Teachers, Unions, and Reasons to Reflect

Originally posted on Open Salon on March 3, 2011:

            Any true education blog must, in this moment, provide commentary on public policy set at the state level and its impact on public education.  Let the highest profile examples and the obvious points come first: Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker is clearly targeting teachers.  He is attacking the collective bargaining rights of teachers in his state, but not those of other public employee unions that supported him.  Additionally, he is promoting tax breaks for wealthy interests that are friendly to him.

            In my state of New Jersey, Governor Chris Christie and his administration have cut state aid to public school districts and are promoting public pension reform in the name of fiscal responsibility.  Even the angriest public school teachers acknowledge that the state is in serious financial crisis.  From here, however, things get murky.  Governor Christie’s disdainful and adversarial demeanor toward the New Jersey Education Association scored him points with voters who see the state’s largest teachers’ union as too powerful.  Rather unconvincingly, Christie claims to love teachers; he simply opposes the union.  But his pursuit of various reforms related to tenure and teacher evaluation is poorly conceived and mean spirited.  To add further cynicism, his speculation aloud of his possible presidential ambitions now appears in National Review, and he clearly relishes being a new national darling of conservative Republicanism.

            With all of this said, then, it is time to turn our attention to teachers, their unions, and also to public-sector workers’ unions in general.

            As I have stated in this blog before, I am a teacher.  Over the past twenty years, I have taught in six different schools for four public school districts.  I have also taught at two private schools.  Overall, I can truthfully say that the majority of teachers are dedicated, hardworking, and conscientious professionals.  Roughly 30 percent, as I have written in a past article, are amazingly effective and exert a transformative influence on their students.  Another 40 percent struggle, largely due to the complexities of our time, the limitations of their leaders, and the dysfunction of our politics.  With genuine, sound reform, this 40 percent can be liberated from the circumstances that prevent them from doing the wonderful things they so desperately wish to do for their students.

            Then we have the bottom 30 percent.  Among these teachers are the least talented, the most disaffected, and the most vocal.  Some of the teachers in this lower 30 percent can be rehabilitated, but until that happens this sizable minority influences the way teachers are perceived by the public.  And yes, they are represented by the teachers’ unions of which they are members.

            It is precisely this reality that screams for self-examination on the part of the teachers’ unions—and public workers’ unions in general.  True, as I have written in earlier posts, a teachers’ union does not certify teachers, hire them, or grant them tenure.  But, administration excepted, almost any school employee with a heartbeat can join the union—teachers and paraprofessionals alike.  Teachers’ unions are powerful, and they wield a lot of financial clout.  And unions have been stunningly effective at fighting for the rights of its members.

            The rights of its members: there’s the rub—or at least part of it.  Most of us growing up have been told that with every right comes responsibility, and that very concept brings us back to that bottom 30 percent.  Rights and responsibilities should not be two components of a dichotomy; rather, they ought to be a unified whole.  Equal emphasis should land on both, and unions, particularly public-sector unions, fail to get that message across to the public, either through words or through actions.

            Centuries ago, before labor unions existed, there were tradesmen’s guilds.  Guilds were powerful and prestigious organizations to which prospective members had to apply.  Applicants had to demonstrate their proficiency in their trades, and the membership had to vote new members in.  Guilds promoted and protected their members, much as modern labor unions do, but there is an important distinction.  Members of the ancient guilds had to uphold the highest standards of their crafts, and any failure to do so could result in expulsion of offending members.

            Admittedly, this description is a massive oversimplification, and the power that the guilds amassed led at times to the kinds of corruption, fraud, and abuse that have often brought criticism on modern labor unions.  But unions today could learn a thing or two from the guilds.  If we imagine a teachers’ guild—an organization far less likely to admit into its membership that troublesome 30 percent—then we might also imagine that self-serving politicos would not have as much fuel with which to stoke negative public sentiment.

            Pre-industrial guilds were also known for their charitable work and their contributions to their local communities.   That same spirit, properly applied to a meaningful dialogue with the shapers of public policy today would mitigate the up-for-grabs mentality that public sector unions have historically taken when pursuing the interests of their members.  True, corporate interests consume far more money and resources from public coffers than most union haters would ever suspect, yet the failure of public-sector unions to distinguish themselves from the hogs at the trough only makes them more of a target in moments such as this.

            Labor union membership is now at a disturbingly low ebb.  With the hemorrhage of America’s manufacturing work to facilities abroad, larger numbers of blue-collar workers now work in service-oriented occupations, far fewer of which are associated with labor unions.  Public workers now represent a larger share of overall union membership, and the compensation, benefits, and pensions they have fought for and earned during the boom times have come at considerable public expense.  Now that times are lean, frightened and angry taxpayers look for someone to blame, and they most readily see the most conspicuous suspects, especially when a demagogue is so ready to point right at them.

            No union is wrong to represent its members.  No members are wrong to want to organize.  And most certainly, it is not wrong for workers to band together, to bargain collectively, and demand their rights.  In fact, this is all entirely necessary.

            But as passionate and admirable as the work of our unions has been, they do bear at least a small portion of the responsibility for the negative opinion that the public has of them.  Moreover, they have somewhat limited their own ability to overcome that negative opinion.

            Fortunately, our society is wise and just enough to do right by the professionals who have devoted their careers to its service.  Public-sector workers face a daunting challenge in the current battle, and there will be heavy casualties as people see their benefits cut and their incomes reduced.  In the long term, however, justice will prevail, and the unions will deserve the thanks of their members and of the communities their members serve.  Along the way, there are lessons for all of us to learn.

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