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It wasn’t that long ago

March 22, 2011

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It’s incredibly hard to think—let alone teach—when you are overwhelmed, confused, and afraid.”

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Many of us–though certainly not enough!– are aware of the bad old days of teaching. You know those days, when pregnant teachers were unfairly fired, and teachers–especially women– could be retaliated against or dismissed for exercising their professional judgment in opposition to their principals, or for being active in efforts to improve their schools or organize other teachers, or for registering a complaint against a superior, or for exposing wrong-doing in their buildings.

Oh, wait: all of these things happened within the past four years. In fact, the majority happened in just this last year alone.

When I’m not surrounded by my ultra-progressive and/or edu-advocate friends, I often find that conversations about unions– and teachers’ unions in particular– tend to go in one of two directions. There are a small handful who immediately go to “Death to Unions! They’re killin’ America and protecting bad teachers and failin’ our kids!” -ville. Then there’s a larger group of people who say things like, “Well, I can see how they might have been a good thing a long time ago, but now I’m not so sure they’re necessary or good for schools…” And then I often find myself in the same position as fellow teacher Stephen Lazar, explaining once again why I support unions, even though I’m a good teacher.

Though I have often been a critical friend, I have always been and always will be a staunch union supporter. Why?

First and foremost, I support unions of all kinds because greed and abuse of power don’t have an expiration date. A reminder: there is no irrevocable law, anywhere, that says that everyday people’s hard-won rights can’t be eroded and lost. Freedom, justice, and equality aren’t things that just magically happen with the passage of time. They are ideals we continuously have to earn and protect; things for which we occasionally have to struggle and fight. That’s what unions are about: giving ordinary people the means to earn fair(er) pay and benefits, secure safer working conditions and a bit of dignity in the workplace, and protect ourselves and our livelihoods from unfair attack. And though they’re much less wealthy than their corporate counterparts, they represent the largest organized counterbalance to the amount of money and influence corporations and individuals can spend on our political process.

That’s not to say that every union is perfect; no organization is. There are examples of corrupt union bosses (though their ranks are heavily outnumbered by examples of corrupt corporate managers, CEOs, and politicians…), and there are also examples– sadly contemporary– of unions that concede too much and fail to adequately represent their members. But that’s a reason to improve those specific organizations, not destroy the labor movement entirely. There has to be balance in every realm, and strong unions provide a necessary check on the power of other interest groups.

Second, I support unions because I know what it’s like to be retaliated against by an unethical employer. (Real innovation in education does threaten weak leaders and those who aren’t prepared for change. Innovative, effective teachers need unity, support, and protection in order advance our practice and our work for children.) As a probationary teacher in Colorado (a weak labor state), I had my contract unfairly non-renewed “for cause”– and no one even bothered to make up a cause! They didn’t have to, because without due process rights (the oft-maligned “tenure” protections some reformers are out to destroy), my “superiors” were under no obligation to prove that I’d done anything to warrant such a severe, career-bruising punishment. Evidence of effectiveness, documented praise and positive evaluations are little help when your only recourse is a three-minute appeal during a marathon session of the Board of Education. Strong unions can protect their members by offering legal assistance, and by pushing for contract provisions that can help prevent these kinds of situations.

Lastly, I support unions because it wasn’t that long ago that this happened to me, or the many other teachers with similar stories to tell. Indeed, in the grand scheme of things, it wasn’t that long ago that school reformers could openly advocate for the feminization of the teaching profession because women could be paid less than men (1840s-1910s). It wasn’t that long ago that over one hundred women burned alive or jumped to their deaths in an un-regulated shirtwaist factory (1911). And it definitely wasn’t that long ago that workers have died in re-deregulated mines (2010), or that corporate-funded politicians weakened agencies like OSHA (March 3, 2011), or that another politician suggested that maybe child labor laws should be relaxed (February 25, 2011). As our unions have declined, our leisure time and income gains have too, while inequality and suffering have skyrocketed.

When it comes to ensuring fair working, learning, and living conditions for all, we are losing ground instead of gaining it. Instead of trashing our unions, we should be improving and strengthening them, so that they can function as they’re supposed to: protecting decent, hard-working people who add value to society. Everyday people in America have already lost so much, and we stand to lose a whole lot more if we continue trying to go it alone.

