Permit me to disabuse readers of the notion that teachers unions have too much power in South Dakota. In the Yankton School District, teachers reported to work on August 14, yet they had no contract until last night, when their board imposed on them a new contract.
The delay came because the school and the teachers' association could not agree on salary terms. After two years of frozen salaries, the teachers wanted a 3.5% raise. Midwest CPI data indicates that the teachers were lowballing inflation: from January 2011 to January 2013, the cost of living in the Midwest increased 4.2%. The school board was only willing to offer 2.25%.
The board declared impasse; the teachers asked for a hearing from the state Department of Labor and Regulation. The folks in Pierre, who work for the same governor who established the new norm of unnecessary austerity that axed school budgets statewide, affirmed everything the district demanded.
And so last night, after working for two months without a contract defining the terms of their employment, teachers got what the district wanted.
I suppose South Dakota teachers are lucky that our good and decent neighbors on our school boards are willing to negotiate at all. South Dakota school boards are lucky that teachers in general are dedicated professionals... which some might translate as saps, willing to work for the lowest teaching salaries in the nation, spend their own money on supplies the district ought to be buying for their classrooms, and otherwise bust their chops for the kids they love, even when they have no set contract. With South Dakota teachers generous to a fault, and stingy state officials willing to back local management in fiscal austerity, why would any school board accede teachers' demands?
New South Dakota Education Association director Daniel Besseck has his work cut out for him. I'd like to think that stronger labor laws would help Besseck help teachers get better wages, but I'm not sure many South Dakota teachers would strike even if state law allowed it. Electing more Democrats would help us write better protections for workers into law, as well as put South Dakota's money where its mouth is on education. But even in the utopia where we replace the current regime with legislators and a governor who see education and workers as investments, not the enemy, we would still need a generation to help South Dakota workers recover from their current powerlessness against management and redevelop a mindset that supports working together and fighting for their labor rights.