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Union Backing Helps Us Help Children

September 29, 2012

I found this interesting story in the Sacramento Bee online yesterday, coming out of a small school district near Sacramento:

Rocklin Unified retaliated against school nurses, judge says

News involving schools always catches my eye, but this excerpt is particularly noteworthy in today’s education policy climate:

The Rocklin Teachers Professional Association filed an unfair practice charge against the school district in 2010, alleging the four nurses were laid off in retaliation for asking their union for assistance regarding workload and safety issues.

In PERB documents, the district argued that the nurses routinely said no to many requests and claimed their nursing licenses would not let them perform certain work.

This story won’t be noted in the national news, but it should be noted by those engaged in the national debate on education policy.  Because unless you have an unshakable faith in the competence, resourcefulness, and overall goodness of all administrators and local educational agencies, it seems to me you should want the weight of the union balancing out the labor-management equation.  In fact, in districts that have healthy working relationships with their unions, this is exactly how the unions are viewed – as associations representing an important perspective and the legitimate interests of workers trying to do good work.  The most recent example to cross my path was from Ohio (see video, below), though I’ve seen and heard it in my own career, and in other California districts like Poway Unified and San Juan Unified.

In this case, the nurses had a legitimate interest in carrying out their duties according to the professional standards relating to their licensure.  The school district may have had its reasons to try to push the nurses to provide more care, see more students, carry out more procedures.  However, with their licenses potentially in jeopardy from the district’s requests, the nurses sought support from the union.  In a non-unionized setting, the employees would have less support, less access to legal remedies for district retaliation.  In all likelihood, the nurses would be more likely to accede to the district’s orders for fear of retribution.  And hopefully, this ruling will catch the attention of other districts and local unions and help prevent some managment abuses of power.

At various education conferences over the years and in online conversations, I’ve heard from teachers in right-to-work states about situations they encounter in which a union would make a positive difference for kids.  Teachers can be silenced in situations involving administrative misconduct, fraud, nepotism, even workplace bullying.  Teachers can be pressured to comply with unsound instructional policies, to change grades, or to work in ways that stretch or violate terms of their contracts.  None of this is to suggest that the union is a cure-all, or that teachers themselves are always blameless.  But the case of the nurses in Rocklin demonsrtates that the union can provide a balancing force that helps those of us working with children to do a better job for the kids.  The tired argument about children’s interests and adults’ interests break down when the adults in question are primarily interested in helping children.

That’s the defining characteristic of most teachers and school personnel I know and have met throughout my career: we want to help children.  We want to work in settings that allow us to be effective in those efforts, both in the short term and the long term.  We want to be able to work ethically, in accordance with our professional standards.  Most districts and administrators share those goals, but we don’t always agree on how to make them all happen with the given resources and conditions.  With a union, we have greater voice and power to negotiate for contracts and working conditions that come as close as possible to helping us match those ideals.  With a union, we can uphold those contracts and advocate more effectively for our students.

The nurses in Rocklin were pressured to violate their professional standards, and then punished for seeking assistance to  resist that pressure.  Technically, the union defended the nurses.  If my children were in that district, I’d certainly feel that the union had also defended my children.

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Here’s a video about a district where the union and district have a working relationship based on trust and mutual understanding of shared interests and goals.

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