15 Comments leave one →
  1. March 22, 2011 7:04 am

    YES. I don’t understand the casual anti-unionism among many young ‘progressives’ I know. Beyond everything else, unions represent the collective voice of working people working together: what could be more progressive?

    (I do blame the media on this one, at least a little. Whenever we’re talking about, say, money in politics, the story has to read “corporate interests and unions” – as if unions have as much political sway through cash as Koch Industries. If we did, shouldn’t we be seeing more of a return on our investment?)

    I have some real issues with teachers’ unions and my local’s leadership in particular. I think we’ve often aligned ourselves too closely with our bosses and the powers that be – which makes it awfully easy for them to strike out against us now. I would like for us to align ourselves with families and to talk openly about the opportunity gap.

    But it’s hard to do that when the storyline is “BAD UNIONS ARE SO BAD”, because any critique can be used to feed that narrative. And I don’t want to feed it.

  2. March 22, 2011 7:17 am

    When I started teaching, in the early 70s, there were plenty of teachers on staff who lived through the 50s and 60s when the teachers’ association was morphing into a strong union.

    The female elementary teachers were especially vocal in recalling the bad old days, where they taught every subject required and also did bus, recess and lunch duty–while male teachers at the high school made more money and had a duty-free lunch period and conference hour. In those pre-feminist days, they had a lot of educating to do, in convincing the union leaders (who were all men) that giving them a break and paying them equitably was a need and not a luxury.

    Tempted to say–we’ve come a long way, baby. Great piece.

  3. March 22, 2011 8:45 pm

    I knew you’d knock it out the box. Great post.

    • March 22, 2011 8:48 pm

      Right back at you. Thanks for helping put this together!

  4. March 25, 2011 8:21 am

    Great post. I don’t think that the average person understands that if you eliminated unions, you still wouldn’t have trust in the schools based on how they are currently staffed and structured. In fact it would be worse.

    For those people who want to know more about the teachers’ union movement, I recommend a great book called Citizen Teacher: The Life and Leadership of Margaret Haley by Kate Rousmaniere. It’s marketed as a textbook, but it’s actually a compelling biography of the founder of the American teacher union movement, a scrappy daughter of Irish immigrants. You can see in the historical facts that teachers unions were created to be about students and teachers and that’s where their legacy lies.

    • March 25, 2011 2:38 pm

      Great suggestion– I’m going to pick that up as soon as I can. Thanks!

  5. March 26, 2011 9:57 am

    this is a great post. I’ll be sure to refer to it the next time I hear my sister, or someone else, denigrating unions. I am curious as to what do you think teenage (high school) and adult (college) students should be doing to best support their teachers and schools?

    • March 26, 2011 10:17 am

      As for what high school and college students can do: exactly what you’re doing. Questioning, connecting with others, and informing yourself, so you can inform others. We need to all be informed, and we need to resist the people who want us to be against each other– students against teachers, younger teachers against older teachers, teachers versus non-teachers, unionized workers against non-unionized workers. That’s their weapon– delude, divide, and conquer.

      Our best interests are highly intertwined– we can’t let anyone try to convince us otherwise. The more we know, the closer we stick together, and the more we unite to demand a better, fairer way forward, the better off we’ll all be.

  6. March 26, 2011 10:26 am

    Thanks, Sabrina. Love this post.

    We need to do a better job of making the gender-based argument for unions and what they’ve fought for. I feel like we loose many liberals who should be with is because the media has characterized the argument as “teachers vs. students”, and in that duality, the students are the ones who need the support. People have very short historical memories though, and have no idea why teachers unions fought against merit pay and for the salary scale in the first place. And as you point out, these things are still happening. More people will stand with us if we can teach them how unions protect specifically against sexism.

    • March 26, 2011 4:45 pm

      Great point. This is especially true given that the majority of public sector workers (and union members) are women:

      The other thing– sexism or no sexism, the teachers vs. students thing is a red-herring. Teachers’ working conditions are students’ learning conditions (beautifully and forcefully explained in this #edusolidarity post- Students have nothing to gain from teachers who are overworked, underpaid, and fearful, and they definitely don’t benefit if class sizes balloon to 50 or 60 or more.

      (That we repeatedly demand sacrifices of teachers we don’t demand of other kinds of workers, though, IS sexist; has much to do with this being a female-dominated field. No one is blaming doctors or engineers for disparate health outcomes and crumbling bridges. And ever notice how “bad teacher” arguments sound an awful lot like “bad mother” arguments?)


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