Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Just why are teachers unionized?

As I write on Feb. 22, it has been interesting to view the revolt going on in the Wisconsin State Capitol, with public employee unions and their supporters protesting Gov. Scott Walker’s non-negotiable demand that they be stripped of collective bargaining rights. The monetary issues involved (increased contributions and copays for pensions and health benefits) have already been agreed to by the unions. But the governor insists he will not compromise on essentially killing the unions, which would have no purpose if they cannot bargain collectively over work conditions.

There are several intriguing aspects to this battle. For one, if the state cannot bear the financial implications of unionized public workers, why were police and firefighter unions exempted from the demand? One cannot help but notice that the exempt unions are the ones whose members have been more reliable supporters of Republican causes and candidates, whereas the targeted unions have more often supported Democrats. Union PAC money is almost the only potential counterweight to the now-unlimited funds available to candidates from corporate interests. Recall for a moment just who caused the Great Recession that undermined our security and nearly bankrupted our schools, cities, and states. In an era when income disparity has set new records evoking the Robber Baron period of our history, it is a useful distraction if the majority of us can be set at each other’s throats over who is being pushed to Third World living standards faster. (Pay no attention to the obscenely rich behind the curtain!) Are all these concerns irrelevant to the dispute? Likely not, but they are not my topic for the day.

I want to write about a particular target of the governor’s demand: teachers’ unions.

Why are teachers unionized anyway? Aren’t they professionals, and don’t we associate unions with protection for blue-collar workers from dangerous working conditions? You have to know something about the history of American public education to understand the difference it made to have teachers’ unions.

Pre-college teaching used to be a largely female profession, because teachers were paid so little their income could only supplement, rather than actually support, a household. Teachers who did try to support families routinely took minimum-wage summer jobs for the extra income. (I know this from the teachers I worked with every summer during my high school and college years as a waitress. We earned 25 cents an hour plus tips. They all had at least one master’s degree.) The best and brightest young women were often attracted to teaching when there were few other opportunities for them. Now, in an era with every work sphere open to them, most women with several degrees will expect a professional wage. In right-to-work states like Arizona, the starting salary for public school teachers of about $26,000 certainly discourages people with other options from entering the profession.

But decent wages and benefits are not the only reasons teachers had to organize and bargain collectively.

Before unionization, teachers were treated much like children: their behavior on and off the job had to be above reproach from the most conservative elements of society. Single women teachers, for example, had to live in chaperoned environments such as approved boarding houses. If they lived on their own, who knows what immoral trouble they might get into! Not so long ago, marriage — a hallmark of adulthood — automatically disqualified a woman from teaching. Even after married women were allowed to remain as teachers, they were routinely excluded once they were obviously pregnant.

Beyond those plainly indefensible restrictions, however, the entire system of public education conspired to keep teachers — both male and female — subservient. They were subject to the whims and prejudices of administrators and school boards. A parental complaint about a reading assignment, a grade, or something said in class could get them summarily fired. There was no respect for their professional expertise, which could be overridden by school boards with no educational credentials or experience. (In some ways, that lack of respect is ascendant once more, now that so many believe our most needy and vulnerable students can best be taught by Teach For America participants with five weeks of training and zero experience.) Authoritarian and paternalistic administrators expected quiet compliance and punished “insubordination.” Those we expected to help our children grow into adults with initiative and independence of thought and action were, themselves, treated like children.

If we truly believe that K–12 education is more than just child care, then we must treat its practitioners like the professionals they are. They must be empowered to continuously improve their practice as research and experience show us better ways. They must have the protection of due process to insulate them from the vagaries of public opinion about what and how to teach. The return of public shaming (as when the Los Angeles Times last summer created its own system of ranking teacher effectiveness based upon test scores and published the names of those they deemed ineffective — leading to at least one teacher suicide) is a throwback to that repressive model from an earlier century.

So, even though I have never been a union member nor lived with one and was raised in a very non-unionized part of the country, I can see clear reasons why teachers, in particular, would want to protect the unions that protect them.

But protection of members is not the only useful function unions serve. Educational lobbyists and union PACs are the only powerful advocates to counter the now-enormous influence of wealthy philanthropists and foundations in the fight over public education reform. Few members of the public seem aware of just how much a few extremely rich folks have changed the priorities and methods of reform. Michael Bloomberg and Bill Gates and Eli Broad have no training or expertise in education, for example, but they have exercised barely checked control over where funding for public education is directed. (A brief example: charter schools in New York City are gifted with much higher per-pupil funding and allowed to restrict the number of special-education and English language–learning students, who are dumped in nearby regular public schools, which are then deemed failures for not producing better results with less funding and more needy students.) Parents and other community members may have concerns over these policies and priorities, but they are not organized to effectively advocate against them. Teachers’ unions are. When they are stripped of that capacity, the debate will be completely one-sided. We will all suffer for it.


  1. Apart from the disingenuous budget balancing excuse masking his true intent to bust public employee unions, Gov. Walker has shown a remarkable willingness to favor partisan bullying over leadership and conciliation, to the detriment of his entire state. The silver lining seems to be that his ham-handed efforts have sparked some union solidarity that has been on the decline in recent years.
    Consumers of public education don't seem to realize that paying for education means paying teachers. Telling workers they shouldn't expect such generous pensions and health benefits while the wealthiest grow wealthier, the latest salvo in the class warfare manifesting in Wisconsin, may be the wake-up call middle class workers like teachers need to finally take to the streets and fitght back.

  2. Thank you for your public advocacy of our professional teacher associations. The public image of teacher associations as advocates for the very least common denominator of teacher competency is a falsehood. I wonder why people push this agenda of hateful denigration against teachers. As with any profession, there are definitely weak teachers, but there are so many more that make a powerful impact on students' lives now and for the rest of their lives. We teachers take this responsibility very seriously and understand the realities of public finance. By the end of the next school year, it will have been 5 years since our most experienced teachers have seen a raise. There are few complaints. Instead, the complaints are reflective of what feels like attacks on us and our profession, at a time where we feel that we are fighting hard for the kids in a time of increasing class sizes and increasing public criticism. Thank you again for your supportive comments.

    Andrew Lindsay
    Van Buren Public School
    Belleville, Michigan