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Pay Cuts for Professionals: On Human Capital, Not Workers' Rights


The recent anti-union turmoil in Wisconsin, Indiana, Ohio, and New Jersey has many commentators wondering about the fate of public-sector unions in the U.S. Teachers seem to be the primary target of Gov. Scott Walker's proposed changes in Wisconsin, but as NPR notes, anti-union sentiment is on the rise across the board as private-sector workers question the compensation, benefits, and job security of public-sector workers.

While I am sympathetic to the cause of pro-teacher protestors in Wisconsin and elsewhere, it's wrongheaded to approach good pay and benefits for teachers as a "worker's rights" issue. Educators are not "workers" in the traditional sense; we are professionals, and we can't have it both ways. Either we act like professionals all the time, or we'll be treated like "workers" all the time. If you've spent any time in the Rust Belt, you know it's not a good time to be a "worker." But it's never a bad time to be a professional.

We have to consider both the political climate and the evolving identity of our profession. Imagine if a crowd of doctors gathered at the state capital to insist on their "rights" in the workplace, namely job security, compensation, and benefits such as health coverage and retirement. How would the public react? With incredulity and disdain—doctors are professionals who make their own choices about where to work and what kind of work to do. If they don't like what they're being offered, they can take their skills elsewhere. This is so obvious that we don't even use words like "exploit" or "protect" or "rights" to discuss the working conditions of doctors.

Why do we think less of teachers? Teaching is no less portable a profession than medicine, and if teachers don't like what they're getting in one place, they can take their talents elsewhere. This should be the core argument of educators in Wisconsin, Indiana, and elsewhere: If we underpay teachers, they will leave, and they'll be replaced by subpar people who have fewer options. The quality of our education system will suffer, and we'll have to either pay much more to attract talent in the future, or we'll have to pay the consequences of an inferior education system in the long run, such as higher rates of incarceration and unemployment.

I believe that educators should be paid well and treated well. But it's critical to frame this as a human capital issue, not a workers' rights issue. The public is not sympathetic to workers' rights, because everyone is a worker, and most people do not have nearly the level of "rights" that teachers and other unionized public-sector employees enjoy.

Once upon a time, one could argue that teachers need to have their rights protected because they make so much less money and have fewer options than other professionals such as doctor and lawyers. In this economy, though, that argument fails to hold water. When private-sector workers see that teachers make more than they do, and have a high degree of job security, it doesn't matter that teachers make less than doctors. When the debate centers on workers' rights, and teachers make more than most private-sector workers, the arguments for teachers' rights fall flat. We need to take a different tack, starting with the premise that teachers are professionals.

The economic realities in many states are stark, so it's worth considering: How do professionals avoid pay cuts? Ask your doctor or attorney. When professionals want to make more money (or avoid making less), they exercise options that will achieve their objectives. This might mean moving to a new area, choosing a new employer, working in a different subspecialty, or obtaining advanced certification and training. Or it might mean simply threatening to quit. Doctors do not rally together and demand their "rights," because doing so would cast them as victims rather than professionals.

One issue that I will acknowledge as an exception is vested pensions, which are a form of deferred compensation that has already been earned. We must insist that pension obligations are honored, even as we move away from pension programs to more sustainable retirement plans for public employees. Retirees (and vested near-retirees) do not have the same range of options that working professionals enjoy; they deserve and need our protection.

On all other issues, though, it's time to stop using words like "protect" and "exploit" and "rights" to talk about professional working conditions for educators. When we cast ourselves as victims, we lose the professional respect that is at the heart of the only viable argument for better pay and other working conditions—the human capital argument.

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