Letters About “A New Vision of Teacher Unionism”

Letters in response to unionism issues raised in the Summer 1997 issue of Rethinking Schools.

Child Care Workers Face Similar Problems

Dear Editors:

Your article on a new vision for teacher unionism in the Summer issue of Rethinking Schoolswas helpful in thinking about the union organizing we have been trying to do with child care workers as part of thechild care Worthy Wage Campaign. As you know, child care teachers are not certified and therefore not eligible forstandard teachers’ unions. Many work in non-profit programs while others work anywhere from small mom and popoutfits to corporate chains providing what we call McChild Care or kid-in-the-box.

With welfare reform the need for child care is going to further exacerbate an already critical situation, with child careteacher salaries hovering between $6-7 an hour, often with no benefits and only rarely with any collective bargaining.Parent fees are the primary source of revenue out of which salaries come, so it is difficult to raise salaries when itmeans raising already high child care fees for families. The result is that child care teachers continually leave theselow-paying jobs (many eligible for welfare themselves as the working poor), creating a dangerous situation of a lackof continuity and attachment for the young children they leave behind in the child care centers.

Obviously what we need is a universal child care system and the concept of social justice unionism has great appealfor us. We would love to be working hand-in-hand with your efforts. If your readers are interested, they mightcontact the National Center for the Early Childhood Work Force, 733 15th NW, Suite 800, Washington, D.C. 20005.1-800-879-6784.

— Margie Carter, Seattle, WA.

Teacher Working Conditions

Dear Editors:

I appreciated your articles in the Summer 1997 issue on the relationship between teachers’ unions andschool reform and found Bob Peterson’s classification of different perspectives on unionism interesting. However, Iam disappointed that both Bob Peterson and Bob Chase barely mentioned what I think is the most important roleteachers’ unions can play in reforming schools: clearly articulating the relationship between the student’s learningenvironment and teachers’ working conditions. I’m not talking about salaries and benefits here, but about studentloads, preparation time, teachers’ voice in determining schedules, curriculum, and student evaluation, and availabilityof basic resources such as telephones.

Too often, reforms are proposed by those who are not familiar with teachers’ working conditions; such reforms oftenassume that if teachers would just work harder (and believe in all of our students) everything would be all right. Toofew voices for reform, even among those alluded to in Bob Peterson’s article, articulate the fact that many excellent,progressive, knowledgeable, hard-working teachers are unable to do what we really want to do because of a lack oftime, support, material resources, or respect for our knowledge and intelligence.

For example, in my district, Oakland, California, secondary teachers are responsible for teaching 160 students everysemester. We cannot reach all of those 160 students with individual attention or be in close contact with all of theirparents and family members. Some of us try to do so, only to burn out and feel miserable about ourselves when wefind we can’t. Some of us consciously practice “educational triage” — making decisions about which students aremore likely to benefit from our attention and focusing on those, in effect writing the other students off. We don’t dothis because we think any students are inherently unable to learn (which is what some reformers seem to think), butbecause we know that we ourselves are not unlimited resources.

Some of us are less conscious about the way we make these “triage” decisions, and do start to blame the students ortheir parents for the ways that the current school system fails to meet the needs of all of our kids. The OaklandEducation Association has made class size an issue in contract negotiations (it was a key issue in our one-month strikelast year), but I think that our union, and others, could be even stronger in pointing out the connection between ourdesire for smaller student loads and our students’ need for teachers who can provide respectful, individual attention toeach of them.

Teachers’ unions must guard against the tendency to blame individual teachers for what in fact are failings of thewhole school system. I’d like to see teacher’s unions be more “proactive” in advocating for structural changes thatrecognize the connection between teachers’ working conditions and our impact on students’ learning. For example,I’d like to see teachers’ unions advocate not only for smaller student loads but for more paid time for teachers toreflect on our own practice, prepare for classes, and make contact with students’ families. These are issues in whichteachers’ interests, students’ interests, and parents’ interests clearly overlap.

— Laura Boytz, Oakland, CA

CTA and Social Justice Unionism

Dear Editors:

I want to congratulate Rethinking Schools and Bob Peterson for your article “A New Vision of Teacher Unionism,” and for publishing the exchange of letters with Bob Chase. From my own experience in unions, all threekinds of unionism exist side by side within a local. Our task is most often to insist on the legitimacy andappropriateness of social justice unionism. The important role of race and equity in schools was well defined.

I need to dissent, however, from one of your examples. Bob Peterson argues that the work of the California Teachers’Association (an affiliate of the NEA) against California’s anti-affirmative action referendum “indicated a willingness tosupport campaigns that are not immediately viewed as ‘teacher connected.'” I wish there were a better example.

I was deeply involved in the campaign against Prop. 209, and frankly CTA was unfortunately not deeply involved inthe campaign. I am the political action chair of my local of California Faculty Association. (a CTA affiliate). I alsoserve on the Sacramento Central Labor Council. I was on the steering committee of the Sacramento Civil RightsNetwork which ran the campaign in our area. I also ran the state wide No on 209, and yes on the Livable WageInitiate for Democratic Socialists of America.

From each of these places, I watched CTA conduct a weak, poorly funded campaign. We could have won the No on209 campaign if we had an additional $1.5 million. The primary reason we did not have this money was that labor andCTA gave their money to the cause of electing Democrats. Their primary goal was to gain a Democratic majority inthe California Assembly. They got it. But in the process, CTA and the Democrats both sold the civil rights communityand the 209 campaign short.

CTA does not always act in this manner. In 1994 they were one of the chief financial backers of the No on 187campaign to defeat the anti-immigrant initiative. They gave over $400,000 and they mounted an effective internalcampaign among teachers.

Bob Peterson’s article also notes, “Unfortunately it is easier to find examples where teachers unions have failed tobuild multi-racial, multi-constituency coalitions.” This is an important criticism. CTA has been a troublesome ally ofproponents of bilingual education, often supporting legislation that the bilingual community opposes. Two years ago,I was thoroughly trashed by the former CTA president in their state newspaper for criticizing their approach toprotecting teachers jobs rather than requiring teachers to learn second language strategies.

The CTA recently met with a number of “leaders ” of California Hispanic organization leaders to begin to build adialogue. If you have money and staff you can get together a group of persons who appoint themselves asrepresentatives. But it is parents who have their children in failing schools that need to be talked to. CTA needs tomeet with those persons who can organize coordinated, grass roots political campaigns in the Latino community.Coalitions created by listing persons names on letter head will not build the kind of unity needed to defend publiceducation.

Duane Campbell, Sacramento, CA. E-mail: campd@csus.edu

Canadian Teachers Unions

Dear Editors:

Your Summer 1997 issue provides a perceptive analysis on the state of teacher unions in America. Inthe article you refer to the British Columbia Teachers’ Federation as having a social justice approach tounionism.

You may be aware that the BCTF speaks for the 42,000 teachers of British Columbia on professional, bargaining andsocial justice issues. We have a proud history of serving our members as “a union of professionals.” The focus of oursocial justice work presently is on gender equity, race relations, homophobia, poverty and children, and violenceprevention. We have staff, provincial networks/committees and local committees working on Status of Women andProgram Against Racism issues. We have just established a Committee to Eliminate Homophobia and we areembarking on a provincial/local campaign against poverty.

Our organization believes that a teacher union must provide leadership on professional, bargaining and social justiceissues. We utilize collective bargaining, advocacy, political action, professional leadership and communicationsstrategies to realize our professional, economic and social justice goals.

Mike Lombardi, director, Professional Development Division, B.C. Teachers’ Federation. E-mail: mlombardi@bctf.bc.ca