Which Side Are You On?

A Look at Teachers Unions

By Bob Peterson

Originally published in Rethinking Schools Volume 8, No. 1 — Fall 1993.

A friend who works for a teachers’ union recently recounted a discussion in which an anti-union teacher asked my friend why she supported unions. My friend’s reply was simple. She said that without unions, particularly the one her dad had been in, she would have grown up in poverty.

That’s reason enough for many to support unions. But some poor and working people, particularly people of color and women, have had a different experience with unions: one of exclusion.

I saw that for the first time when I worked on the Milwaukee docks in the mid-1970s and witnessed the International Longshoreman Association’s resistance to allowing women into the union. The ILA was continuing a long, nefarious tradition of some sections of organized labor in Milwaukee. One of the first strikes in Milwaukee, for example, was in 1863 by typesetters at the Milwaukee Sentinel who struck to protest the hiring of women.

In these cases, the unions weren’t just defending workers from greedy bosses but were also”defending” unionized workers from other workers. Historian Robert Allen, in his book Reluctant Reformers, documents how this was the case in many unions throughout much of the 19th and 20th century, as white workers attempted to keep workers of color out of many jobs. As late as 1931, Allen notes, 14 national unions prohibited African Americans from membership.

This historic dual nature of many unions — on the one hand protecting the needs of poor and working people and on the other undercutting the interests of some of those very people — is now sharply manifesting itself in many teacher unions.

Teacher unions must confront this dual nature of unionism and take a stand. They must not only work to defend the rights of their members but must also advocate for the needs of the broader community, in particular the needs of their students. When these two interests are in conflict, there has to be open debate and some difficult decisions.

Unfortunately, many teacher unionists take a different approach. Their strategy is to “circle the wagons” and to take a strictly defensive posture concentrating on bread and butter issues. Such a stance is wrong for two reasons. First, it runs counter to the self-interests of teachers. Circling the wagons will cut off teachers from those with the power to ultimately save public education — parents, students, and community people.

Second, it is morally and professionally wrong. Teacher unions need to protect the rights of teachers, but they must protect the quality of teaching as well. Many teacher union constitutions acknowledge this. For example, the constitution of the Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association (MTEA) states that the “purpose of this organization shall be to develop and maintain the professional status and financial welfare of its members and to promote the cause of education through strong positive action.”

If unions are to be true to such statements, they must take a fresh look at issues such as seniority, tenure, teacher evaluation, and school governance. Moreover, we must examine the role of teacher unions in addressing the broader social issues confronting the children we teach and the communities where we work.

Some people will view it as heresy even to suggest such a discussion. Within certain Milwaukee circles I will no doubt be labeled as “anti-union.” But attacking the messenger instead of dealing with the message has never been a useful strategy for coping with change. A committed trade unionist should be open to such discussions.

My reflections are based on 25 years of political activism and 15 years of union activism (including six years on the Executive Board of the Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association); and my involvement as co-chair of the National Coalition of Education Activists, which includes union activists from both National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers locals. It is only after many years of concern with the issues raised in this article that I have decided to write down my thoughts in the hopes of sparking a broader discussion within the pages of Rethinking Schools. It is only through an honest, thoroughgoing debate that progressive unionists will be able to clarify the issues and outline the responses needed.

I also want to underscore that I am not proposing specific solutions to the problems raised in this article. Conditions vary from district to district and so must union responses. Seniority provisions of one union local, for example, might be inappropriate for another. What I am proposing, however, is a trade union perspective that clearly states that unions must not advance the welfare and rights of teachers at the expense of students, community people, and working people in general — that the two need not be mutually exclusive.

Public Services Under Attack

Public sector unions are simultaneously one of the strongest and yet most vulnerable sections of the labor movement. Largely because of the decline in manufacturing in the United States, coupled with incessant governmental and business attacks on the very concept of unionism, overall union membership has declined from about 31% of the labor force in 1970 to 17% in 1990. During the same period, Germany’s level of unionization grew from 37% to 43%, and Canada’s from 32% to 36%.

Those workers who remain unionized are increasingly public sector workers. But unionization in the public arena is also now under sharp attack. Declining social service budgets on the local, state, and national levels, combined with growing trends of privatization and contracting out, undermine the bargaining power of public sector unions.

Public sector unions face problems that private sector unions don’t. First, they are paid through taxes which, unfortunately, come disproportionately from the pockets of working people. Second, their “product” is usually a public service rather than a consumer item such as a wrench or airplane. These realities make it far more difficult for public sector unions to garner public support not only for contract demands but for work actions such as a slowdown or strike. It is far more difficult to win public support for a strike by teachers demanding higher wages than for a strike by an industrial union.

