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Union Proud

February 24, 2011

My great-uncle Phil was a union organizer in New York between the wars.  He later became a small-business owner in Los Angeles, but he never lost touch with his labor roots.  Phil owned a nice, modest home in a pleasant, middle class neighborhood in Los Angeles.  He passed away last year, having lived past the age of 100, and his home was later sold for an amount that I expect was far out of reach for most union members and small business owners.  How did it come to this?  Why is it that so many middle class Americans are struggling so much, and those who might be struggling a little less due to unionization have become a target?  How does a politician advance his career on the backs of public employees, and find support among workers who’d rather tear down their fellow workers than challenge the economic policies that further enrich an extremely wealthy elite?

Sacramento rally

Workers rally on the steps of the capitol building in Sacramento, 2/22/11. Photo by Anthony Cody.

Maybe it’s a sense of family history, or maybe it’s a sense of being unfairly targeted, but recent events in Wisconsin particular, and in several other states as well, have given me a swelling union pride.  It’s a pride I usually temper with some concerns about how unions could better serve the teaching profession.  But when push comes to shove and a governor alerts the National Guard to be ready to control protestors rallying for collective bargaining rights, I know which side I’m on.

In the past 10-12 years, I’ve seen and heard plenty of examples of exemplary and deplorable union actions and attitudes.  I’m not talking about the typical media horror story about unions protecting “bad” teachers, because that’s a misrepresentation of what unions do for teachers.  Unions uphold contracts.  If a teacher should be fired but the evaluations haven’t been done properly, that’s a contract issue, and the union upholds the contract for every teacher, including the “good” teachers.  So, if you want to grumble about unions and contracts, make sure you’re ready to grumble about the other signatories to those contracts, or look for another blog.

When I say I’ve seen and heard both the exemplary and the deplorable, I mean to suggest that while I’m supportive of unions in general, I’m well aware of reasons for criticism.  Not in my current district, I’ve seen some unprofessional conduct by union leaders whose strict enforcement of contractual limits felt excessive to me, and actually inhibited collegial relationships with administrators.  I’ve heard of union leaders who hide behind the mantle of leadership to advance personal agendas or give their opinions an air of official proclamation.  I’ve heard of union members shutting down fellow union members in attempts to air different opinions, and I’ve heard of petty insults and unnecessary personal criticisms.

Now remind me, in what private sector do these types of abuses or problems not exist?  If anything, I’d wager that unions are more often helpful in preventing or solving such problems.  I don’t consider these issues as evidence that unions need to be weakened or abolished.

I am more interested in the argument that unions should be more progressive, should do more to promote professional growth and higher standards for teaching and learning.  In Accomplished California Teachers, we’ve reviewed some of the key issues in our profession and written reports on evaluation (June ’10) and compensation (coming soon).  Our study of the issues inevitably led to examples where unions and educational agencies have negotiated some progressive approaches to solve educational problems in a mutually agreeable way.  The ACT report on teacher evaluation highlights some of that work in California, Colorado, Ohio, and Minnesota.  Teacher authors and contributors to Teaching 2030 from the Center for Teaching Quality make a similar argument.  The topic of union leadership in educational improvements has also been covered recently on this blog (by Lynne Formigli, and by me), and by our colleague Anthony Cody on his blog Living in Dialouge.

Like any large organization or subgroup in a huge social endeavor, unions have their strengths and weaknesses.  But I worry that many people don’t understand what teachers gain from collective bargaining other than salaries and benefits.  Unions fight for better teaching and learning conditions in schools.  In fact, most teachers rank these concerns slightly ahead of salary and benefits.  I believe most people want to be effective at work.  Getting paid a bit more to put up with a daily struggle is actually a less appealing option than settling for slightly less pay to do a more productive and rewarding job.  That’s why unions are instrumental at schools.  They help teachers apply a healthy pressure to counter district impulses to keep adding a bit more to the workload, keep stretching resources a bit thinner.  I recognize that districts and states should be accountable to the taxpayers (I’m one of them), and that they must be responsible stewards of public funding.  But if you silence the teachers then you tilt negotiations around education in favor of expediency and away from better teaching and learning.

Without the strength of the union and the union contract, teachers would be less effective advocates for students.  I’ve seen teachers take on school board members, district and site administrators, and even parents, in situations where the teacher was right about the issues and had a unique and crucial viewpoint that needed to be considered.  I’ve been that teacher in some cases.  Unions help us speak out, help us make the case for better teaching conditions and wiser use of public funding to improve educational outcomes.  They help us resist the forces of censorship and political manipulation in curriculum, and help us safeguard our professional discretion to make the best educational decisions for our students, regardless of the passing edu-fads and rotating administrators who may not even have the background to understand the curriculum we teach or the ways in which students learn.

If you’ve been following this debate you may already know that teachers do lack collective bargaining in a handful of mostly Southern states.  Depending on whom you read, the academic performance in those states may be taken as a strong or weak indicator of the importance of collective bargaining.  I won’t overstate the relationship or assume any causality, but I do think that those seeking to abolish collective bargaining for teachers certainly have their hands full explaining why the so-called “right-to-work” states don’t seem to have any benefit to show for having banned collective bargaining.  (For more on the subject see this articulate and balanced review by Matthew Di Carlo).

