Why Teachers Like Me Support Unions

"Let's say you were hit by a bus." My administrator looked confidently at me from behind his desk. "If this school were run properly, we could bring in practically anybody to replace a teacher like you." There was not a trace of irony in his voice. My shock was poorly conveyed by the sheepish nod of my head. "Right," I responded, and tried to remember exactly why I ever thought taking a job in DC was a good idea.

Two years ago, I was at the tail end of a two-year stint working in an urban school just south of Seattle. I'd been reading most of what the media had to say about how unions protected bad teachers, and I'd believed it. I'd seen my fair share of bad tenured teachers who'd been at it for years. So I packed my bags and took a job in Washington, DC, where Michelle Rhee was out to get rid of all those bad teachers.

Since then, I've been provided a stiff education in why unions are preferable to no unions.

Prior to working in DC, I was completely unaware of exactly how malicious administrators could be, the disgusting politics involved in public education, and the important promise of agency unions provide their members.

Arguments against unions emphasize their attention to the interests of the teachers at the expense of the students. It is, however, just as foolish to believe that school districts think only of students when making decisions (unless, of course, you think 60 students in a class is in the best interest of students). Whether you like it or not, schools' agendas/budgets will always be driven more by adult interests and economic realities than by student interests. This is the world we live in. And from my perspective, the further removed from the children the adults making the decisions are, the more likely those decisions are to be further from the interests of students. Teachers unions provide a mild counterweight to those forces.

However, I'm not here to argue that teachers unions guarantee excellent public education. They are often corrupted to one degree or another, and act according to the desires of the most powerful membership blocks, which may or may not have the interests of students at heart. There is, however, a great function of teachers unions: to act as tools for passionate, competent, and committed educators to advocate for policies important to the well-being of their jobs, which most often correspond with the interests of students (it is the job of involved parents and community members to combat teachers unions when they don't). I argue in favor of unions not because I think current union leadership is doing an excellent job of representing public education's interests, but because I believe collective bargaining is a tool we can't afford to lose, particularly in the public sector. If there's any hope of creating a stronger group of teachers (and, in turn, better educated students), the profession must be afforded compensation that is at least on par with society's similarly-educated professions. Teaching is not (despite what FOX News might have led you to believe). I don't exactly think that getting rid of collective bargaining rights is going to move us in that direction.

This is about more than just ensuring a quality education, though.

Teachers unions are important as a means of safeguarding democracy and social stability. We live with terrible inequality in the United States. The deterioration of democratic processes will only make this worse. Inequality affects more than just the amount of money you have and your capacity for civic participation (see this article in the most recent American Educator). The less workers are allowed a voice in the decision-making process that affects their jobs, especially when those jobs are so inextricably linked with the well-being of society, the more arthritic social relations become, and the more society's health degrades.

The attempted erosion of union rights we've seen in a number of states recently demonstrates either that we don't understand democracy or that we don't really believe in it - or at least that we don't believe in it all the time. Our position as global hegemon, and our increasingly desperate desire to maintain that position, certainly makes us pause in considering the utility of the democracy. Our business leaders (or should I just say leaders?) are convinced that the 21st century requires a sleek and adaptable policy machine, the kind that can reshape education to meet its needs constantly. On the other hand, the democratic process is often difficult, ugly, and slow. While eliminating collective bargaining is one way of expediting the decision-making process to meet the needs of the corporate foundations that are largely responsible for the pulling of the strings in education policy, states in which collective bargaining is outlawed manage education largely without the input of those closest to the citizens they serve. Eliminating stakeholder input makes the process easier, but the outcome is rarely appropriately informed, and often destructive.

In this incredibly harsh fiscal environment, the destruction of collective bargaining and due process rights may prove to facilitate decision making in the short term, but in the long term, it will leave the vast majority of us (with the possible exception of those who precipitated this crisis) worse off. I, for one, recommend against it.

To read about why other teachers like me support unions, go here.


  1. Thank you for this. I'm a community college professor in Michigan and could not have said this better.

  2. Perhaps we need two unions, to provide competition. Like Naui and Padi....

    I taught, no union, but we had collective bargaining. It was nice to have someone on my side. It kept the principal from talking ad nauseam after school...

    I listen to Glen Beck whom I admire. This is just a time in history when unions go down a peg. Its a force of nature. Whats odd is that this cycle is occurring during a democratic president. Go figure.

  3. Thank you for an unusual perspective. Rhee and Klein and Black.

    You've certainly had some of the more infamous schools chiefs over you.


  4. "I argue in favor of unions not because I think current union leadership is doing an excellent job of representing public education's interests, but because I believe collective bargaining is a tool we can't afford to lose, particularly in the public sector."

    Are you a fan of F.D.R. off chance? Do you believe that FDR was wrong when he said that public unions should not have collective bargaining?

