Paul Toner

The myths about unions

Wood shop teacher Ben Kellman instructs eighth-grade student Nick Barbas at a middle school in Bellerica. Wood shop teacher Ben Kellman instructs eighth-grade student Nick Barbas at a middle school in Bellerica. (Mark Wilson for The Boston Globe)
By Paul Toner
March 6, 2011

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THE ATTACK on teachers and other public employees in Wisconsin is based on claims that unionized workers are overpaid and society will be better off if we are stripped of our bargaining rights. In Massachusetts, most political leaders reject these contentions, but the airwaves are buzzing with misinformation that needs correcting.

Our union fights to help both students and teachers. We led efforts to defeat two recent ballot questions that would have eliminated essential public services. We advocate for small class sizes and strong public colleges. In the 1990s, we funded a lawsuit to increase state funding for low-income school districts.

Our efforts have paid off. Massachusetts, with one of the highest teacher unionization rates in the country, now also has the highest level of student achievement.

Despite our successes, many people have bought the unexamined line that public employee compensation is excessive. In fact, numerous studies show that total public employee compensation — pay and benefits combined — is the same as or lower than compensation for similar private-sector workers.

The biggest myth is that our pensions are overly generous. Teachers pay about 90 percent of their own pension costs. Like other public employees, we do not participate in Social Security, saving taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars a year because the state doesn’t contribute 6.2 percent of our salaries into that system.

On average, we pay 10 percent of our salaries toward our own pensions, the state pays 2 percent, and municipalities pay nothing. That’s a bargain for taxpayers. What’s more, our pensions are not extravagant, averaging $38,637 a year for teachers and school administrators.

Health benefits are more complex. Most municipal employees pay from 10 to 50 percent of their premium costs, some more and some less than is typical in the private sector.

Nonetheless, unions recognize that the fiscal crisis threatens local services, and we are working to find ways to reduce municipal health care costs. The process is sometimes difficult, but collective bargaining is essential for creating a fair balance.

Collective bargaining didn’t cause the economic meltdown, and crushing unions won’t solve it. Unions played a pivotal role in improving working conditions, winning the 40-hour workweek, safety laws, sick days, vacations, and other benefits we now take for granted.

Unions also raise the standard of living for everyone by increasing wages and putting money in the pockets of middle-class families who spend it locally. Not surprisingly, the economy prospered when unionization was at its peak in the 1950s.

Those who doubt unions’ value should look at what has happened to the middle class since unionization rates began plummeting. Today, the richest 1 percent has as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent — the largest gap since 1929.

Maybe people should be looking for relief from those responsible for the Great Recession rather than directing their anger at the people who patrol our streets, collect our trash, and teach our children.

Paul Toner, a middle school teacher in Cambridge, is president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association.