Teachers’ Salaries Rising but Still Fall Short

Salaries for the nation’s 2.3 million public school teachers may be improving more rapidly than for those of most other workers, but they still have a long way to go before the arithmetic adds up to compensation that is equal to their required skills and training.

And, while salaries are increasing overall, they still vary widely from community to community and state to state, ranging from starting salaries of less than $7,000 a year in some states, such as North Dakota and Arkansas, to $19,084 in Los Angeles and slightly higher than that in states such as New York and Michigan.

Regardless of their location, however, teachers continue to earn less than many other workers who have substantially less education. This is despite the fact that last year teachers’ salaries went up an average of 7.3%, compared to the 2.4% average wage hike negotiated in major collective bargaining settlements--the lowest since the government began keeping such figures 17 years ago.

Compounding the problem, the nationwide annual wage for teachers--about 65% of whom are women--still lags behind that paid to men in comparable jobs.

The National Education Assn. estimates that, even with recent salary gains, female-dominated teaching jobs average only about $26,000 a year, compared to $35,000 for male-dominated jobs that require comparable training, responsibility and skills.


That concept of “comparable worth” suffered a legal blow last week when the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the country’s first such statewide ruling, saying that the state of Washington does not legally have to offer men and women equal wages for jobs of comparable worth.

The unions are asking the U.S. Supreme Court to upset the ruling, but, even if that fails, the unions are not likely to be hurt--and might even be strengthened--because they would then be able to attract more women to their ranks by providing a viable alternative for comparable worth, this time through union contracts.

In the meantime, one of the most influential factors in the improvement of teachers’ salaries is a growing public awareness that massive teacher shortages may be alleviated only by paying more attractive salaries.

In Los Angeles, for instance, teachers’ salaries have gone up a healthy 22.7% since the 1982-83 school year, and the United Teachers of Los Angeles is currently in negotiations with the Board of Education asking for a minimum of $25,000 a year and a top wage of $50,000.

While they are not likely to get the increase that they’re seeking, the teachers could well get another $1,000 or so a year, and they are hoping to do that without having to strike.

And, across the country, teachers are heading back to the classrooms with relatively few strikes.

The idea of striking was once anathema to the NEA and to many teachers, who regarded such a practice as “unprofessional.” But in the early 1960s, the NEA, the nation’s largest teachers’ union, abandoned its tradition of opposing strikes as a means of gaining wage increases. Pressured by the inroads made into its membership by the more militant American Federation of Teachers, the NEA agreed with the AFT that strikes can--and should be--used as a last resort to help win pay raises for teachers.

It worked. By 1975, a record 242 strikes were called by the two unions; last year, there were only 103 strikes.

Nonetheless, the ranks of new teachers will be swelling, due to two coincidental factors: the “graying” of the teaching profession and the rising baby boomlet, which will bring more and more youngsters into schools and thus increase the need for teachers.

In Los Angeles, the average age of teachers is 42. William Rivera, special assistant to the superintendent of schools, says that means that “a substantial number of our teachers, like those in other school districts, will be retiring in the next five years or so, and we are going to need thousands of new teachers to meet the demand created just by teachers who retire because of age.”

In addition to the “graying” of the profession, there has been a higher-than-normal “dropout” rate by teachers under 35 who leave the profession because they can make more money in private industry.

Estimates vary widely, but at least 1 million more teachers will be needed by 1991 to fill vacancies nationwide. Unfortunately, that is more than double the number that will enter the profession from colleges and universities during that same period of time.

To attract teachers, the overall salary average must continue to increase. Teaching needs to regain its status among career choices and once again become a sought-after profession, not just for women forced by discrimination to “settle” for teaching posts but for more and more men who will find salaries competitive with those in other jobs.

Battle in Britain

In a move that is upsetting hopes of the Conservative Party headed by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, Britain’s union members are voting overwhelmingly in favor of continuing to make contributions to the rival Labor Party political funds.

On top of that, unions that did not have them before are now considering creating such funds.

Thus, a plan designed by the Thatcher government to weaken labor unions and their ally, the Labor Party, has backfired badly.

Unions provide up to 80% of the Labor Party’s total budget, and Thatcher’s Trade Union Act--passed last year--was designed to break that crucial financial link between the unions and the Labor Party.

The act requires that each British union hold a separate election to decide if members want to continue such political contributions.

One public opinion poll estimated that only 37% of the union members would vote to continue the political funds, and, had that come to pass, the Labor Party’s finances could have been decimated.

Graham Allen, national coordinator of the unions’ campaign to keep the funds, said in a telephone interview that, as of early last week, nearly half of the 37 unions with political funds have finished balloting on the issue, and members have voted, by a whopping 85% margin, to keep them.

The Labor Party has been badly weakened in recent years by intra-party battles and by two disastrous defeats at the polls. Only 39% of union members backed the Labor Party in the last election.

And unions there have also been losing power, severely divided by internal squabbles and by the prolonged strike of militant coal miners.

Union membership in Britain is still high compared to that in the United States: Only about 19% of U.S. workers are union members, compared to slightly more than 40% in Britain.

But, as in the United States, British union membership has declined sharply as a percentage of the total work force.

In both countries, labor’s traditional industrial base is eroding and anti-union sentiment is growing, fanned in Britain by conservative Thatcher and in the United States by conservative Reagan.

May Help Labor Party

Some authorities on British politics, such as Leonard Freedman, dean of UCLA Extension and a professor of political science, have said that unions in Britain are even more unpopular than in the United States.

“In the long run,” he says, the Labor Party might be helped if the unions stopped their contributions, since such a move would reduce the negative impact of the unpopular unions on the party.

Such optimism was scorned by most British union and Labor Party leaders. On the other hand, Thatcher and her allies were delighted by what seemed to be a shrewd move that would mean a major defeat for the unions and the Labor Party at the hands of union members themselves.

But the British Trade Union Congress helped affiliated unions put on a massive campaign to win approval of the continuation of the political funds, and it has paid off handsomely.

The campaign played down the historic links between British unions and the Labor Party, and it stressed instead the need for union members to have a strong, united voice in the political arena.

Without a majority vote of its members, the Trade Union Act says that no union can spend money “on production, publication or distribution of any literature, document, film, sound recording or advertisement, the main purpose of which is to persuade people to vote or not to vote for a political party or candidate.”

That could also have ended unions’ “sponsorship” of nearly half of the Labor Party’s 209 members of Parliament. In addition to money given directly to the Labor Party, unions provide direct help for its “sponsored” candidates, most of whom are active union members.

Frustrated Thatcher Conservatives have denounced the unions’ campaign as, in the words of one government official, “a blatant example of deliberate dis-information and misleading propaganda.”

Incidentally, individual union members still have the option of “contracting out” of paying into political funds. They do this simply by writing a note to their union. Many, in fact, do that now.

All unions must complete balloting by the end of this year, and union leaders say some may still vote to stop their contributions.

But Allen, the unions’ campaign director, said last week that he doubts that any unions will drop their funds.

He also says that he is “delighted,” not only with the results of the elections so far but also by the fact that several unions without political funds were so angered by the Thatcher maneuver that they may soon create funds of their own.

Perhaps more important, however, is the fact that British union leaders are apparently being forced by the elections into closer contact with their members.

It might be a valuable lesson for those union leaders in this country who have drifted away from their members.