Which Side Are You On? Readers’ Views on Teacher Unions

Readers Respond About the Role of Teachers Unions

Rethinking Schools received a number of responses to the article by Bob Peterson on the role of teacher unions (Rethinking Schools, Vol. 8 #1) and his advocacy of “social justice” unionism that both defends the rights of members but also advocates for the needs of students and the broader community. Following are excerpts from the responses.

Teachers Must Assume Responsibility

I’d like to thank Bob Peterson for the courage with which he tackled some very delicate issues involving teacher unionism and the responsibility of teachers and their organizations for the current traumas of public education. My own experience with teachers unions has been complex and often painful. I’ve been working in public education for the past 30 years — some- times within school systems, sometimes on the margins, and even at times in opposition to those systems. In every case I have been in what can only be described as the belly of the beast.

There has been a massive failure of public schools to educate poor children and children of color. Most public schools are boring, lifeless places that serve a few students well, push most through, and get rid of or stigmatize students who become identified as “problems.” Teachers or schools that try to change these conditions are often harassed by colleagues or their own unions. It has often felt to me as if teacher unions would rather go down and take public education with them than change old but ineffectual habits of work.

This is not dissimilar to problems industrial and public service unions are facing throughout the country.

To me the question of who initiates change and assumes responsibility for failure — and credit for success — is at the core of many of the problems in education. I began teaching fifth grade in the New York City public schools in 1961. That same year I was involved in a teachers strike that closed the system down. The strike was as much for working conditions as for salary increases, and our school chapter considered that negotiating over conditions of teaching, supplies, control over curriculum, and self-accountability were as important as salary increases. The strike was won, union dues check-off was approved, and the membership of the United Federation of Teachers went from approximately 5,000 to about 37,000 in a month. Along with the increase in membership went abandonment of teaching issues as union issues and a thorough change in the constitution and politics of the union’s delegate assembly.

Money and benefits were the obsession of the leadership and staff of the union, which had become, and remains, more politically conservative than much of its membership. They were and still are concerned almost exclusively with the maintenance of power rather than the quality and nature of the work performed by teachers and our relationships with the communities we are paid to serve.

In 1966 I worked for the IS 210 planning board and crossed union picket lines in support of community control of schools that were racist and failing the children they were created to serve. It was very difficult since I come from a union family and I was breaking the pledge. The struggle between loyalty to the union and caring for the children and their parents makes union issues in education distinctly different from those in industries that produce goods and products.

In California, from 1968 to 1971 I was a teacher and principal of a public alternative school that functioned under a contract with the Berkeley Unified School District. Our students received Berkeley High School diplomas. The arrangement was irregular, but was created with the cooperation of the school board and the covert support of the union because it was publicly acknowl- edged that the high school was not serving all of its students. At that time union members were interested in finding new ways to define who can teach, who controls curriculum and evaluation, and how to determine working conditions and union membership in ways that fit different structures of teaching and learning. These are precisely the issues Bob Peterson calls upon us to make central within unions and he’s right.

From the early 1960s to today, through the vehicle of freedom schools, boycotts, and union activism, voices advocating decency and equity in education have constantly insisted upon public education as a necessary component of a hopeful and democratic society. It is probably true that all of these efforts have reached no more than 10% of the public schools, most of which have yielded to bureaucratic subversion, fatigue, conservative attack, university-based schemes, and administrative and collegial hostility. The central point, however, is that there has been and is, within public education, a continuing force for improvement of free education, equity, and empowerment for all children. This tradition of struggle within public education represents a commitment to the widest possible access to learning. It must be central to the very idea of teacher unionism, which should be leading the school reform movements rather than taking orders from legislators, academics, corporations, or the media. This can only be done with a social vision for the teacher unions, one that re- examines how and what we teach instead of pushing off those problems we have created onto the community, the family, the child, the political climate, and whatever else we can find to blame for the fact that as teachers we do not have active control of the educational process and are not willing to accept responsibility for our results.

—Herbert Kohl.

[Kohl’s latest book on education is, “I Won’t Learn From You” and Other Thoughts on Creative Maladjustment (New Press)]

Divided We All Fall

We live in a paradoxical era. The public sector, and even the notion of public service is under attack by the political right. The religion of privatization is spreading, even among otherwise progressive people. The notion of so-called “free market” solutions to fundamental economic and social problems has led all layers of government, local, state and federal, to question the very concept of a public sector.

