CAUGHT IN THE WEB: The Teacher Union Counterattack

A disturbingly successful ideological assault on teachers’ unions has united both parties. Those unions—well funded and full of smart, skilled people—should be leading a rousing cyber-counterattack. Alas, it would be an exaggeration to suggest they were doing this. But the National Education Association’s site does offer excellent talking points—and data—for the pro-union arguments that we all should be bringing into everyday conversation (because, sadly, everyone has neighbors, relatives, and PTA friends who hate teachers’ unions).

The best place to start is the NEA’s “Myths and Facts about Educator Pay” page (www., which debunks the notion that teachers are well paid, compared to other professionals. In fact, the average national starting salary for teachers is just a little over $30,000/year, less than that of computer programmers or public accountants. Even sexism—though that’s undoubtedly part of the picture—can’t explain it: registered nurses, another mostly-female field, also make significantly higher starting salaries than teachers. The site also shows that the longer a person teaches, the wider the gap between her salary and the salaries of other professionals. The NEA’s site addresses the popular notion that teachers don’t deserve decent salaries because they have “all that time off.” Studies of teacher workdays show that they spend at least fifty hours a week on instructional duties, including preparation, grading, parent conferences, and so forth. As for their much-vaunted summer vacations, many teachers aren’t headed for the beach when the weather gets warm: they’re working second jobs to offset their low salaries, or taking classes to improve their teaching and advance their careers (often undertaking such professional development at their own expense). The NEA site also shows the starting salaries of other public-school workers  (janitors, lunch supervisors, bus drivers); its data certainly refutes the idea that any money is being “wasted” on labor, or that anyone is making more than she deserves.

Another site with superb data to support a teacher counterattack is that of the Educator Compensation Institute ( default.aspx). The ECI—which is not funded by teachers’ unions—has posted a study showing that merit pay does not raise student test scores—a beloved plank of the union-busting education reform agenda. The ECI’s site also has a Teacher Turnover Cost Calculator (www. teacher_turnover.html), which shows how to calculate the cost of your school’s or district’s teacher turnover rate—a number not often mentioned in these debates, despite the fact that recruiting, hiring, and training new teachers is expensive. The ECI provides a map of the nation, with links outlining compensation systems—existing and proposed—other than merit pay.

Leeches and Fat Cats?

The American Federation of Teachers, the nation’s other major teachers’ union, also has some fine resources on its site, including its Public Employees’ Compensation Survey ( pubemps/pecompsurvey0910.pdf), an annual study of state government jobs, which shows that not only teachers but most public employees, contrary to popular myth, make less than those in the private sector. The Economic Policy Institute (EPI), a left-liberal think tank based in Washington, D.C., which has one of the best websites around (—dedicated to debunking the current anti-labor nonsense masquerading as “common sense”—has also taken on the myth of the overpaid public sector worker ( entry/public_sector_workers_earn_less). College-educated workers in the public sector earn nearly $23,000/year less than their privatesector counterparts.

For catchier resources that are easier to use in a campaign, the best site (hands down) is Stop the Lies, a collaboration between the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees and Robert Greenwald’s Brave New Films. A five-minute video on the site features public sector workers like Lashon Wiggers, a laid-off child care director in California who, though she’s unemployed, is still concerned about the well-being of the children she looked after. The video also presents facts like these: “Average AFSCME public sector worker pension: $19,000. Total Wall Street bonuses distributed in 2009: $20.3 billion.” In addition to the video, Stop the Lies offers fact sheets debunking popular misconceptions about public pensions, budgets, and collective bargaining.

Though the blogosphere does not always reward rational thinking, it has displayed some on this subject: Dave Johnson at Campaign for America’s Future has a stellar round-up of smart, liberal blog responses to the current war on public employees ( understanding-attacks-public-employees).

