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- CA Bill Addresses Suspensions and Expulsions - September 11, 2014
- Teaching Ferguson: Resources for High School - September 3, 2014
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- The State of Education: Funding Control Changes in California - February 26, 2014
In February 2011, about 1,000 Wisconsin teachers protested Gov. Scott Walker’s attempt to hinder union bargaining rights. Ripple effects were felt throughout the nation: political leaders sought to reform unions in each New Jersey, Nevada, Indiana, and Florida, to name a few.
In her report on these stories, Jennifer Epstein of Politico writes, “Teachers unions, historically one of the most powerful interest groups in American politics, are being besieged like never before — under attack from conservative GOP governors with a zeal for budget-cutting, [fusion_builder_container hundred_percent="yes" overflow="visible"][fusion_builder_row][fusion_builder_column type="1_1" background_position="left top" background_color="" border_size="" border_color="" border_style="solid" spacing="yes" background_image="" background_repeat="no-repeat" padding="" margin_top="0px" margin_bottom="0px" class="" id="" animation_type="" animation_speed="0.3" animation_direction="left" hide_on_mobile="no" center_content="no" min_height="none"][while simultaneously being under] fire from some Democrats, including President Barack Obama, who has suggested he agrees that unions can be an impediment to better schools.”
At the core of this political discourse, then, is the paramount question: Are teacher unions still necessary today to protect educational professionals and the students they teach; or are unions now outdated entities, hurting the very people they claim to protect?
This is a huge question, and it cannot be fully answered in this one article alone. In the pages that follow, you will find information, stories, and statistics to help inform your own opinion on this issue. Often the sources included have their own agenda to push, and many have different solutions to offer. Nevertheless, it is the corroboration of multiple sources that allow us to create the most informed opinions – and it is through the development of those opinions that we can start advocating for the vision we want to see.
I also want to precede this article with the fact that I am a new teacher and have had very positive experiences with my local so far. But as unionism is a controversial issue within this profession, I wrote this article out of curiosity to explore the debate and become a more informed union member myself. It is important to consider the standpoint and motivation of an article’s author, and I hope that I did this topic its due diligence. I encourage you to share in the comments anything that may have been left out of this debate; after all, we learn best from each other.
Teacher unions secure work protections for teachers.
Unions were of course historically established for the purpose of protecting workers: to establish fair wages, safe working conditions, tolerable hours, and so on. It is because of unions that we saw many of the advancements in the Progressive Movement of the early 1900s, including the eight-hour workday/40-hour workweek, child labor laws, and the minimum wage.
While we have these protections firmly in place, unions still frequently engage in negotiations on behalf of their members. Teachers are professionals and ought to have a salary, benefits, and workplace protections that reflect that. Our unions, then, advocate for salary raises that at least coincide with COLA (cost-of-living adjustment, or inflation), healthcare coverage that reflects the raising costs of medical treatment, and cap on work hours, to name a few.
Districts and school boards are obligated to listen to and work with your union exclusively, and to do so under “good faith.” This means that there must be “openness, fairness, mutuality of conduct, and cooperation between parties,” as protected under the National Labor Relations Act passed in 1935 (another historic union success in and of itself). Federal law, then, requires that teachers have a seat at the negotiation table – at least in the form of the unions who represent those teachers.
Still, unions have lost power over the past 40 years in terms of membership, respect, and influence. As media and society continue to “bash” unions, it becomes more difficult for these protections to be secured.
Perhaps part of the answer lies in integrating more of the membership into union decisions. Karen Lewis, President of the Chicago Teachers’ Union, told Rethinking Schools, “In a lot of locals, leadership is a little wary of trusting rank-and-file membership with the responsibility of negotiations, but I think it helps so much and informs the process.” By involving members in the negotiations being done on their behalf, unions can empower the very teachers they represent, who can in turn help to bring about the change they want to see. This can help dismantle an “us versus them” mentality that might (and often) develops between teachers and their unions.
Teacher unions can exclude potentially great workers.
Unions defend their members – from greedy bosses and violations of due process, but also potentially from other workers. The union, then, can become an entity of exclusion.
Historically, this meant keeping non-white people out of ‘white professions,’ such as teaching. In a paramount piece for Rethinking Schools, Bob Peterson describes how American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and National Education Association (NEA) were slow to follow the 1954 Supreme Court ruling in Brown vs. Board of Education, which desegregated schools; that these unions issued grievances against the 1991 hiring of African-American teachers at Milwaukee African-American immersion schools; and that many local chapters of these unions remained segregated for a while still.
While many of these more racist policies are dropped from unions nowadays, the legacy still remains. As of 2007-08, about 83 percent of our K-12 teachers are white; and it is predominantly white teachers who instruct non-white students and communities. Peterson writes, “A range of problems flow from this reality, from lack of understanding, to low expectations, to inability to communicate adequately with families of the students. And yet, teacher unions seem to do little to address this problem.”