In this mix, public sector unions, which experienced a rapid period of growth in the 1960s and 1970s, have come under attack. In defending the gains made by their members, they are viewed as archaic and otherwise obstructive to progress. Public sector unions, whether of teachers or sanitation workers, get unsatisfactory media coverage, if they get any coverage at all.

Added to this is the interesting fact that the public sector has become perhaps the single most important employer of African-Americans, making it possible for at least some African-American workers to achieve a decent living standard.

Yet there exists a high degree of paralysis among many public sector unions. Communities of color, which should be their allies, are often viewed with a degree of hostility. The communities themselves often view the unions with great suspicion. This fundamental clash is at the heart of the crisis over the future of public sector unions.

Put another way, I would pose this question: do public sector unions, whether of teachers, office workers, or sewage treatment workers, exist as special interest organizations? Or, in the alternative, do they exist to represent their members while at the same time defending the need and role of a public sector that serves all people?

Posed in those terms, most readers would probably gravitate toward the latter. But the practice has all too often been that of the former.

Further, a defense of the public sector should mean a defense or assertion of the need for equity in the public sector. It should mean the assurance that particularly those who have been historically disenfranchised should receive equal access to and quality services from government. It should mean, in other words, that government serves all, not just those able to pay the most.

If defense of the public sector is to be the clarion call of our unions as we proceed into the ‘90s, we must adjust the relationship of the union to the community. If the general public perceives unions to be defending the narrow interests of their members, we are moving into an arena in which we cannot win.

There is an alternative: the politics of the united front. A united front must be built around defense of the public sector. In order to build a real alliance with community groups, unions cannot articulate a program of more of the same. There are fundamental problems with the public sector, which have a particular impact on communities of color. The issue of disenfranchisement from decision-making and the need for genuine community input is probably one of the most critical features that would need to be addressed as part of a united front.

In order to be successful, this move must be pro-active rather than reactive. It must precede and follow contract negotiation time, and cannot be a cynical tactic pulled out when it is convenient and quickly dismissed when it no longer serves union interests. Properly implemented, a united front could be the basis for both the reconstruction of public sector unionism and defense of the public sector in general.

—Bill Fletcher, Jr.

[Fletcher is Director of Education for the Service Employees International Union.]

Arrogant Criticism of Unions

I find that often a holier-than-thou arrogance permeates criticism of teacher unions. There is the implication that progressives understand intimately the inner workings of a teacher union, the ease (or, in my opinion, difficulty) of establishing policy and direction in an organization whose members hold widely varying views, and the relationship between staff and members.

Consider the issue of democracy and the paid staff (of which, admittedly, I am one). If labor relations in our schools ever resembled the quaint notion of rank-and-file teachers sitting down with dedicated administrators to work out the best possible contract for teachers, students, and the school as a whole (and I doubt this ever was the norm), today’s negotiations and contract administration certainly are not this simple.

Collective bargaining and the administration of contracts (i.e., the protection of teacher rights) is a complex business, for which school districts hire high-priced attorneys, labor relations consultants, and even, in some cases, union-busting firms. In many situations, the goal of these hired guns is to drive down teacher salaries and benefits to the lowest level and to deprive teachers of every right not clearly enshrined in legislation or a labor contract.

Fighting these management cronies is a difficult job, done on many fronts: The school building level, the governance (i.e., school board) level, the regional level, and the state level. Working together in this fight are rank-and-file teachers, teacher union leaders (local, regional, state, and national), and paid staff.

Both teacher unions and progressives alike have fought (and continue to fight) to ensure that those who teach and counsel our children are well-trained and expert at their roles. Why shouldn’t those who fight alongside teachers for better pay, more professional responsibility and job rights, and greater respect similarly be well-trained experts in the complex field of labor relations? Even if this means hiring the dreaded paid staff of expert negotiators, well-educated researchers, and committed labor attorneys who work for teacher unions.

I also think it is important to recognize that well over three million individuals work within our public schools educating our children.

It is time progressives and conservatives alike stopped expecting the men and women whose lives are dedicated to this function, our public school educators, to sacrifice their rights and interests as working people to any end, whether it be the shortsighted dogma of lower taxes or the ideal of quality education for all.

—Bruce P. Merenstein

[Assistant Director of Research, Pennsylvania State Education Association. Organizational affiliation for identification purposes only.]