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Many of us–though certainly not enough!– are aware of the bad old days of teaching. You know those days, when pregnant teachers were unfairly fired, and teachers–especially women– could be retaliated against or dismissed for exercising their professional judgment in opposition to their principals, or for being active in efforts to improve their schools or organize other teachers, or for registering a complaint against a superior, or for exposing wrong-doing in their buildings.
Oh, wait: all of these things happened within the past four years. In fact, the majority happened in just this last year alone.
When I’m not surrounded by my ultra-progressive and/or edu-advocate friends, I often find that conversations about unions– and teachers’ unions in particular– tend to go in one of two directions. There are a small handful who immediately go to “Death to Unions! They’re killin’ America and protecting bad teachers and failin’ our kids!” -ville. Then there’s a larger group of people who say things like, “Well, I can see how they might have been a good thing a long time ago, but now I’m not so sure they’re necessary or good for schools…” And then I often find myself in the same position as fellow teacher Stephen Lazar, explaining once again why I support unions, even though I’m a good teacher.
Though I have often been a critical friend, I have always been and always will be a staunch union supporter. Why?
First and foremost, I support unions of all kinds because greed and abuse of power don’t have an expiration date. A reminder: there is no irrevocable law, anywhere, that says that everyday people’s hard-won rights can’t be eroded and lost. Freedom, justice, and equality aren’t things that just magically happen with the passage of time. They are ideals we continuously have to earn and protect; things for which we occasionally have to struggle and fight. That’s what unions are about: giving ordinary people the means to earn fair(er) pay and benefits, secure safer working conditions and a bit of dignity in the workplace, and protect ourselves and our livelihoods from unfair attack. And though they’re much less wealthy than their corporate counterparts, they represent the largest organized counterbalance to the amount of money and influence corporations and individuals can spend on our political process.
That’s not to say that every union is perfect; no organization is. There are examples of corrupt union bosses (though their ranks are heavily outnumbered by examples of corrupt corporate managers, CEOs, and politicians…), and there are also examples– sadly contemporary– of unions that concede too much and fail to adequately represent their members. But that’s a reason to improve those specific organizations, not destroy the labor movement entirely. There has to be balance in every realm, and strong unions provide a necessary check on the power of other interest groups.
Second, I support unions because I know what it’s like to be retaliated against by an unethical employer. (Real innovation in education does threaten weak leaders and those who aren’t prepared for change. Innovative, effective teachers need unity, support, and protection in order advance our practice and our work for children.) As a probationary teacher in Colorado (a weak labor state), I had my contract unfairly non-renewed “for cause”– and no one even bothered to make up a cause! They didn’t have to, because without due process rights (the oft-maligned “tenure” protections some reformers are out to destroy), my “superiors” were under no obligation to prove that I’d done anything to warrant such a severe, career-bruising punishment. Evidence of effectiveness, documented praise and positive evaluations are little help when your only recourse is a three-minute appeal during a marathon session of the Board of Education. Strong unions can protect their members by offering legal assistance, and by pushing for contract provisions that can help prevent these kinds of situations.
Lastly, I support unions because it wasn’t that long ago that this happened to me, or the many other teachers with similar stories to tell. Indeed, in the grand scheme of things, it wasn’t that long ago that school reformers could openly advocate for the feminization of the teaching profession because women could be paid less than men (1840s-1910s). It wasn’t that long ago that over one hundred women burned alive or jumped to their deaths in an un-regulated shirtwaist factory (1911). And it definitely wasn’t that long ago that workers have died in re-deregulated mines (2010), or that corporate-funded politicians weakened agencies like OSHA (March 3, 2011), or that another politician suggested that maybe child labor laws should be relaxed (February 25, 2011). As our unions have declined, our leisure time and income gains have too, while inequality and suffering have skyrocketed.
When it comes to ensuring fair working, learning, and living conditions for all, we are losing ground instead of gaining it. Instead of trashing our unions, we should be improving and strengthening them, so that they can function as they’re supposed to: protecting decent, hard-working people who add value to society. Everyday people in America have already lost so much, and we stand to lose a whole lot more if we continue trying to go it alone.