The Good Teachers Unions Can Do

The way people talk about teachers unions these days, you’d be forgiven for thinking they serve no useful purpose. It seems all we hear about is how teachers unions do a disservice to students and public education by keeping bad teachers in front of students. It is disturbing, therefore, how few people actually understand what unions do and how they help students, schools, communities and teachers. As a teacher, neither entirely supportive nor entirely cynical of unions, I think that needs to change. The discussion needs to be more fleshed out, and our understanding more mature.

I do not come from a background supportive of unions. As far as I know, I’m the only person in my extended family who belongs to (or has ever belonged to) a union (correction - my mother informs me a grandfather I never met was once a member of the Teamsters). I was pretty cynical of unions when I began teaching. Entering my seventh year, my understanding of this important issue is much more appreciative of the many nuances it contains.

If teachers and the public better understood unions’ functions, I think teachers who are members would be more inspired to take back their unions, and the public would be able to form a more educated opinion.

Below, I describe four very valuable functions teachers unions play in both public schools and in our democracy. 

1) Teachers unions have the opportunity to protect and promote democracy.

The preservation of democratic practices is among the most important function of unions today. Exceedingly vaster than voting for your president every four years, democracy is an incredibly intricate system. Unions can support this system in a number of ways.

First, unions provide members with practice at democratic processes.

Unions make decisions democratically. They organize caucuses, debate their vision for how the union should act, and elect leaders to speak for the union. Decisions about how to move forward are often handed over to the membership for a vote. As Deborah Meier notes, democracy is not in our DNA; it must be learned. If we really believe in it, then opportunities for its practice must be ubiquitous.

Second, unions can serve as teachers’ opportunity to advocate for quality education, a process (advocacy) and institution (public education) integral to healthy democracy.

The interests of teachers and their districts are not always aligned. Districts are necessarily concerned with balancing budgets and raising test scores. As a result, they often advocate things that are bad for students, like raising class sizes and focusing on tests and test preparation. You don’t have to look further than our most expensive private schools, where classes are often capped at 15 and teaching to high-stakes tests is virtually nonexistent, to know there is merit in resisting these reforms. Parents in marginalized, low-income communities, where these policies have the most adverse effects, often have neither the time nor social capital to resist such attempts. In the absence of teachers unions, districts would have a much easier time of enforcing policies that are good for budgets and test scores, and bad for students.

Third, unions often oppose school choice as a panacea for the ills of public education.

School choice degrades our democracy by offering a means of avoiding difficult democratic public decisions in the name of nondemocratic private decisions. Furthermore, charter schools and vouchers entice motivated families to leave their public schools, and bring public dollars with them. As a result, their former public school is left with more reluctant learners, English-language learners, and special education students. This creates a real threat that the two types schools will become separate and clearly unequal, a violation of the 14th amendment as interpreted by Brown v. Board of Education. This does great violence to our country’s more democratic notion of schooling, which, more than just providing an academic education to students, provides public space where we work through difficult issues together.

Fourth, unions can protect the existence of a healthy middle class.

As cuts to public education are considered, cuts to teachers’ salaries are among the first places districts look to save money, despite that teachers are already less well compensated than their equally educated counterparts in the private sector. As the largest single profession in the United States, with some 3.2 million individuals, paying teachers less means making a significant dent in the net worth of the educated middle class. Furthermore, when districts have an incentive to cut costs; medical, optical, dental, and proscription drug insurances are all advocated for, directed by, and sometimes paid for by teachers unions. In these ways, unions provide an essential service to our democratic system, one that depends on a healthy middle-class.

2) Teachers unions work to maintain a safe and just working environment that appeals to high-quality professionals

Public schools, like any workplace, have their share of work-related hazards. Teachers are sometimes prone to asbestus and lead exposure, poorly maintained facilities, bedbugs, and infectious disease. Teachers are also vulnerable to litigation from districts and families.

