03/21/2011 06:21 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

New York State Teachers Fight Back

Teachers' unions now face decertification and an end to collective bargaining in Wisconsin and Michigan. In Wisconsin, the governor and legislature passed legislation ending collective bargaining rights for public employees. In Michigan, the governor was empowered to take over financially troubled local governments and schools and cancel labor contracts.

Teachers' unions are also being pressed by massive cuts in education budgets in a number of other states, including New York. In New York City, the mayor is using the threat of 4,600 layoffs to spur a campaign to mortally wound the union by ending seniority rights. He has received support from wealthy foundations and even wealthier hedge-fund operators who see breaking the teachers' unions as a major step toward privatizing education and turning schools into for-profit institutions.

In New York State, NYSUT, the New York State United Teachers, the umbrella organization representing local teachers' unions, is responding with a major preemptive campaign to rally teachers, students, parents, and communities to oppose the budget cuts. The campaign began with a television ad campaign declaring, "New York's schoolchildren should not suffer deep budget cuts so millionaires can enjoy tax breaks." The ad concludes with a little boy angrily scolding a corporate executive, "You need a time out!" According to the ad, the proposed state budget calls for a $1.5 billion cut in school funding and a $1.2 billion cut in taxes on wealthy New Yorkers.

NYSUT is also sponsoring a series of rallies as part of its "Educate New York State" campaign against proposed cuts in the education budget. On March 15, there were rallies in Albany, Syracuse, and Binghamton and on March 16 in Yonkers, Buffalo, Albany, and Watertown. Rallies are also planned for Rochester, Brooklyn, the Bronx, Manhattan, Queens, Staten Island, and Port Jervis. On Thursday March 24, a massive turnout is expected for a rally scheduled for Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York where I teach. The rally is set for 6 PM in the student athletic facility.

In recent conversations I have had with parents and newer teachers, many had little sense of how the teachers' union helped establish teaching as a profession and improve conditions for students. They also had little idea what conditions will be like if the union weakens.

Many young teachers, as well as the general public, do not understand the origin of the great disparity in pay between beginning teachers, in New York City the starting salary is $45,000 a year, and long term veterans who might earn over $100,000 a year. The Bloomberg Administration has been using this disparity in its campaign to lay-off veteran teachers in the next round of budget cuts and keep supposedly "excellent" cheaper new teachers.

The teachers' unions did not create this unfair pay scale. When I started teaching in 1971 in New York City there were eight steps to maximum salary. Today New York City has an additional five longevity steps, the last after 22 years of service, before reaching maximum pay. During the 1970s and 1980s, instead of granting raises in a period of double-digit inflation, the city added the longevity steps and promised teachers that if they accepted salary freezes and minimum increases in the present they would be paid in the future. Now Bloomberg and the city want to get rid of veteran teachers so they do not have to make good on what was promised in the past.

Newer teachers, and workers in other industries, need to realize that if seniority protection is removed for teachers everyone becomes vulnerable once they have a little experience and command a higher salary. Instead of removing union protection from teachers and other civil service workers, it needs to be extended to all workers in the private and public sectors.