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Sex, Drugs and Knockin’ Unions

Aug. 11, 2010
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It’s a gift from heaven for the talk shows when they can combine right-wing hatred for teachers’ unions with an opportunity to make middle-school penis jokes.

The witty quips broke out within minutes of the Associated Press reporting the Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association (MTEA) had filed suit claiming Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) were discriminating against male employees by failing to provide insurance coverage for Viagra.

The timing, of course, couldn’t be worse. The story came as demonstrations were taking place in Milwaukee over hundreds of MPS teachers being laid off.

Many of those teachers now could be rehired after Senate Democrats finally overcame a Republican filibuster blocking federal funds from going to the states to stop massive teacher layoffs across the country.

But people who obviously care little about the education of public school students now have an opportunity to loudly bemoan the priorities of unions today.

From the moment Viagra came onto the market, it has been the beneficiary of overwhelming media attention. Not that it wasn’t an amazing medical breakthrough: For $20 a pill, middle-aged men could achieve something that used to require purchasing a $60,000 sport utility vehicle.

To explain why the MTEA would intentionally walk into all the eye-rolling and forehead-slapping that goes with seeking insurance coverage for erectile dysfunction requires something we rarely do: Thinking about sex seriously.

Maybe we should start with the fact that sex is not a joke. That it is one of the most important experiences in our lives and in human relationships.

If we can agree on that, then sexual dysfunction really isn’t very funny either. Maybe the reason we treat it with such hilarity is out of the fear that if we don’t laugh loudly enough, someone might suspect we have a problem.

Because sexual dysfunction is a serious medical problem, MPS included Viagra and other drugs under its insurance coverage in 2002.

However, as the popularity—and apparent need—for such drugs grew, MPS proposed eliminating coverage in the 2003-2005 contract to reduce costs. Those negotiations went to arbitration and the arbitrator sided with management.

Since then, MTEA has pursued legal action to restore the drug coverage. It argues eliminating coverage for approved, medically necessary drugs to treat a condition that affects only men violates Wisconsin’s law against sexual discrimination.

It is the same argument unions once had to use to prevent employers from discriminating against female employees when they became pregnant.

Long Legal Battle

As usual, the legal fight followed a long and winding path.

In 2008, the MTEA filed a charge with the state’s Equal Rights Division, noting MPS covered treatment and drugs for sexual dysfunction in women, but specifically excluded Viagra and other medically approved drugs for men.

One of the most head-turning arguments made by the school district was that excluding coverage for Viagra was justified because such drugs were “mainly recreational.”

What century do lawyers live in when they can argue sex is only fun for men? It harkens back to an age when sex for women was considered a grim duty. They were supposed to grit their teeth and endure it.

A state administrative law judge for the Equal Rights Division never ruled on the issue of discrimination. Instead, the case was dismissed on a technicality. The union is now seeking review in the courts.

That’s why the MTEA is still pursuing the benefits case at the same time hundreds of teachers are being laid off. The timing gives union opponents an opportunity to decry that a dozen or so laid-off teachers could be rehired for the cost of covering Viagra.

But it’s not an either/or. It is the job of every union to fight both to protect the jobs of its members and to prevent the loss of benefits. 

That is especially true in today’s hostile, anti-union environment when every contract negotiation begins with management’s demand for drastic cuts in both jobs and benefits.

Many people are blind to the fact this important role of unions—protected by federal law—does not just benefit the union’s members. It benefits all of us.

We are still emerging from the worst recession since the Great Depression. Every time a job is saved by a union, every time an insurance benefit provides coverage for medical treatment—even treatment subject to mean-spirited jokes—money is being spent that helps the nation’s economy recover for everyone.

The more people have good jobs with benefits, the more money gets spent on goods and services. That in turn creates more good jobs with benefits to manufacture more goods and provide more services.

Republicans vote against job creation and for massive teacher layoffs because they don’t want any strong signs of economic recovery before the November elections to help the Democrats.

They’ve shown before they don’t need Viagra to do what they do to the country. n


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