Teachers unions advocate for building safety and health (one of many instances where teachers’ and students’ interests align), and sometimes bring lawsuits against districts for failing to keep buildings up to code. Additionally, unions help teachers with defense against sometimes frivolous lawsuits. Giving students or parents the capacity to end a teacher’s career by making false accusations or railing against pedagogy they disagree with should give anyone considering teaching pause when making their career choice. By protecting against this, unions help create an atmosphere self-respecting individuals aspire to enter.

3) Teachers unions advocate for fair terms of labor

Since workers have worked and bosses have given orders, people have identified the real need for written terms and conditions of labor. History provides horrendous examples of the working conditions employers are willing to see workers endure in the name of profit. In public schools, test scores fill the profit motive for district administrators eager for federal funding and career advancement.

Teachers unions provide teachers the opportunity to collectively bargain for their terms of labor, or contract. One common contractual provision in many districts concerns lesson plans. Authoritarian administrators (more and more of whom frequently have little to no experience teaching) often require teachers to submit detailed lesson plans in a particular format. Sometimes, they ask for these weeks or months in advance, along with instructional objectives, required materials, accommodations for diverse learners, opportunities for extended activities and corresponding assessments. These demands are overbearing, do little to support learning, and are often used as a means of retaliation. When teachers disagree with an administrator’s approach, they sometimes find themselves faced with incredibly detailed demands, the kinds of which have a negative impact on their ability to do their job effectively, and unfair poor evaluations.

When administrators overstep their role, unions provide teachers with recourse. Without an effective union, incompetent administrators would be free to enforce silly requirements on staff year after year, fire them, and hire anew. This sometimes happens when unions aren’t effective or don’t exist (as in many charter schools). It destroys teacher morale, kills a passion for teaching, and inevitably rubs off on the students and community. Too many young teachers with potential leave the profession early because of this in a profession that already sees nearly fifty percent of its members leave in the first five years. Constant teacher turnover is bad for all stakeholders.

One thing that many people who rail against the perceived arthritic nature of contracts (which they sometimes see as regulations that can keep students from a quality education) don't seem to understand is that in many districts, a staff that believes their contract has the potential to negatively impact learning has the option of waiving certain contractual clauses with a majority vote of the staff. I’ve seen this happen many times, especially in large cities where a single contract simply can’t take into account the diverse working conditions of all of the schools within it. It is also true that contract clauses such as the duty-free lunch by no means require that teachers take a duty-free lunch, only that an administrator cannot require teachers work through their lunch. Most teachers sacrifice at least a portion, if not all, of their lunch working for students. As a teacher, however, the right to a duty-free lunch is sometimes an important part of maintaining my normally pleasant disposition, an important component of my teaching demeanor.

Unions’ advocacy for fair terms of labor encourages excellent teachers to stay in the profession, which is ultimately in the best interest of students.

4)  Advancement of the Teaching Profession

One union function that non-teachers never hear mentioned is the provision of professional development for teachers and aides. Teacher unions regularly provide opportunities to learn about strategies for effective literacy and mathematics instruction, strategies for parent communication, and information about adolescent development. They also assist in the earning and renewal of teachers’ certifications and higher professional achievement, like national board certification.

If we want excellent teachers, then we need excellent community-based professional organizations supporting them.

Unions have their problems, but that’s no reason to destroy them

It is shortsighted to blame public education's problems on unions. Nearly every dysfunction in the system currently blamed on teachers unions could just as easily be blamed on district administrations, which agree to every contract teachers work under. Furthermore, monied interests create significant problems in public education and school-board races, but there ironically exists no concerted effort to remove their influence on our schools. Curiously, it is the voice of the people who work in schools we seek to eliminate.

To be sure, unions’ disappearance would make it significantly easier for districts and monied-interests to reshape education. But that is often the point. There is value in questioning major policy overhauls and staffing decisions.

It should be teachers unions’ position that while legitimate problems exist, those who would myopically attempt to coerce the public into agreeing that the only solution to this problem is the elimination of unions and their rights to collective bargaining refuse the issue’s complexity. The result is that the public is denied its right to an honest discourse around a wide range of alternatives that would result in far better outcomes for communities, parents, students, and school staff. In the process, an important dialectic in our democracy is being destroyed.