Within this context, teacher unions face special problems. Their “product,” the education of children, is particularly important. (As one of my colleagues likes to say, “We are not meatcutters. We are teachers of children, and our union should keep that in mind.”) Further, schools are currently the prime target of conservative forces trying to defund publicly financed social services. Finally, teacher unions in urban areas, where controversy is strongest, must confront the reality that our urban schools are increasingly populated by students of color, who are taught overwhelmingly by white teachers. In Milwaukee, for example, approximately 70% of the students are non-white, while nearly 80% of the teachers are white.

Thus, union politics and the tendency of some teacher union members to defend the short-term interests of their members and paid staffs at the potential expense of students and community people, have clear racial implications. Anti-public education forces have been able to demagogically play on these implications and have exacerbated the divisions between white teachers and communities of color, with the purpose of further undermining support for public education.

Teacher Unions Under Attack

A common refrain from policy makers when discussing schools is that teacher unions are the main obstacle to reform. Often such rhetoric is baseless. Further, sweeping charges that unions are preventing reform mask the broader problems faced by public schools. Changes in union contracts will never overcome fundamental problems such as lack of resources, inequitable funding, and outdated curricula.

Thus, those who argue that unions prevent reform and improved student achievement are at a loss to explain the pitifully low levels of achievement in many states in the South, where teachers are not allowed to collectively bargain. Nor does it explain the alleged success of schools in other industrialized countries where teachers are unionized.

Nonetheless, unions need to figure out where the truth may lie in some of those criticisms and examine options that would serve both teachers and the broader community.

When parents and community members criticize unions, the criticism usually centers on two main issues: inflexible seniority rules and union protection of “bad” teachers. It is in teachers’ self interest to take a fresh look at such issues — for teachers themselves are at times affected by inflexible rules that dictate staffing solely on the basis of seniority and by the existence of teachers who either should not be teaching, or who should be receiving support.


One example of a questionable seniority rule is the practice, common in some large districts such as New York City, in which teachers who are put out of assignment at one school because of a closing or program shift have the right to bump teachers at another school based on seniority. (In most districts, teachers who are put out of assignment are given positions at another school only when that school has a vacancy.)

There are clearly times when this bumping policy would be at odds with the efforts of a school to build a staff committed to a common educational philosophy. Further, this bumping privilege angers parents who feel that seniority rules automatically take precedence over building a quality staff. We must ask ourselves: is such a rule the only way to protect a teacher’s job rights?

In other districts, criticisms have been raised about transfer rules that operate exclusively on the basis of seniority. In this case, when a school has an opening teachers from other schools may request to transfer in and the decision will be made on the basis of strict seniority. Again, rigid application of such rules might harm schools — in particular, schools that are trying to ensure school-wide reforms requiring the support of all teachers in the building. If, for example, an elementary school is trying to implement a whole language, multicultural curriculum, it harms the school if it is forced to accept teachers who, although they may have a lot of seniority, have little experience or interest in whole language or a multicultural curriculum.

At the same time, I am not arguing to eliminate the concept of seniority. It would be a disaster to hand over all staffing decisions to principals and administrators, who could easily make decisions based on favoritism and patronage.

One possible solution to this particular problem, I believe, lies in the area of school governance and reforms that give teachers more responsibility at the local school level. In some schools around the country, school-based committees of teachers, parents, and administrators make certain staffing decisions and, for example, choose between the top several senior applicants.

The purpose of this article is not to outline a specific approach, but to raise questions. Rather than blindly defending current rules, unions should take the lead in exploring how seniority work rules might be modified so that they protect the rights of teachers and support school reform. I don’t believe these two purposes need to be at odds.

Another key issue is the “bad” teacher syndrome. Since almost everyone has at one time had a lousy teacher, anti-public school forces often use this issue to turn public sentiment against unions and teachers.

More often than not, such critics usually denigrate any due process rights whatsoever. Majorie Murphy notes in her book, Blackboard Unions: The AFT and the NEA, 1900 – 1980, numerous cases of arbitrary dismissal of teachers for reasons ranging from being married (for women), to being members of integrated organizations (in the South), to being, or accused of being, a communist (particularly in New York). With the growing strength of the religious right and their increasingly successful efforts to infiltrate school boards, teachers should be vigilant in their defense of basic due process rights.

Teacher Accountablity

Traditionally, teacher evaluation is the responsibility of principals and administrators — who have generally done an inadequate job. Principals usually deal with failing teachers by convincing them to transfer to another school, sometimes sweetening such a “voluntary” transfer by giving a satisfactory evaluation. At the new school the problem may reoccur. As a result, teachers might accumulate years of satisfactory evaluations, which can be used in their defense, if they are ever confronted by a principal willing to recommend that the teacher be dismissed. A co-worker of mine refers to this problem as the “dance of the lemons.”