This hits at a series of deeper problems, from teacher recruitment, teacher training, and efficacy instilled in students while they are in school. The racial awareness on unions’ end, then, will not be a fix-all – but it is important to consider the role of the hiring process, and the impact on that process by unions themselves.
Additionally, some see seniority privileges established by unions as pushing out very qualified newer employees. In an Op-Ed piece to the Los Angeles Times, Bhavini Bhakta recounts her story of being let go, despite earning Teacher of the Year that year. She describes California’s policy as “LIFO”: Last In, First Out. She describes, “LIFO is the functional equivalent of an NBA team being forced to fire LeBron James because a bench warmer on the team has more years in the league. In the case of schools, it can mean that 30 or more children who have only one shot at, say, third grade, are being taught by an inferior teacher.”
When it comes to tenure, then, it is important to consider who is being protected – and who is not. Unions may be a source of political change, but they can also be a source for stagnation.
Teacher unions ensure job security and stability.
While seniority might push out quality workers, it does protect the job security of experienced teachers. Unfortunately, a lot of union media coverage tends to focus on a few ‘bad teachers,’ those very few who do not prioritize the learning of the students – but this is more anecdotal than it is systemic. Peterson explains, “Since almost everyone has at one time had a lousy teacher, anti-public school forces often use this issue to turn public sentiment against unions and teachers.”
But most teachers are well-meaning, well-skilled, and do everything with their students in mind; and tenure is built to protect them. Teacher tenure initially came about as a result of the NEA's call for it in 1895 during a time when teachers could be fired for just about anything, including pregnancy, marriage, and political affiliation. Tenure still protects teachers from being fired for these reasons; any firing decision must be based on legitimate, documented evidence, and attempts to correct the behavior beforehand.
Tenure also protects teachers from being fired for being too “expensive.” As teachers gain experience and education credits, they move up on their district’s salary schedule. A cash-strapped district might consider laying off these “expensive” teachers and replacing them with “cheaper” (and therefore less experienced and less educated) teachers as a way to save money. Tenure, however, protects against these money-based lay-offs, therefore protecting—instead of penalizing—teachers for advancing in the salary schedule.
This raises the question of what exactly is tenure. Too many people see it as an unwavering guarantee of a job, regardless of the quality of teaching – in fact, a survey question asked by Time magazine in 2010 defined tenure as “the practice of guaranteeing teachers lifetime job security after they have worked for a certain amount of time.” The NEA takes issue with this, instead saying it simply “mandates that due process be followed before tenured teachers are dismissed” – that there are certain steps and interventions that must be followed if a tenured teacher is not performing up to task. Contrary to popular myth, it is difficult to secure tenure, and it is still possible to fire a teacher who has tenure.
Teacher unions contribute your money to political campaigns.
In protecting its workers, teacher unions are also highly involved in politics. According to the aforementioned Politico article, “The National Education Association, the largest teachers union, spent $40 million on the 2010 elections alone, making the union one of the largest outside funders of Democratic campaigns.” Political campaigning is a huge aspect of unions. It’s no wonder, then, why the California Faculty Association (CFA) was a strong opponent of 2012’s Prop 32, appearing on California ballots, which would have banned payroll deductions (like your union dues) from being used for political contributions. CFA Associate Vice President Andy Merrifeld even called the Proposition “California’s main threat to labor.”
Unions are necessarily political – and in order to protect their existence, unions need union-friendly people in government. However, this often means that unions support only left-leaning candidates. And this often turns into unions supporting a myriad of political issues that have nothing to do with education directly, such as minimum wage increases, marriage equality, and healthcare reform.
Yes, a lot of these issues are interconnected. Nevertheless, many teachers feel it is unfair for their member dues to go toward supporting one candidate or discrediting another during elections, and to supporting/opposing groups and ballot initiatives that are not strictly about education. Can’t members themselves decide whether or not to contribute to politics? What if a member does not personally support a candidate or issue that his/her union dues are funding? If a member is in favor of Prop 32, for example, can she opt out of her money going toward the opposition?
Some teachers’ unions do allow for a political causes opt-out, meaning that your dues would not go toward these campaign purposes. When given the option, many teachers choose to opt-out: “The number of teachers participating in Utah plunged from 68 percent to 6.8 percent, and the number of represented teachers contributing in Washington plummeted from 82 percent to 6 percent,” according to teachersunionexposed.com (which, given its name, has its own agenda to push). Yet, other teachers fear that if they opt out, their union will ostracize them. Rebecca Freidrichs, a teacher who is suing CFA for compelling her to financially support ‘union activism,’ explained, “I am voiceless, even though I pay 100 percent of the collective-bargaining dues.”
