Why Teachers Like Me Support Unions
This blog entry is part of a coordinated effort called EduSolidarity.
I wrote recently about my union pride, and my great-uncle, Phil. But before I was old enough to understand and appreciate Phil’s experience, I was forming my ideas about workers and unions from singers like Woody Guthrie, Billy Bragg, and Bruce Springsteen, and authors like John Steinbeck and Arthur Miller. In song, books, movies, it always seemed clear that the good guys had to join together to fight against the power of the company or the factory, or end up with no prospects, no hope, no dignity.
In my early adulthood, I began, without thinking much about it, doing non-union work in unionized workplaces. I had internships, entry level and day jobs in theaters, radio and television production. I didn’t entirely understand the processes, but there were exceptions that allowed for certain roles to be filled by non-union members. If I was making any money at all, it wasn’t much, and all I knew about the union was that certain people had certain roles, and that I was not to do any portion of their jobs. At the time, it seemed silly that I couldn’t lift or move certain objects, that I couldn’t touch certain equipment. Still, I understood the overall importance of the union: these were all jobs where it would have been easy for an employer to keep modifying the expectations – skip your break time, work an extra hour or two for the same rate, help those guys hang lighting faster, edit those tapes for later use. While efficiencies and profits are essential for a business to thrive, however, there are issues of both equity and saftety when rules change and individual workers are pressed to compromise or lose their jobs.
I began teaching English when I lived in Israel for a year, and took a variety of part-time jobs with a public school, an after-school program, and two language schools that offered private instruction. My first two teaching jobs in the U.S. were in private schools, with a year of student teaching in between. All together, I’d been teaching in one form or another for several years by the time I landed in a California public school. There, I finally became a union member in my local teachers’ association and in CTA. I’m now in a second California public school, finishing my ninth year there, and my twelfth year as a union member.
I’ve had my doubts about the union. I didn’t really like the way union leaders at my prior school demanded that meetings had to end at a precise minute and second, even if we might have benefitted from letting the principal finish speaking. I still don’t think we should demand to be paid according to our salary scale for non-teaching time (which is not to say I think we should give away our time, either). I’ve sometimes questioned CTA positions on statewide issues, and thought they could do a better job of leading on certain issues. At the same time, I’ve always felt I had recourse, to speak to my colleagues, to take my questions or concerns to union leadership, and to involve myself in the union when there are opportunities.
I’m also proud of the times that I’ve seen union leadership make a positive difference in the education of students, by resisting censorship, promoting effective teacher evaluation policies, and supporting professional development. I can add that I have aggressively pursued my own professional development and implemented new ideas in my classroom with confidence that my union-negotiated contract will help ensure fair treatment if a new principal comes along who doesn’t agree with my teaching or grading practices.
Ultimately, despite my doubts or concerns, I’ve retained some of that youthful confidence that the union is necessary and good. I don’t intend to suggest that problems don’t exist, but ultimately, I would find it even more naïve or optimistic to imagine that school boards, superintendents, and administrators will always exercise good judgment in education policy in the absence of an organized body of teachers and school employees on the other side of a bargaining table. Let’s concede that the inverse is true as well, that in the absence of negotiations with effective leaders and management, teachers might go too far in our demands and expectations without heeding fiscal or political realities that warrant consideration. With strong, ethical advocacy from both sides, balanced by mutual respect and a tough of humility, negotiations are the path to better policy.
I think if you look at many successful school systems, including mine, you’ll find that there is a healthy and collegial relationship between management and labor. In the current political climate, the chances of maintaining that good will are diminishing, and there may not even be a chance of establishing that good will where it is currently lacking. But let’s not allow the current economic crisis be the excuse for disempowering our unions. The concept of checks and balances has served our democracy well, and it can serve our public workplace well, too.
To those critics who say public unions have too much influence over elected officials, I’d respond that the problem isn’t the union as much as the influence. If those critics will join efforts at campaign finance reform that allows for more indpendence among elected officials, they’ll be more credible. It might take public financing of campaigns, or a constitutional amendment to correct the notion of corporate personhood, but that’s a conversation we should have. To those critics who argue the union is buying political influence with taxpayer money, I’d say it’s no longer taxpayer money at that point. It was mine, briefly, and now it’s the union’s. If you want to be credible on that count, then no corporation receiving public contracts should be allowed to lobby or make campaign contributions either. Can we have that conversation? But if they’re just trying to eliminate collective bargaining, I’m sticking with the union.