Instead of hating on teachers, imagine if we all had unions

With one teachers strike still happening in Washougal and another narrowly avoided in Camas, we’ve had our fair share of discussions about teachers salaries, unions, collective bargaining and picket lines in the newsroom.

Teachers strikes are not as black and white as people like to believe.

For instance, it’s not uncommon for people who support teachers to still get dismayed when they compare their own industry’s payscale to those being nailed down by the teachers union — a first-year teacher with a bachelor’s degree in the Camas School District, for example, is now earning about $17,000 more than the average newspaper reporter with more than 15 years experience and the same degree.

And we all know people who genuinely praise teachers for their commitment but still bite the inside of their cheeks to keep from screaming when their educator friends, who work 180 days a year to most workers’ 245 days, ask, “So, what are you doing this summer?”

And while we know — through our reporting, educational backgrounds and as parents with children in the public school system — exactly how hard most teachers work, it’s still OK to worry how lower-income families in Washougal are coping with the extra costs of scraping together last-minute childcare or facing unpaid days off work throughout the teacher strike.

One thing that often gets lost in the discussions surrounding teacher strikes is the fact that most workers in the United States are not represented by a union and, really, have very little job security or financial protection, so they may fight to protect their “tax dollars” and feel anger over the fact that public employee salaries continue to rise while theirs stagnate.

Instead of fighting for stronger workers’ rights for everyone, we often fall into the trap of blaming the people competing with us for scraps instead of challenging the folks throwing those scraps from their ivory towers.

Instead of griping about how much teachers actually make as we “per-hour” their annual salaries, maybe we should be asking how we can get to a similar point in our own industries. Why aren’t we all asking for living wages, more time off and better working conditions? Why aren’t we all fighting for stronger unions across the board instead of shrugging as our maybe-multi-millionaire president and the U.S. Supreme Court decimate worker protections and chip away at the strength of existing unions?

Although union membership in the U.S. continues to drop — in 2017 there were 14.8 million union members in the U.S. compared to 17.7 million in 1983 — belonging to a union means greater job security and higher median wages in both the public and private sectors.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), in 2017, “nonunion workers had median weekly earnings that were 80 percent of earnings for workers who were union members.”

The BLS report showed very few industries — mostly in the finance and computer sectors — where belonging to a union resulted in lower median weekly wages. For those in service occupations, including healthcare, food preparation and sales, belonging to a union bumped the median weekly wage from $518 to $792. For those in private sector industries like mining, construction and manufacturing, union representation resulted in a median weekly salary increase of about $170.

Other countries have strong unions — in Iceland, 92 percent of workers belong to a union — but, in the U.S., the power of unions has decreased steadily since massive layoffs in the early 1980s convinced workers they could make do with lower wages and less collective bargaining protections if it meant keeping their jobs.

The push to destroy what’s left of the American union is stronger than ever, though. In May, President Donald Trump, a man who hires non-union, immigrant “guest workers” to do the dirty work at his own golf club resorts, signed three executive orders meant to deliver blows to the unions protecting federal workers. And, in June, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down laws requiring government workers to pay union fees.

But what happens if the unions go? We know median wages will fall. And lower-paid workers will never make our communities healthier.

This week, while we still have Labor Day memories fresh in our minds, let’s think about taking another road when it comes to things like teacher strikes — instead of letting our jealousy over pay raises and days off warp our minds, let’s use our collective energy and resources to figure out how we might shift the power back to all workers by strengthening, not destroying, America’s unions.