Monday, March 21, 2011

Why Teachers Like Me Support Unions



I've always supported unions. Perhaps it has to do with being from Michigan. When I was young, regular working people could afford to buy a house, and maybe even have a cottage on a lake. Not any more. The auto industry in Michigan is decimated. And the unions, too.

The percentage of working people who are unionized has shrunk dramatically in recent years. (About.com says, "While more than one-third of employed people belonged to unions in 1945, union membership fell to 24.1 percent of the U.S. work force in 1979 and to 13.9 percent in 1998." That number is now below 12%.)

It seems to me that this country has gotten more and more conservative, and that many who would benefit from working people having more power are against it. I don't understand the big picture here, but I know that teachers' unions are big, and anti-union forces would be thrilled to weaken us (since those forces support Republican candidates and unions support Democratic candidates). I haven't been active in my union, and I don't see how our small union can help us when the whole state of California is in such huge financial trouble. But maybe...

It seems to me that teachers are the most likely people to speak up for students. Unions don't just push for higher pay. More importantly they push for smaller class sizes, better working conditions (which will usually mean better learning conditions), and fair procedures. If a teacher isn't paid well, she's likely to take on another job in the summer. A well-paid teacher can spend her summer dreaming and planning a better classroom and better lessons for the next year.

When I first started teaching, I thought I wanted to teach kids. I got elementary-certified, and then got hired to teach junior high math. I was no good at classroom discipline, and got fired halfway through my second year by a principal who was no good at helping new teachers improve. (I had a half-year contract, so they claimed they weren't 'firing' me, just letting me go. But I was teaching year-long classes.) All of the other teachers I talked to told me that no one is good at classroom management in their first year or two. I filed a grievance, the union fought for me, and I won.

Ironically, during the months over which this played out, I had gotten work with the community college that paid more. It was decided that the school district owed me any difference between the pay I lost and the pay I earned. I earned more, so they didn't owe me money. They also owed me a job in the fall, but I declined. I had come to realize that teaching at college level was going to be much easier for me. So I got no direct benefits from winning my grievance, but I may have set a precedent that helped other teachers.

I've read much more eloquent posts on why teachers need unions. Here's a complete list for this campaign. And here are a few I especially like:

13 comments:

  1. Confrontational grassroots movements are on the decline (especially compared with 60s and 70s) and purely supportive movements are growing. Young people now are very likely to belong to support networks, but less likely to belong to networks and organization fighting against other entities. Do you think unions are seen as too confrontational to be popular?

    Also, all generations in the US are very distrustful of large organizations since the last market crush. Ironically, Google and Apple are losing some of their customers' love because of their size. Do you think unions are seen as too big to be trustworthy?

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  2. You raise some interesting questions, Maria.

    Confrontation is painful, but avoiding it may be part of why the rich have so much, and the rest of us have so little these days. Anyone who works for an organization has to depend on that organization for their income. The employer has power over them. If the employees don't band together, they're at the mercy of their employer.

    I agree that size is a problem. A small union doesn't have much leverage, and a big union is less likely to be responsive to its members. I don't have an answer for that...

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  3. I am a young professional and I was once a union member. I had the same incident happen to me (though there were some successes on my behalf in terms of student achievement). I even had an incident where I had a fight where I contacted the administrative office for help, and no one came. I and another student was injured. Plus, there was a disruptive student who tried to stab me. However, my union basically told me to take the unemployment and walk away because usually teachers don't win those cases and then you become ineligible for unemployment according to the negotiated contract. I talked to my husband and others in my generation who believe that unions are no longer relevant overall, especially since most workers get the same benefits (or like in my case had to pay 'dues' that only differed from member dues by $6 or so) without being a part of the union. If there are problems and they are not unionized, they can go to the source themselves and not go through this bureaucratic process. I also have a problem with the unions supporting candidates based on their political affilitation. Could we just support those who have real education agendas that are effective, whether they are Dems, Repubs, or Indies?

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  4. To add to what I said earlier, unions oftentimes (especially the larger ones) tend to take advantage of the members, seeking to rub elbows with the prestigious politicians and to make as much money as they can. You can make a difference alone or together, but this day and age, these changes can be done without unionization.

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  5. While your post demonstrates the advantages of unions in labor versus management disputes, unions are a different story in labor versus labor disputes.
    Unions support esoteric credentials for teachers. I’m qualified to teach College Algebra at the community college (by virtue of the fact that I do teach the course, and my M.S. degree in statistics), but not qualified to teach Junior High or High School Algebra (by my lack of teaching certification).
    Unions support long tenured workers. Teacher compensation is heavy on the benefits side, short on the cash side. Benefits such as generous pensions and health insurance subsidies (and structures, such as traditional versus high deductible) benefit older workers at the expense of younger workers. In my closed shop government job, retirement contributions from my job are diverted away from my defined contribution retirement plan to support the defined benefit plan (which I will receive no benefits from). Unions are the key reason why many long tenured teachers (regardless of quality) will cost a school district upwards of $100,000 a year in salary and benefits, while a new hire will receive under $30,000 in take home pay.
    Unions support political candidates. Some unions members may find a politicians’ stance on an issue like gay marriage, abortion, or warfare to be morally reprehensible. Union members should not be forced to have their dues support such candidates.