To actually deal with this issue of “bad” teachers, we must recognize that the problem is deeply woven into the fabric of our schools. Few structures exist to help new teachers or teachers experiencing difficulties. Little time is available, particularly in elementary schools, to confer or collaborate with other adults during the work day. This isolation works against learning from one’s colleagues. Virtually no on-the-job training exists once a person starts teaching. In addition, overcrowded conditions and inadequate social services exacerbate classroom problems, making teaching a highly stressful occupation.

Many teacher union activists argue that it is the administration’s responsibility to deal with “problem” teachers. I agree. But the fact is, most school administrations are not doing their job in this area and are unlikely to do so in the foreseeable future. As a result, teachers ultimately have to assume more responsibility on this matter.

Peer review programs such as those in Toledo and Cincinnati, Ohio could be possible models. (See Rethinking Schools Vol. 6, No. 3.) Such peer review programs, however, should be preceded and surrounded by non-evaluative peer coaching programs with a strong intervention component for teachers in need. Such programs would have the further benefit of changing the school culture from one of isolation and lack of accountability to one of collaboration and responsibility.

School Governance

School governance is, potentially, the most controversial issue confronting teacher unions. One obvious complexity is the relative power of teachers, parents, and community representatives on school-based councils. But even more difficult issues exist.

First, and foremost, is the relative power of such councils versus district-wide agreements between school boards and the district’s unions. Another is the scope of power of the local councils. Instead of local unions preserving all their power at the district-wide level, consideration should be given to allowing local councils, with adequate guarantees to the rights of school workers, to have more say in shaping certain work rules and policies for individual schools.

The basic question then is — who should run our schools? Should teacher unions support the traditional hierarchies of management and workers, with occasional parent input? Or should unions consider a radical redefinition of roles in which both teachers and parents assume more power? Some schools, for example, have teams of teachers running the school instead of a principal. Such approaches give teachers more power than that of any union contract, but would also mean new responsibilities. Instead of rejecting such experiments outright, teacher unions should help shape them. They should view their role as more than enforcers of work rules. They should consider their ability to monitor and shape experiments in decision-making that truly empower teachers.

Relations with Communities

Teacher unions’ relations with the parents and communities they serve have always been a source of tension. This is particularly true when teacher unions interact with communities with large numbers of people of color.

Historically, both the AFT and NEA have at times sided with racist practices. The NEA, for example, failed to adequately back the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision outlawing separate but equal schools, waiting a full seven years to actually endorse it. According to Murphy, in the early 1960s there were still 11 segregated NEA state associations; as late as 1974 the NEA still had a segregated Louisiana Association.

The most notorious AFT example of disregarding the interests of the community occurred in 1968 in New York City. During a struggle for community control of the schools, a struggle centered in the African-American community in Ocean Hill-Brownsville, the AFT went on strike protesting the removal of several teachers who were accused of sabotaging the project of community control. Many African-American teachers and progressive whites crossed the picket lines, reopening schools with the assistance of community organizations such as Congress for Racial Equality (CORE). The strike greatly damaged the AFT’s reputation among many people in African-American communities throughout the nation.

In Milwaukee, there are contemporary examples. Perhaps the most blatant involved a controversy over the staffing at two African-American immersion schools. The administration broke the contract in 1991 when it staffed the schools with 33% African-American teachers. Due to court-ordered desegregation, the contract called for a maximum of 23.5% and minimum of 12.5% of African-American teachers at any one school at that time. The union immediately filed a grievance against the staffing at the African-American immersion schools, even though no teacher in the district was denied their choice because of the contract violation. For almost two years the union refused to budge or compromise, citing it as a question of principle. Within the African-American community, this intransigence was seen as a deliberate attempt to undercut the goals of the immersion schools — further alienating many in the African-American community who consider the union a stronghold of racism.

In the battle over whether public education is going to receive adequate funding and support from our society, teachers must recognize that the parents and neighbors of our students are a key ally. Instead of promoting policies that alienate the communities where our students live, we should be trying to forge alliances when possible and resolve differences when necessary. But that requires dialogue and flexibility.

Taking the Initiative

Teacher unions must do more than adequately respond to contractual controversies, however. They must take the offensive and aggressively push policies that will improve teaching and improve relations with the communities where they work, particularly communities of color.