  1. This is a GREAT piece. I think, some how, we need to get it into the hands of every teacher!

  2. I am a retired NYC Spec Ed Teacher, shared this on my FB page thanks!

  3. I had no interest in my union during my 15 years of teaching. I never read the contract and never attended a meeting. Maybe I was fortunate that I never had to, since I worked with administrators who were at worst indifferent to what I was doing, and what I was doing was done well. It was also a matter of temperament; I'm allergic to large groups of people nodding their heads in unison, chanting, etc., whether we're talking unions or reformers.

    I've only come to realize the benefit of unions now that I'm a principal. I believe power corrupts, not always in the front-page-headline variety, but often in subtle ways. It wasn't until I left the classroom that I realized the extent to which my power over students--the only people in the building who are compelled by law to be there--was mostly unmonitored and sometimes used more in the service of my ego than in ways that were truly "student-centered."

    Now as a principal with positional authority, I appreciate having checks on my power and my judgment. Regardless of my middle-manager status, I do have the power to make decisions that impact people's careers. I don't take that lightly, which is why I appreciate due process so I don't have to carry the burden alone. Having a union and a bargained contract helps me think twice about my decisions, question my motives, and consider the larger context. Funny enough, I often find myself explaining the contract to our teachers now, because most don't read the contract (they're busy teaching, of course). As I do, I remind them that they pay dues and should expect something for the money they spend.

    With that said, unions are players in the power game just like any other faction in our profession. Unions have their own interests they want to protect, not all noble, and "solidarity" is sometimes code for consolidating power. I have firsthand experience of union leaders talking about teachers as condescendingly as some administrators do. Unfortunately, this is how the game is played and, as our kids, say, "Don't hate the player; hate the game." I don't hate unions, just as I don't hate the institutional bureaucracy. I signed up for this and learned to play the game well to get our teachers and kids what they need.

    It appears I just wrote a blog post to your blog post. :)

    1. Yes! Thank you! Important perspective here. Perhaps I should publish it as my next post?

  4. Good article, James. I agree with you that teachers' unions have many positive aspects (including promoting teachers' rights and workplace safety), which people often overlook. Thanks for pointing out all the nuances of the situation in this article --

    1. Thanks, Attorney DC. Good to hear from you. It's been a while.

  5. James,

    This was an exceptionally good piece. You state the argument so well that even the most dogmatic, knee-jerk, "I Already Have My Mind Made Up About Teachers Unions" types would have to rethink some of their assumptions after reading this.

    No one in my family belongs to a union. And no one in my extended family has ever been a teacher. You're hearing this from a parent and the owner of a small business, married to a health care analyst.

    It's very good to read something so compelling and cogent.

    I don't know when it became "sport" to castigate teachers, especially those in a union. But, as the father of a young child, early in his school days, I don't understand why anyone would want to make our teachers less economically secure, less certain about their long-term relationship with their school, and less able to focus fully on teaching effectively.

    Teaching is a craft. Well-trained teachers, who start with a thorough educational grounding, and at least a year or two of student teaching, have the foundation to get better at this profession over time.

    It's amazing how well the overwhelming majority of teachers perform, despite multiple pressures and distractions ranging from High Stakes Tests, dubious, new "Teacher Evaluations" to egregious scapegoating in the media and from certain corrupt politicians.

    I'm at a loss to understand how an underpaid, disrespected, and unsupported teacher is then supposed to make ALL of our kids qualify for Stanford by the time they're 17. And if they don't, the student, his family, his neighborhood, and the media-obssessed, anti-intellectual culture we live in are all held completely blameless. Every student who succeeds must have "accepted personal responsibility". Every student who doesn't is just a helpless victim, completely at the mercy of an apathetic, indolent, incompetent who couldn't care less about her students.

    Hopefully, as parents begin waking up and understanding all of this, we'll begin to plant the seeds of change.

    Again, thanks so much, for such a moving and clear piece. Kudos to you.


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