Sex, Drugs and Knockin’ Unions
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
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
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
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
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
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
It is the same argument unions once had to use to
prevent employers from discriminating against female employees when they became
Long Legal Battle
As usual, the legal fight followed a long and
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
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