    " Meticulous attention should be paid to the special relationships and obligations of public servants to the public itself and to the government. All Government employees should realize that the process of collective bargaining, as usually understood, cannot be transplanted into the public service. It has its distinct and insurmountable limitations ... The very nature and purposes of Government make it impossible for ... officials ... to bind the employer ... The employer is the whole people, who speak by means of laws enacted by their representatives ...

    "Particularly, I want to emphasize my conviction that militant tactics have no place in the functions of any organization of government employees. Upon employees in the federal service rests the obligation to serve the whole people ... This obligation is paramount ... A strike of public employees manifests nothing less than an intent ... to prevent or obstruct ... Government ... Such action, looking toward the paralysis of Government ... is unthinkable and intolerable."

    -FDR 1937

  5. Do you have any specific instances or examples that illustrate the benefits of teacher unions? Maybe I missed something but I don't feel you included any.


  6. If what you say is true, then, you and teachers like you, need to stand up and reform the Unions. Get the Unions to use their power to help the kids, as well as the teachers. Then maybe unions would seem like they weren't just selfish and power hungry.

    As Unions, in general, are now, well, I seldom see them doing anything helpful. The Union at the college I work for is why I can't work full time there. Even though my department needs me full time. (Though, they have given us a temporary exception to that rule due to the fact that I'm filling in for two different full time positions... But, it's temporary. Even with those positions filled they still really need me full time...) It's also the Unions fault that I couldn't work many hours when I was a student worker, hours that would have helped my finances a LOT. Then there's the jobs where they force you to join, and pay them. Otherwise you likely get fired. I only avoided having my money stolen by them by getting a different job at the time they were about to force me to sign the paperwork.

    To be blunt, Unions were formed to protect workers from horrid working conditions. As far as I know, those protections have been codified into law. So what's the point of having unions now?

    Note, if this get's posted twice, sorry, the 'Comment as' box acted weird.

  7. Dustin, even if you presuppose that somebody agrees with FDR on the whole, it's pretty much guaranteed that they'll find fault in something he did or said - threatening to stack the court, authorizing internment of Japanese Americans, etc.

    Also, when you present a quote full of ellipses it suggests that you're hiding something or that you're relying upon something other than the original statement and haven't checked to see if the ellipses change the meaning of the statement.

    FDR in fact wrote, "The desire of Government employees for fair and adequate pay, reasonable hours of work, safe and suitable working conditions, development of opportunities for advancement, facilities for fair and impartial consideration and review of grievances, and other objectives of a proper employee relations policy, is basically no different from that of employees in private industry. Organization on their part to present their views on such matters is both natural and logical, but meticulous attention should be paid to the special relationships and obligations of public servants to the public itself and to the Government."

    That statement unambiguously supports the right of public sector workers to organize. He disagreed with the idea that the type of public bargaining that occurred in private sector employment was compatible with the public sector, and expressed that "militant tactics [including strikes] have no place in the functions of any organization of Government employees", but it's simply false to say that he "said that public unions should not have collective bargaining".

  8. I appreciate your thoughtful post. I wish we could reform the system that allows malicious administrators to persist in the first place. As a graduate of a public university and a teaching associate/doctoral student, I'm astounded at the bureaucracy that constrains educational institutions at every level. In my professional experience in health care, I've only seen unions serve to complicate that red tape and constrain organizational practice in ways that are detrimental to employees.

  9. So, if I'm reading you post correctly, at some point I may face an obstacle to my child's education from one of two fronts. In order of likelihood, from the way you are describing it, the most likely culprit is (are) the administrator(s), and secondly is a teachers union.

    It is my job as a parent to advocate for my child no matter where the obstacles lay (and to be honest, have already lay). The private evaluations, retention of a lawyer and letters of intent are generated no matter where the obstacles exist in the current education model. While you see a union as being more helpful then hurtful because it puts the decision making closer to the teacher, I see the decision making as lying primarily with me, with everyone else acting as advisers, who's advice is always cross checked for veracity, agendas that do not primarily serve my child's best interest, and likelihood of success. In other words, I am paying enough attention, am able to screen all the advice I get, and come up with appropriate IEP's for my child. To blazes with any teachers contract or administrative protocol that gets in the way. At least in my case it comes down not to the resources the school district has available, or the overweighted opinion of one old tenured teacher. It comes down to what is best for my child and can I compel the local public education system to do it. Which lobe of it is obstinately pointing to some arbitrary protocol or, waving some piece of data that is thought to exempt it for doing was is "most right" for my child is irrelevant.

    We had to fight for the chance for my child to live up to his potential, but when we got it, he took it and has largely been successful. He'll work for every grade he gets, but he's at least been given the opportunity to get them.

