It has become one of those regular “truisms” that pundits and editorialists like to throw into every story about problems in public education that “Union thugs have ruined our schools by protecting incompetent teachers and creating ridiculous work rules.” Then someone contacts Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, for a quote that contradicts that wisdom, but nobody believes her since she’s head of one of those thug unions. And most come away with the belief that there is something to the charge that teachers’ unions do in fact make schools worse. The only problem is that’s not true.
Just so you know my biased background, I taught junior high school for eight years before moving to Hinsdale South High School for the final twenty-five years of my career, retiring in 2012. I taught English, mostly to 13-15 year-olds (eighth graders and freshmen), with a minor in seniors. My reputation among students (deserved or not, I’m not in a position to refute or confirm) was that I was extremely demanding; typically in my beloved English I Honors class with the brightest kids in our school, between 5-10% of the students would earn As, which was not nearly as many as most other honors teachers assigned. I was evaluated as “Excellent” every year I taught, except for one where our superintendent came to the conclusion that our contract necessitated that everyone be rated as “Satisfactory.” (He was wrong, by the way, but the ratings stood nonetheless since we had language in our contract which precluded filing grievances over our evaluations.) In short, I did okay as a teacher.
But I was also active in the teachers’ unions at both schools. I served as president for six years (three two-year terms, one at the junior high and two at the high school). I participated in contract negotiations nine different times: as a school representative, as president, and twice as chief spokesperson for the teachers. Plus I acted as grievance chair—the guy who would help teachers determine if contract provisions had been violated so the union could go through hearings leading to a ruling from an arbitrator—for ten years. Finally, I wrote and edited a union newsletter at both schools where I worked for a total of fourteen years. So, I was pretty active in the teachers’ unions at both schools where I worked for well over twenty-five of the thirty-three years I taught.
So which was I: respected, highly rated, (relatively) popular, dedicated instructor or union thug? (Actually, I always preferred the pejorative “goon” over “thug,” if you care with which slur you taint me.) Clearly, my record supports both labels, depending on whom you might ask. The problem with those who claim to love teachers but hate unions is they don’t realize that teachers ARE the unions, and the very traits for which people attack unions facilitate good teachers to be as good as they are.
Unions basically allow those of us who want to participate more forcefully in how our schools run to do so. Yes, they also impact salary and benefits, but keep in mind that the best teachers could easily find work in more lucrative fields. I have been told repeatedly by people who have reason to know that I would have flourished as a lawyer. And we all know that lawyers make significantly more money than teachers, so I might have benefitted materially to a much greater degree if I’d chucked teaching in favor of law. But because I felt empowered by being able to have a say in my working conditions and to wrestle with my bosses over the best way to conduct my classes, I never once second-guessed my decision to stay in education.
Had my job been more controlled by those above me, as is the trend these days, it’s much more likely that I would have taken night courses and quit teaching long before I attained status as competent instructor who helped thousands of students to gain a better grasp of the mysteries of the English language. And I immodestly believe that I was also a “high-impact” teacher in that I left a lasting impression on many of my students. Teachers influence their students not only in subject matter, but also in character and morality, but only if they are allowed to be themselves, if they have the freedom of expression that might not always be the company line. Again, this becomes much more difficult without unions and their emphasis on protecting teachers using things like “just cause” and “due process,” legal concepts which prevent school districts from firing teachers without good reasons or fair hearings.
Those who would do away with unions and tenure would take away most of the support teachers have to do their jobs in ways they see as best for the students, leading to the standardization, stagnation, and mediocrity union opponents always accuse unions of creating. The irony of those charges is not lost on most teachers who belong to unions in much greater numbers than other professions.
During my long career in teaching, however, I never felt the least bit controlled by union overlords dictating to me what I must be doing. Of course I got all kinds of annoying correspondence about supporting various union issues and candidates, but these were no different from the myriad of ads and propaganda to which all Americans are subjected periodically and were just as easy to blow off. I regularly used my newsletter to criticize state and national union positions or actions, but never suffered any “payback” or pressure to retract any of my statements from union officials.