When in doubt, follow the money.  Who benefits from breaking unions?  It certainly won’t be non-union workers whose wages and working conditions have historically benefitted from from the influence of unions, and it won’t be the average taxpayer seeing any change in salaries or improved work in schools or government agencies.

If my great-uncle Phil were alive to see this, I’m sure we’d pour a finger of whiskey and raise our glasses in honor of the workers and the unions out there resisting this assault on collective bargaining, and especially the teachers who’ve been so assailed in recent years but keep on fighting for our students and our profession.

15 Comments leave one →
  1. David B. Cohen permalink*
    February 24, 2011 12:32 am

    Here’s another good blog post on this topic, from Lily Eskalsen, NEA Vice-President.

  2. Dave Orphal permalink
    February 24, 2011 6:51 am

    Great post David!

    You write, “How does a politician advance his career on the backs of public employees, and find support among workers who’d rather tear down their fellow workers than challenge the economic policies that further enrich an extremely wealthy elite?”

    There was a peasant in Russia who noticed that his neighbor, another peasant, was doing a little bit better than he was. The neighbor was doing well enough that one day, the neighbor bought a cow.

    The peasant got on his knees and prayed to God. An angle appeared and said, “God has heard your lamentations and prayers. What is it that you want?”

    The peasant replied, “Kill the cow.”

    Despite being counter to our own best interest, people too often get as much joy from pulling their neighbor down to their own level as they do from raising themselves up.

    Too often we cry, “Why should they have job security!” rather than ask, “Why don’t I have job security?”

    Too often we cry, “Why do they have a pension!” rather than ask, “Why can’t I have a pension?”

    We all should have job security! We all should have pensions! We all should make enough at our jobs to live reasonably now and in our old age.

    Stop siding with the rich and help them tear down your neighbors! Join your neighbors and together demand the rich and powerful to treat us like human beings!

  3. February 24, 2011 8:00 am

    David Orphal is right. Most of the negative commentary on teachers (and their unions) centers on unsubstantiated, low-information posts about what teachers drive, where they take vacations and their “gold-plated” benefits. See Joanne Jacobs for one depressing example:

    My dad was a Teamster, and in our house it was “the union makes us strong” 24/7. I share your desire for teachers’ unions to focus more on professional issues, but I wonder: if the union moves toward being a “professional guild” and away from the kinds of things we’re seeing in Wisconsin, will we be more like, say, clergymen or professors at liberal arts colleges–well-educated, well-respected, but chronically underpaid?

    I know that “guilds” are a comfort zone for non-unionized teachers who find demonstrating and demanding “unprofessional.” But I grew up on stories (mostly from women) who finally found their moxie and were willing to risk a lot to get equitable pay, back in the 60s. If the prevailing capitalist culture isn’t willing to pay public servants adequately, what choices do teachers and nurses (note: heavily female professions) have?

  4. February 24, 2011 9:14 am

    Good post, David. As an administrator, I’ve had my frustrations with union leadership over the years. But it’s not teachers’ unions that are the problem; it’s the lack of private sector unions. If you mention the obscene wealth disparity in this country and ask the wealthy to pay their share, you’re inciting class warfare. What do you call it when workers without benefits are told their problems are the fault of public workers with benefits?

  5. February 24, 2011 10:52 am

    In Washington we have a very strong union, at least for now. One of the things that makes it strong is its growing emphasis on professional development, particularly in the area of National Board certification.

    I think our association should be both a union and a “guild,” and the two aren’t mutually exclusive.

    Right now, though, it’s the union side that needs to be mobilized!

    • David B. Cohen permalink*
      February 24, 2011 12:08 pm

      Thanks for the comment Tom. I enjoyed your post too, and the comments there have been lively. I’ve previously written about you Washingtonians as well:

    • February 24, 2011 9:06 pm

      The “guild” model makes sense to me. When we support, promote, and police our own (aggressively) rather than allow (or perpetuate) the perception that our major task is to “protect the employee,” I think we’ll see the union evolve into a more respected entity.

  6. February 24, 2011 10:54 am

    Oh, and great post, David! I covered some of the same ground (though not as eloquently) on our blog:

  7. David B. Cohen permalink*
    February 24, 2011 12:12 pm

    Dave, Nancy, Linda – thanks for the comments. I’m cheered by your supportive outlook and by the idea that you’re helping spread that way of thinking. We’re the richest nation in the world by some measures and among the poorest in quality of life by many other measures. We’ve got to keep that in mind when we find ourselves forced into unnecessary arguments about supposed scarcity, and keep talking about some basic, shared values.

  8. February 24, 2011 12:53 pm


    This is one of the best explanations I’ve read of teachers unions (and unions in general)–what they’re for, why we need them, and how they can do better. It’s very thoughtful, measured, and well-written.

    • David B. Cohen permalink*
      February 24, 2011 3:59 pm

      Thanks for stopping by to read and comment, Rachel. I’m flattered, and actually wish I could have done a better job with such a complex topic. Bottom line, though, is that it is a complex topic, and it would be preferable to see a complex treatment of it rather than a drummed-up crisis with a simplistic “solution” that would do much more harm than good.


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