Monday, March 21, 2011

Why Teachers Like Me Support Unions #edusolidarity

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Those of you that know me know that I’m not a huge supporter of the practices of labor unions.  They act like any political interest group would act, nearly entirely in the best interest of themselves even when the greater good threatens to collapse under the weight of bad decision-making.  I’ve watched local union leaders manipulate and state union leaders force politics on membership.  Money is forced out of my pocket, and my benefits and wages are determined by a system I have very little faith in.

And after all that, I still support the concept of a labor union, especially a teacher’s union.

I could easily justify the concept of a labor union by simply going back and looking at history.  Labor unions helped build the middle class from the steel mills of Homestead in the late 1800’s, to the textile factories that ignored the value of human labor (Triangle Shirtwaist), to the United Flight Attendants of the late 1960’s who were fired for of all things, getting married.  We could talk about how the labor unions allowed Americans to gain some of the fruits of their own work in the 1950’s, and how ever since the beginning of the decline of organized labor in the 1970’s, income inequality has started to increase at a substantial pace.  We look at all of that and we can safely say that when Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker says he’s “saving the Middle Class” by slamming unions; he’s lying.

But this isn’t about history, it’s about teaching.  Being a part of a labor union allows me to take risks in the classroom while not worrying about angry parents, inept district decision making, and constant government bureaucracy.  I can make mistakes and actually have the ability to correct it without the worry about whether or not I’ll have a job tomorrow.  When I go into a meeting with an enraged parent, I can have real discussions because the contract I have with my district protects me from small town politics.  I can ignore a parent screaming about how she will have the school board fire me, and go on teaching at the same passionate level because I know that I have a procedure for due process, thanks to a union contract.  In it’s essence, the union allows me to do a better job because I’m allowed to teach regardless of crap that I can’t control trying to prevent me from educating my students.

Realize that I almost never need these protections.  I’m confident in my work ethic, my passion for education, my care for my students, and the management of my craft.  Out of the three administrations I’ve been through at my school, I would have given up my tenure for two of them because they were, and are, damn good administrators.  But it only took working under one unsupportive administrator to make me realize that school boards, superintendents, and parents don’t always make the best decision-makers, even when it comes to children.  An ineffective administrator can take good teachers and have them looking over their shoulder - constantly wondering what will end their ability to teach effectively, whether it be a lack of proper support or funding. 

Yes, the teacher’s union protects bad teachers.  It is the one thing that unions are most often blamed for.  The blame is justified and the problem is totally correctable.  In my earlier years as a site representative for the union I once offered a suggestion during an issue at a Rep Council meeting.  I asked why the union couldn’t make it’s own committee to look over those that were considered “substandard” teachers to provide support and motivation.  The answer:  “That’s not what we do.  That’s not the job of a union”.  Why not change that?  Why not change the tone of the discussion and start policing our own?  Wouldn’t it be a hoot to be able to come to the bargaining table with the ability to say “Hey, we are really working with you to bring forth the best teachers possible”?  Maybe the answer isn’t eliminating unions, maybe it’s redefining what a union actually does.     

Solving the problems in education are actually fairly simple.  All you need is a dedicated society, knowledgeable  politicians, superior leadership from a district, and relentless pursuit of excellence from all teachers.  See?  Isn’t that easy?  No?  Then I guess we’re going to need unions to make sure teachers can do their job without the distractions of other people’s bad decisions.    

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