Only once in all my years as a union activist did I receive direct contact from a higher up encouraging me to act in a certain way: In 2006, my school board tried to increase the dollar amounts of insurance payments from teachers who had already retired with their contributions specifically defined by contracts in effect when they retired. Our position was that the terms outlined in those old contracts were in effect for the ten years stated in the specific articles, regardless of whether or not the contract was still in force (most of our contracts were for four-year terms and thus were renegotiated before ten years had passed). Needless to say, the board’s actions caused great agitation among our retired teachers, one of whom was a past president of the Illinois Education Association, my union’s state organization. This individual called in a favor to get then National Education Association president, Reg Weaver, to call me at home in order to encourage me to file a grievance over this issue. That was it, one phone call in over twenty-five years. What Reg didn’t know, though, was that I had already begun the grievance process, and would have pursued it vigorously regardless of any NEA president’s call. By the way, we won the grievance, although it took almost two years. So much for local members being controlled by state or national unions
Throughout my activist career, I never experienced any of the supposed “union muscle” that union critics regularly reference. Yes, my union did support pro-teacher issues over the years. But how is that different or more malevolent than all the other special interest groups who have a stranglehold on various topics? Can you say NRA or Israel Lobby or Big Agriculture or Keystone Pipeline or Koch brothers? Yet while teacher unions get blasted for wrecking education, few point the finger at processed food manufacturers for making America fat and unhealthy. It all comes back to a truth I regularly point out: Since just about everybody went to public schools for at least twelve years, just about everybody is an “expert” on how public schools should be run. Unfortunately, that’s not any truer than those same experts claiming that unions are the main problem with our schools.
Of course superintendents and politicians want to blame the unions—it distracts everyone from the responsibilities those people have for making schools run the way they should. Getting rid of tenure also makes their jobs much easier in that then they wouldn’t have to document why certain teachers should be fired; instead they can just fire at will, destroying totally any sense of academic freedom, innovation, or creativity teachers might exhibit. We do NOT want our teachers to be scared, timid, overly cautious, or intimidated. Although not enough research has been done to prove this conclusively, I believe more studies will show this correlation to be accurate: Strong unions make schools better than they would be otherwise. The reasoning behind this will show, I’m sure, that teachers are able to be better than they would have been thanks to the support provided by the legal protections fought for and enforced by unions.
Yes, the Illinois Education Association, led by that same Reg Weaver when he was president of Illinois largest teachers’ union, was instrumental in getting the Collective Bargaining bill passed in 1983; and the IEA deserves the credit this important state law. No individual or school district’s worth of teachers has the wherewithal anymore (if they ever did) to lobby politicians at the state or national level. Influence with our political leaders has come to be measured in campaign contributions and bloc votes, so it should come as no surprise that teachers’ unions utilize the same weapons as every other large group. It’s just that teachers’ unions get singled out much more often as wrong to do this.
But at the local level, unions really exert very little pressure and don’t wield much power. They negotiate contracts, which typically reflect the economic conditions of that moment rather than any fear the district has of union thugs. They file grievances when members feel the contract has been violated. Some, but not all that many, do get involved in school board elections by endorsing candidates and sometimes donating to those candidates’ campaigns. (In my district, this happened roughly five times during my twenty-five years in the district. By the way, don’t be surprised if it happens next election after what happened this past fall.) And rarely, the issues separating school boards and unions result in job actions. But mostly, local unions act as watchdogs to make sure that teacher rights are protected so teachers are free to teach without undue restriction or harassment. In the end, unions play a small, but vital role in the daily lives of teachers that has nothing to do with “running the district,” as some would have you believe.
So to those of you who claim you value and respect teachers but hate and denigrate the unions to which they belong, you really can’t have it both ways. Those teachers are the union, and the union is a key part in helping those valuable, respected teachers continue their excellence.