Letters 13.1

Teacher unions not “too industrial”

Editors: Much of what has appeared in Rethinking Schools about teacher unionism makes sense, in particular the need for “social justice unionism.” But what’s been absent from the critique of teacher unionism – and too often from the unions themselves – is a clear analysis of how the union’s responsibility to serve its members meshes with “social justice unionism.”

In the 1960s, tens of thousands of teachers risked their livelihoods and arrest to build teachers unions, to democratize the schools, to give classroom teachers a voice in school policy. In state after state, teachers won formal recognition of their unions as bargaining agents, but at a cost of accepting legislation that sharply curtailed the scope of bargaining to salary, benefits, and class size.

The proponents of the “new teacher unionism” speak to teachers’ continuing desire to work in schools that tap their knowledge and judgment, to participate in decision-making that, despite collective bargaining, has remained beyond their reach. But the “new teacher unionism,” like the management-labor collaboration in private industry that it imitates, proposes to cede important protections, like seniority, for no real power in deciding the most fundamental aspects of school life.

It’s critical to understand that the unions today aren’t bad because they’re too combative, too confrontational, too “industrial.” They’re just bad unions, in most cases bureaucratic shells. To fight well for teachers, they’d have to be more democratic and active as organizations. To win on big issues, they’d have to develop solid relations with parent and advocacy groups that want to improve the schools.

Yet the unions protect teachers in ways no other agency or organization does, not only bread and butter issues, but also from administrative fiat and malfeasance. Teachers deserve and need an organization that will bring these issues to the public.

One final note about teachers’ work and the role of teachers’ unions. Efforts to “reinvent” urban schools have generated a pernicious acceptance, even glorification, of a work culture in schools that assumes that teachers will be on call seven days a week, 14 hours a day. There’s no doubt that in the short run, when teachers draw no boundaries between their personal and work lives, the schools are improved. But do we really want to accept that a precondition for having some control over what’s taught means sacrificing a personal life, including time for one’s own family and non-school interests? All schools, but especially those that serve communities that have been devastated by poverty, need a stable faculty, experienced teachers who have roots in the community and know the school’s history.

The “new teacher unionism” has nothing to say about this problem because it’s given up on struggle. But teachers will have to struggle, as workers and citizens, to not only rethink schools but actually change them.

— Lois Weiner.

Lois Weiner taught high school for 15 years, eight of them in New York City. She now teaches education at New Jersey City University.

“Industrial Unionism” Is Not a Pejorative!

Editors: How can Bob Peterson (Vol. 12 #4) continue to use that anti-union, reactionary term “industrial unionism” – as if this term somehow sums up the union movement? Shouldn’t he begin by examining the anti-union implications of this term? The implied image of Peterson’s use of the term is of a bunch of muscle-bound, on-the-waterfront, Mafia thugs pouring cement into some guy’s work boots.

The union movement in this country has had and still has some real deficiencies. But are we supposed to toss it all out and substitute the corporate model of “new unionism”?

Is anyone surprised that the NEA delegates voted against merger with the AFL-CIO, when the “social justice” liberal tail of new unionism fails to go beyond a unionism framed by a reactionary and a historical perspective? Throw in the issue of giving away seniority and reducing teachers wages and benefits and what we are left with is reactionary, corporate new unionism sweetened with some gentle appeals for social justice.

Wages, benefits, and working conditions may be represented as crude economic issues by the anti-union, new unionism interpreters. But the private sector “free market” knows very well that when teachers take on these issues, they are more than merely economic. Such struggles have put teachers in a position of control where we can assert our democratic voice and vision.

New unionism, in either its mainstream or “social justice” versions, works as a brake on progressive goals for education and social justice. Where does Peterson think the idea of new unionism came from? It’s the darling of neoliberalism – a view that the private sector will solve all our problems, that unions are things of the past in the free market, and the public sector is inefficient and inept. Isn’t new unionism designed to erase those naughty, confrontational days when the education movement embraced a respect for that dirty old “industrial unionism,” when teachers proclaimed that they were more than deskilled clerks administrating corporate-generated tests and standards?

To answer Peterson’s question about the future of teacher unionism. The future is now and it is all too familiar. Remember the arrangement called corporate/government unionism, when the trains ran on time?