DIY Budget Balancing

One of the most politically useful sites on the Internet, for public sector workers and everyone who believes that a public sector is still needed, is an application that allows readers to balance budgets themselves. The Los Angeles Times has one for California, which has been in dire straits ( It’s a wonderful way to demystify the budget, and to expose as false the politically-motivated insistence that states “simply don’t have any money” for schools and other bare-bones public-sector essentials. It turns out that, politics aside, it’s easy to solve California’s budget problems. (For example, after a few sin taxes, a mild tax increase on the rich, and letting some nonviolent inmates out of prison, the state ends up with billions in surplus.) It’s a tool that other states should widely copy before the public credulously caves in to governors’ demands for austerity. When you’ve finished solving California’s problems, move on to those of the federal government, for which the New York Times has a budget-balancer of its own ( weekinreview/deficits-graphic.html).

The Man Behind the “Facts”

With so many myths floating around about the labor movement, it behooves us to know exactly who the chief mythologists are—and who pays their salaries. Just about everyone in the labor movement is familiar with the right-wing smear sites (,, and http://, maintained by the Center for Union Facts (CUF) and dedicated to making labor unions look as bad as possible: corrupt, thuggishly violent, expensive for taxpayers, a drain on business.

But more usefully, a website called Berman Exposed ( is maintained by CREW (Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington), a non-profit dedicated to “ethics and accountability in government and public life.” This site explains that CUF and its websites—along with numerous other fake non-profit front groups—are all essentially the work of one highly-paid rightwing lobbyist: Richard Berman. In addition to CUF, several of Berman’s other astroturf groups—like the Employment Policies Institute, which opposes minimum wage increases and living wage legislations, and the Employee Freedom Action Committee, which formed to oppose the Employee Free Choice Act—are anti-labor. But Berman has founded other groups—on behalf of his corporate clients—to oppose Mothers Against Drunk Driving, to defend the tobacco industry, and even to attack the Humane Society. Sunlight Scam represents the indoor-tanning industry and claims that tanning has numerous health benefits. The Center for Consumer Freedom is dedicated to attacking anyone concerned about food safety or obesity, putting out websites like, which seeks to counter rampantly evidence-based concerns about mercury in fish. The CREW site estimates that Berman runs at least fifteen industry-funded “non-profit organizations” and holds at least sixteen different “positions” within them. He’s done so well in this line of work that, in 2006, he was able to buy a $3.3 million house, a photo of which is, fortunately, displayed on the Berman Exposed website.

Calculating a Living Wage

One of the issues that Richard Berman has been paid to fight the hardest on is that of living wages. The Economic Policy Institute’s site has an easy-to-use living wage calculator. Enter your location and—based on the cost of food, housing, child care, transportation, and health care—it tells you what constitutes a living wage in your area ( The Poverty in America Project at Pennsylvania State University has a similar calculator, modeled on the Economic Policy Institute’s ( Diana Pearce of the University of Washington developed a similar self-sufficiency calculator for that state’s Workforce Development Office (, which can be used by individual workers—to determine their needed income—as well as by advocates.

Defending Academic Freedom for Adjuncts

While labor lags behind other social movements in Internet organizing, some inspiring models are emerging. At the beginning of the year, Kristofer Petersen-Overton—an adjunct—was fired from the City University of New York’s Brooklyn College, just after a right-wing Zionist politician criticized his course on the Middle East for being too sympathetic to Palestinians. In an opinion piece for the CUNY Graduate Center’s newspaper, Petersen-Overton wrote:

In the blink of an eye, I have been denied tuition remission, access to subsidized health care for my family, and financial compensation for the spring semester in a time of serious economic uncertainty. If the college’s decision stands, it should send a chill throughout the entire adjunct community.

CUNY graduate students—led by political science Ph.D. candidate, Michael Busch— mobilized, using what they had: eloquence, access to other scholars, and Internet savvy. They started a blog on the issue ( and solicited letters from a wide swath of intellectuals, including Noam Chomsky and Mahmood Mamdani. The administrators were bombarded with letters urging them to reconsider their decision, and there was some press about the matter. (Full disclosure: I also wrote a letter.) All the letters went up on the blog, which only inspired more people to write. After just a few days of this epistolary assault, Petersen-Overton was rehired.