One of the key problems facing many urban systems, for example, is the fact that predominantly white teaching staffs teach students who are mainly children of color, including an increasing number of language minority students. A range of problems flow from this reality, from lack of understanding, to low expectations, to inability to communicate adequately with families of the students. And yet, teacher unions seem to do little to address this problem. Instead, they should aggressively push programs that ensure more teachers of color in urban schools and that train current teachers to be more culturally sensitive and anti-racist. The British Columbia Federation of Teachers, for example, runs an education program for its members which deals with race issues on personal, political, and pedagogical levels. That union realizes that how teachers view the issue of race is crucial to the long-term success of that union.

Ultimately, however, communities will primarily judge teacher unions on whether the union promotes quality education for their children. While most teacher unions have this as one of their goals, often written into their constitutions, too often that goal is lost amid concern for teachers’ welfare. The ways that unions might be involved in school reform are innumerable. Unfortunately, finding examples of such involvement is not quite so easy. Why? Why are teacher unions sometimes at the end, creating a drag on school reform, rather than at the beginning, pushing?

Likewise, teacher unions should be at the forefront of efforts to revitalize the labor movement. Teachers need to see that their interests are connected to the rest of labor. And they should start with the people who work in the schools with them. For example, school cafeteria workers, secretaries, and school bus drivers are often paid obscenely low wages. Why aren’t teacher unions helping such workers organize for the wages they deserve?

Clearly, I advocate a position that goes beyond the stance of most teacher unionists. It is only “social justice” teacher unionism which will help develop the movement we need to defend teachers’ rights and to ensure quality education for all children. Social justice unionism also recognizes that it is in the interest of teachers individually, and public schools generally to fight for equality and justice throughout society.

Internal Changes Needed

I am skeptical whether teacher unions — as they presently function — can address the issues outlined above. What befuddles teacher unions is commonplace in many unions, and in fact in most institutions in our society: they are hierarchical structures that are rarely capable of capitalizing on their biggest resource, the rank-and-file classroom teacher.

Conditions mitigate against active involvement of classroom teachers. Overwhelmed by the day-to-day task of teaching under increasingly difficult conditions, most teachers have little time to become involved in union activities. More important, however, union structures sometimes discourage rank-and-file participation. Like many other institutions in our society, power is too often concentrated in small groups whose self-interests don’t always coincide with the interests of the broader membership.

The bottom line is that classroom teachers must become more central to the running of local unions, and there should be less reliance on the paid staff. The reforms necessary to do so will vary according to conditions. For example, in the AFT that might mean putting limits on the number of terms that elected officers can serve. In the NEA, where there are term limits, often the opposite problem exists and the professional staffs essentially run the local or state association. In this case, reforms might mean letting elected officers have terms longer than a year or two. In cases like Milwaukee, key elected officials should be permitted to take a sabbatical from teaching in order to devote time to union matters.

As in many other unions, the leadership in most teacher unions has become bureaucratized. Paid staff members, some of whom have extended contracts with few provisions for accountability, dominate the union’s internal life. The elected leadership is little more than a rubber stamp.

There is also a philosophy of “expertism” and “legalism” in many teacher unions which discourages the participation of classroom teachers and justifies the inordinate power of the staff. The union people most involved are paid staff who haven’t taught in a classroom for years, sometimes decades. Why not, to cite one possibility, require that union staffers teach full time at least one semester every five years? Why not also, as has been done in some AFT locals, replace some full-time paid staff with classroom teachers who work part time on such things as union publications or specific school reform projects?

Another key problem is the lack of debate, communication, and education within teacher unions. Many local union publications merely provide one-way information from the staff to the membership, without serving as a forum for discussion of key issues. At best, this fails to inform teachers about important policy issues such as school “choice.” At worst, it stifles debate leaving important policy decisions up to a few.

The Choice for the Future

My friend who works for a teacher union and who argued about the value of unions did not only talk about her father’s union. She talked of how early teacher union activists were mainly women, many of whom were involved in the suffragist movement. She explained the broader labor movement’s influence on social policy legislation such as the minimum wage, unemployment compensation, and Social Security. She noted how the United Auto Workers were major backers of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the civil rights movement.

I believe it is within that tradition of progressive labor that teachers should push their unions. In the past, other unions have faced difficult challenges and set ambitious goals. Today, teacher unions face a similar challenge. Only when we have a democratic teacher union movement that recognizes its interests are bound up with the interests of the communities we serve, and with poor and working people everywhere, will we be able to gather sufficient forces to ensure that public education and teachers get the resources and support that we deserve and that children desperately need.

Bob Peterson, REPMilw@aol.com, is a Rethinking Schools editor and a 5th grade teacher at La Escuela Fratney in Milwaukee, Wis.