Teachers, Tenure, and Labor Unrest

As a tenured professor at a state school with a conventional pension plan, I have been very interested in the recent labor unrest in Wisconsin. Throw in the facts that my grandfather was a local politician in Wisconsin and that I have a first cousin in that state who is an elementary teacher, and the story becomes impossible for me to ignore.

Actually, there are several interrelated issues involved in this whole matter. Many of them revolve around the nature of a teaching career. Perhaps the most controversial one is the basic idea of tenure. An older colleague of mine once summed up my thoughts about tenure when he said: “I’m not sure whether we should have tenure, but I know that if we have it, I want it.”

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Tenure, as I have always understood it, is not really about job security; it’s about academic freedom. The idea is that professors, who are expected to write potentially controversial articles and books about their research, should not be subject to losing their job because of something they write while exploring new ideas. Removing that risk encourages better research.

Of course, if that is the true reason for tenure, then high school and elementary school teachers don’t really have much need of it. Few of them conduct or publish research. That is not part of their job.

Frankly, with modern labor laws and our current understanding of the First Amendment, the academic freedom of most college professors is pretty well protected even without tenure. Unfortunately, some professors view tenure as a license to quit conducting research and instead take life (and the job) easy. That hurts the school and sets a bad example for students. If tenure is nothing more than job security, it really has outlived its usefulness.

Another aspect of the labor unrest in Wisconsin relates to unions for public employees. Unions certainly have played an important role in advancing workers’ rights, and the Catholic Church has traditionally stood with the unions. Unions, however, seem most appropriate for true laborers — people who are paid on a seniority-based scale, not professionals who are judged on their individual accomplishments. For that reason, I have difficulty with the concept of unionized college faculties. Perhaps primary and secondary school teachers are different. I do know, however, that when children see their teachers on strike, it hurts their shared relationship — especially if there is anything approaching violence along a picket line.

Wisconsin’s Gov. Scott Walker, of course, has sought to strip public workers of their right to collectively bargain. One argument in support of this move is that these unions are powerful enough to help elect the very state officials with whom they negotiate — or to help defeat a politician who negotiates too hard for the state. As such, the unions may have an unjustifiable amount of power in the negation process.

That argument is interesting, but it’s a hard case to make. Rarely are teachers or other public employees considered overpaid, as would be the case if the unions were really that powerful. But Wisconsin teachers apparently do have some pretty good contracts when it comes to insurance and retirement. They contribute less to those specific funds than do most private employees. Of course, that may simply be a matter of how their compensation is allocated (into these funds instead of increased pay).

Wisconsin teachers’ traditional pension plan (as opposed to a 401(k) type of retirement plan) has also come under some scrutiny. Due to recent economic developments, traditional plans seem particularly attractive, but that has not always been the case. Twenty-four years ago, when I began working for Mississippi, I did not have a choice. If I had one, I would have opted for a 401(k) plan, which seemed much more attractive for a very long time.

One of the reasons 401(k) plans were attractive was that they were portable; traditional pensions were not. Since traditional pensions became payable after 25 years, there came a point in time when it was no longer reasonable to consider moving, regardless of the opportunity. There is a cost associated with traditional pensions, then, and it seems unfair to hold against the teachers the fact that a plan that was offered to them (and perhaps forced upon them) has turned out to be favorable to them.

Milwaukee Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki has called on Wisconsin lawmakers, workers, labor unions, and others to work together for the common good. Bishop Robert Morlino of the Diocese of Madison made clear that (contrary to some media reports) the Church is not “backing” one side or the other. Instead, the Church begins with the question of what will ultimately serve the common good, and it recognizes that arguments on both sides must be weighed with an eye toward that end. As these interrelated issues spread to other states (already Ohio, Indiana, and California), let’s hope that decision-makers take the approach laid out by the bishops and that the resolution serves the needs of the community, the teachers, and their students.




  • Ronald J. Rychlak

    Ronald J. Rychlak is the associate dean and MDLA Professor of Law at the University of Mississippi School of Law. He is the author of Hitler, the War, and the Pope (Revised and Expanded) (2010) and Righteous Gentiles (2005).

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