"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.