Teacher unions provide a forum for collective organizing and social movements.
Unions have historically been vehicles for progressive changes in labor; and we have increasingly seen unions in the spotlight as organizers of teachers against unfair policies and the privatization of education. More extreme forms of protest like strikes, rallies, and teach-outs are being utilized as meaningful tools for educational reform. Most notably, we saw the 2011 strike in Wisconsin against Gov. Walker, and the 2012 Chicago Teachers’ Union strike against Mayor Emanuel’s “reforms.” When interviewed about the latter, CTU President Lewis said the strike “has awakened a lot of labor unions to what solidarity looks like, what it means.”
The teacher union, then, may very well be experiencing a transformation right before us. As power in educational policy shifts (as do the policies themselves), some locals seem to be embracing a more explicitly political, “social justice” form of unionism. This starts at differentiating between mobilizing and organizing. The editorial staff at Rethinking Schools describes the difference: “Unions and many other organizations are skilled in mobilizing members for specific elections, campaigns, or protests. While this is necessary, what’s even more important is the ongoing work of educating and organizing members that transcends the annual election cycle or occasional protest.”
Union leadership, then, are seeing that it is no longer enough to wield influence during campaigns or specific issues, but there needs to be perpetual motion to something more like a social movement. To this end, CTU’s Lewis said, “Our best tool is our ability to put 20,000 people in the street. I don’t care if one rich guy buys up all the ad space. The tool that we have is a mass movement. We have the pressure of mass mobilization and organizing.” And unions definitely have numbers on their side; CTU alone has over 32,000 members, and the national-in-scope NEA has over 3.2 million members.
Furthermore, unions have a financial base to seek political change. As aforementioned, unions are often highly involved in campaign contributions on behalf of candidates, initiatives, and issues. This money—and the endorsement of a high-number-member organization—is exceptionally valuable in influencing elections. For teachers to have access to such a well-organized, politicized entity is a great opportunity to affect large-scale change. And as unions are comprised of teachers themselves (or at least people who started out in the classroom), then these movements can very well be known as “for teachers, by teachers,” to counter the educational “reformers” who have never stepped foot in a classroom since being a student themselves.
But do we need teacher unions to organize teachers?
While the organizing potential of a union is very powerful, it begs the question of if there is any alternative means of this organization. In an age of technology and social networking, we see a handful of non-union groups emerging for the political purpose of empowering teachers to “take back” education from the so-called “experts” who have no experience in the classroom.
One such group, Badass Teachers (BAT), has the following as its mission statement: “This association is for every teacher who refuses to be blamed for the failure of our society to erase poverty and inequality, and refuses to accept assessments, tests and evaluations imposed by those who have contempt for real teaching and learning.” Clearly this association is formed for primarily political purposes, and it seeks to organize teachers toward educational change. BAT is even organizing a rally to take place on June 28 at the US Dept. of Education. (To find out more, join their Facebook group here.)
Still, many of BAT’s members are also union members, and proud of it. The group—and others like it—may act as a supplement to (instead of a replacement for) their union’s political activity. These groups may be forums for those who think the unions are necessary, but not sufficient; their unions do not go far enough.
Still, this does not address the concern of what one is to do if he/she disagrees with the political message of the union. Yes, teachers have common needs, but teachers are by no means a monolithic group. Not all teachers believe our education system is flawed; and those who do vary greatly in what ought to be the solution. Is Common Core our savior, a Trojan Horse, or our downfall? Should we standardize; and if so, where and how? Does the answer lie in PLTs (Professional Learning Teams), changes in assessment, project-based learning, something else? What ought to be the purpose of schooling, and what does that mean for our curriculum, the role of the teacher, and the voice of the student?
Nevertheless, the combination of unions and non-union political groups may move us toward a decent solution: unions provide a common basis to organize and mobilize teachers, but other groups allow more politicized teachers to push further. And the non-union political groups are as diverse as the solutions that are out there. As unions are compulsory, this does not obligate all members to be hyper-political if they disagree with the message, but it still recognizes that teaching is a political act.
In the course of considering the value of teacher unions today, we ought not lose sight that unions exist in various forms and structures across the US – and some forms may be more useful for us than others. One’s opinion of unions ought not to be based solely on how his/her local operates, or on experience with one union alone. We ask our students to corroborate information across sources, and so should we.
Unions have been historically valuable for us, and they can continue to be a meaningful venue for us in modern society – we just need to decide what their purpose ought to be, how political they need to be, and how those goals can be achieved. And then we need to be involved in advocating for ourselves through our unions – because after all, how can they be our voice when we silence ourselves?[/fusion_builder_column][/fusion_builder_row][/fusion_builder_container]