I Am A Teachers’ Union Man (With An Asterisk)

Summary: Against a decline of unions in general, scant evidence exists for charges from free market types that teachers unions are a chief hindrance to school reform. But there is room for teachers’ unions to be more effective school change agents.

As a union partisan from my early days as a teacher, I cringe at the various portrayals of teachers’ unions as the chief hindrance to school reform. I say cringe because I fundamentally support teachers’ unions in concept, while fully cognizant that in some circumstances in some districts unions have gone overboard and protected professional malfeasance and incompetence. However, I argue that the evidence teachers’ unions have single handily stymied school reform is scant and derives chiefly from ideologically burdened reform minded free market types on the right.

crowd-1294991_1280The union movement has been under successful attack for a long time, largely by corporations who view unions as siphoning profit. The boardroom has been surgical in the way it has moved factories into the lower wage and non-union south and overseas, undercutting traditional manufacturing areas, and the so-called living wage once made possible by union negotiated wages.

Moreover, corporate types wrap themselves in the flag and trumpet the virtues of “right to work” states which specifically prohibit required dues in union shops, and thereby suppress unions, pay lower wages, and pocket the difference. It is an argument cynically made, but which plays well to independent types who resist a yoke of any kind. Hello, the Southland.

Partly as a consequence, general union membership today is at levels not seen since the early 1930’s; during much of this decline income inequality has soared. However, within the general decline, one study estimates that wages are 10% to 30% higher in locales where unions are more prevalent.

It’s difficult to see how the momentum shifts in the foreseeable future, with the ascendance of a Republican majority in the halls of government and the current proffer of “health care for all” that will eliminate coverage for tens of millions. The latter, not a good sign.

In this country, at least, it seems difficult to establish a middle ground on unionism. Unions are either the savior and protector that can do no wrong, or an emissary of the devil that weakens American enterprise. Of course, the truth is somewhere in between the two narratives. We have only to look to the European models, where we are told union representatives have a seat at the table with corporate managers. Collegial work is done on problems that are mutually faced.

Teachers unions have not escaped the tumult, partly because teachers are overly blamed by critics for the stagnant state of schools in this country, partly because of “right to work” arguments fanned capably if surreptitiously by corporate and conservative agents, and partly from certain school reform advocates who charge that union rules in contract with school bureaucracies are the very stuff that prevent educational change; therefore change requires escape from unions and school bureaucracy through refuge in the charter or voucher movement; blow the whole thing up.

I wind my way betwixt and between these various vectors. As a young teacher in Boston under the brow of the dreaded and retrograde “School Committee,” (remember Louise Day Hicks?), in the name of encouraging student creativity, I once over enthusiastically allowed a talented cartoonist on the school paper to use school copying supplies to run off what would now be viewed as slightly off color cartoon strip, for which I was hauled on the carpet. In reality, I don’t now think my job was under serious threat, but I was fervently glad that a union representative was present to make sure due process was honored.

That kind of representation I think is still valid, even in more egregious situations where a job might best be terminated.

Yet this is also an area of legitimate criticism. In every school there are teachers and other staff who are not pulling their weight, and are never sufficiently challenged to upgrade their merit. In truth, to some extent administrators who review teachers are overburdened with too many responsibilities, but in part they are overtaxed because the rules to remove are simply too onerous, and their own training too limited in how to challenge a weak teacher to improve. The upshot is the prototypical figure of the aging and sagging teacher, feet propped on desk, reading the newspaper, while students do worksheets amid flying paper airplanes and spit wads. Difficult to upgrade or get rid of him, and students and test scores suffer.

Yet the alternatives, the charters and the vouchers, that sidestep the bureaucratic rules and import younger and passionate teachers, have proven only marginally more able in limited cases to improve the lot of low income students.

Poverty and its effects on the development of the young and the poor is far and away the more entrenched adversary.

There is even some scant evidence among mostly mixed data that locales with stronger teachers’ unions produce modestly better test scores among low income students.

Nonetheless, unions are justly criticized, I think, for not being more a part of the solution. Negotiate more accountability for members, with fair due process. Negotiate loosening of various rules that protect teachers and strengthen practices proven to promote the well-being of kids and the improvement of our schools; be a partner in the difficult task of figuring out what works. Be a bit more entrepreneurial and a bit less status quo oriented. Conceive being a teacher as an advocate for reform via the union, admittedly a duty that in the short run takes energies from the classroom.

For teachers’ unions to be professionally progressive advocates on behalf of kids would be a shift of purpose. Unions have traditionally been protectors of its members’ economic interests, though as quasi-public organizations that negotiate with public school systems, that role has often been less adversarial and more muted than the violent labor/corporate clashes of the late 19th and early 20th century. Often in my experience, school boards have been sympathetic in principle to union demands for higher salaries, but philosophically see the fiscal realities differently than the union. As befits an adversarial culture, conflict still arises.

Variously under fire as unions, teachers’ unions have allowed the crescendo of public criticism to drive them into a bunker mentality, on the defensive, too little claiming the high ground as school change advocates, let alone as legitimate protectors of teachers’ economic interests. We school people know more about kids and their education than most of those who aim their weaponry in our direction, but we advocate too seldom on our students’ behalf as a public body. Unions should do so as our representative, and perhaps reclaim the vitality and effective posture their antecedents in the earlier part of the 20th century enjoyed.

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