  10. http://flatlinemusings.blogspot.com/2011/03/response-to-why-teachers-like-me.html

  11. Great post!

    And believe it or not, we don't all have to agree with everything that FDR ever said or did including the above. Tyranny and malice can take root in those who are in government positions, and there can also be cronyism, nepotism, and corruption.

    Of course, striking should always be the absolute last option and yes, reform in unions need to take place. Namely, by those of us who have been sitting it out on the sidelines while others have fought for our benefits and way of life. I'm sure we will notice many things we don't like. But let's not throw out the baby with the bathwater.

  12. To some extent I agree with your stance. Teachers need protection. At least the union is the devil you know. But then again, I've seen just as much corruption and back stabbing by the union elders then any admin I've worked for. I'm a vocational teacher (now at a none union school) who worked for well over 10yrs in industry before entering the classroom. At least when you received a good review your pay reflected your expertise. Educational reviews are done for the sake of doing them since your pay scale will never leap frog the teacher who coasts from break to break. I've seen to many young teachers flip when they learn the dud down the hall got the same raise as they did even though their reviews was drastically different. Eventually the Go-Getter stops putting in all the extra effort and just "settles" in. I'm sure at this point you'll start chanting the typical "you don't get into teacher to get rich" and you would be right. But it would sure be nice to make even slightly more then the "bad teachers" down the hall.

  13. If you think things are bad now, how bad do you think they'd be without unions? Unions are necessary, read your history. Are they also often corrupt - of course. Agree, that rather than dismantling we need to change from within, just like "we are the people" "we are the union" - if we don't like their direction do something about it but don't think without it your administration would decide to pay you what you were worth all and suddenly treat you with respect.

  14. In terms of, "we don't all have to agree with everything that FDR ever said or did including the above", no, we don't; but if you read the portion of what FDR wrote that was clipped out of the passage quoted above, you will find that he explicitly endorsed public sector unions - his concerns relate toward the issues over which collective bargaining is appropriate, "militant tactics", etc.

  15. Eh, I'm so tired of the same old excuse of, "Well I put in so much more work than that 'bad' teacher down the hall so now I'm just going to settle." Really? Who does that? As a fourth-generation teacher who grew up with a father, uncle, and aunt who taught in NYC public schools for over twenty years each with multiple accolades why was this never a complaint that ever crossed their lips? 'Gee, if only I could make more than the other teacher?' Nope, never heard it. I heard, 'I wish the kids would be more respectful', 'I wish the administration respected my experience/backed me up/got off my back', 'If only the parent didn't assume I was lying when I told him his kid was cheating.'

    And yes, there are 'bad' teachers out there but it seems to me (at least where I work) that those are the folks who don't go for drinks with the admin, say they agree with them and then stab them in the back, and heaven forbid those that actually come from the same neighborhood as the kids (or in some places, don't come from the same neighborhood as the kids). Or because they refuse to go with the latest and greatest educational fads, many of which constitute educational malpractice, in my point of viewThen I go into their rooms expecting to see horrifying incompetence when I view to my shock- teaching and learning! And I've seen the opposite from those considered most favored. Again, not to say those bad apples aren't out there, but I've learned to treat those allegations with a grain of salt.

    I know that this is an unpopular opinion but I'm not here for my pay scale to 'leap frog' over others. Working with children that have multiple challenges at home and at school, I say emphatically 'All hands on deck!' In my ten years of experience, I've found it is the healthiest way to go. Most of us have a combination of strengths and weaknesses that we bring to the table as teachers- and sometimes, what I thought I was good at for several years, just doesn't work with a new set of kids, or one class, or one kid. And I need help. My favorite school environment was a place where we could tear down those defensive walls, step away from the blame game, and get to work.

  16. Administration in my school has turned the work environment poisonous, and the district ran over our union. I think unions, although never perfect (what is?), are necessary as long as administration is there for career and not for students. I saw a sign during the Wisconsin protests that said "My working conditions, are your kid's learning conditions." I thought that summed it up pretty well.

  17. This is why I think that teachers' unions should be all for school choice: they could start schools where the educators made the policy decisions and put an end to the teacher/admin acrimony.

  18. Chris - schools like that exist.

    The problem with choice is that it's used by for-profit, ideologically motivated opportunists who often have no clue how to run a school. The dilemma comes in trying to provide some sort of quality guarantee while giving people room to innovate.

  19. Although Franklin Roosevelt was against public sector unions, his wife Eleanor warmed to collective bargaining rights for government employees.

    "One of the most admired women in the world, Eleanor Roosevelt was a member of the Newspaper Guild for over 25 years and a staunch advocate for unions, which she came to view as a “fundamental element of democracy.” She believed that everyone had a basic right to a voice at work. She argued for union rights in the public sector, while also campaigning to defeat state right-to-work laws."
    Source: http://americanrightsatwork.org/blog/2011/04/06/the-right-to-join-a-union-from-eleanor-roosevelt-to-john-kasich/


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