, steadily outpacing our salaries. That is a staggering failure.
I keep trying to imagine the counterarguments to implementing automatic salary adjustments based on the COLA and CPI. I keep failing. I keep thinking about the significance of this: $7.00 in 2023 has the same buying power as a buck and a quarter in 1975. That is a 82% decrease in spending power. Our wages have not kept up to counteract that. Of course, UTLA & the LAUSD cannot be blamed for the volatility of capitalism, they can, however, be relieved of the burden of calculating salaries moving forward.
Let me climb down off this high-horse and return now to the bully tactics of UTLA. “We are not going to discuss a cost-of-living adjustment (COLA),” is what I was told by Arlene Inouye. I will never forget her or Duffy. Their tone. They are not servant leaders. I know ego when I see it.
Me and my colleagues were shut down by rudeness and volume, not by force of a better argument. Once the shock wore off, it dawned on me why they “don’t want to talk about it.”
I am not the cowed new teacher I once was. I know a hawk from a handsaw. I know a bully when I see one. And I know a weak argument when I hear one, too.
A COLA provides the counted-on relief from the vicissitudes of capitalism. Remember, for all its strengths, capitalism is a fragile ecosystem. It soars AND plummets based on intangible things like fear and excitement. It often rights itself, and sometimes it does not. Capitalism shares a kinship with teaching in that both are planes being built during flight.
Teachers, like most other working-class folks, bore the brunt of the major and ongoing recessions of the 21st century. We took furlough days and pay cuts. We made sacrifices while bankers got bonuses. But there is a reason why it feels like we are always fighting for air. It is because we are. It’s because we kneel before two organizations who are determined to keep their knees on our collective necks.
We are just not keeping up with inflation or our peers with similar higher learning and degrees. Look, if we could negotiate something better than a COLA (which is what folks in the private world do), then we would. But we don’t. Facts. Instead, we depend on two organizations to bargain in good faith on our behalf, and I dare to say we are not getting a good capital return on our investment in these two organizations.
That’s it. We need to have written into our contract a COLA. Base our annual salary on the COLA Index as is published by the S.S.A. That’s it.
Thomas M. Alfera
p.s. I am not the only one responding to inflation and salary disputes this way.