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  6. I hear a lot of frustration with the unions you're stuck with, anonymous. (I'm not sure if the 3rd reply is from a different anonymous than the first two...)

    >"Some unions members may find a politicians’ stance on an issue like gay marriage, abortion, or warfare to be morally reprehensible."

    Interesting mix of issues. What I hear is that you don't want 'your' union dollars going to support causes (like equal marriage rights) that you don't approve of. I wish I could prevent my tax dollars from supporting the wars my country wages. But the only way to do that seems to be to change who gets elected. (Not an easy task.) I guess the same applies to unions.

    Your jab at gay marriage hit home. (I find it painful that people think I should have less right to marry than they do.) It is not ok with me that you are not disclosing your identity. Any further anonymous replies will be deleted.

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  7. I couldn't agree with you more. I come from a long line of teachers, people who pulled themselves from the hard life of immigrant Scandinavian farmers by sheer will and intellect, becoming teachers and staunch advocates for their rural, often first-generation immigrant students.

    I'd like to say to Maria D. that I understand mistrust of large entrenched entities. But what all of us are facing are huge faceless corporate-funded entities, now protected by the Supreme Court ruling that made free speech a right accorded to lobbying groups and corporations and not just individuals. 7 out of 10 of the largest political donations in the last election came from far right wing groups. The others came from the combined donations of ordinary working people---unions. Break the unions and there won't be funding for those who represent a balance. Unions are the voice of people, not the voice of moneyed interests.

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  8. It is hard to imagine that unions, once a huge part of the mainstream, have been marginalized to the extent that a unionized field (education, more or less) seems anomalous.

    Big unions, you are right, have more power than smaller ones. Ideally they should be organized into smaller units, to minimize distance between represented and representative, while maximizing efficiency of scale.

    But in a relationship with an employer, the power relation is obvious. Unions even it up, sometimes just a bit. Flaws? Sure. But the basic existence of these organizations at least raises the possibility of collective action or collective voice to ensure greater fairness.

    How could that not be good?

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  9. Laura wrote: "what all of us are facing are huge faceless corporate-funded entities" - hmmm, I think I am facing a loose network of bloggers right now ;-)

    What I am saying is that gaining particular advantages in a game where power structures are so messed up isn't bad, but... That game itself is problematic.

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  10. Benefits such as generous pensions and health insurance subsidies (and structures, such as traditional versus high deductible) benefit older workers at the expense of younger workers.

    If you have a good mix of ages, and if the union/employer relationship lasts over decades, it all works out.

    The assault on union members and union recruiting has skewed things these days -- against workers in every case.

    This is an area where we need unions now more than ever.

    In my closed shop government job, retirement contributions from my job are diverted away from my defined contribution retirement plan to support the defined benefit plan (which I will receive no benefits from).

    Why not?


    Unions support esoteric credentials for teachers. I’m qualified to teach College Algebra at the community college (by virtue of the fact that I do teach the course, and my M.S. degree in statistics), but not qualified to teach Junior High or High School Algebra (by my lack of teaching certification).

    Actually, those are state rules. Unions didn't start them, and we have the same rules in states where unions are illegal. While some of us agree that some rules are silly, unions fight to get rid of the silliness.

    I think you're blaming your allies for something they didn't do.

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  11. Unions support long tenured workers. Teacher compensation is heavy on the benefits side, short on the cash side.

    Benefits are a tradeoff for money, often. But which of these benefits do you not need? Vacation, health care, fair grievance procedures? Fair pay for fair work?

    The sad fact is that, apart from unions, and even sometimes with unions, companies and government and other employers do their best not to fund retirement funds at all. Pensions are shorted in America, partly due to the fact that we have Social Security. But when Social Security was passed, the legislators' intent was that it would be a backstop feature, and they hoped private employers and public employers would provide good pensions.

    Didn't happen.

    Who is fighting for pension benefits for workers now? Unions.

    (continued)

    Unions are the key reason why many long tenured teachers (regardless of quality) will cost a school district upwards of $100,000 a year in salary and benefits, while a new hire will receive under $30,000 in take home pay.

    Studies show long-tenured teachers are often those who make the best teachers, turn around more students away from poor performance, and generally do the best jobs. I'm sure there are exceptions, but most people don't stick at a job they don't enjoy, and people who don't do a good job generally don't enjoy it.

    I'm not sure reality tracks with your perception here.

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  12. Unions support political candidates. Some unions members may find a politicians’ stance on an issue like gay marriage, abortion, or warfare to be morally reprehensible.

    Then don't vote for the guy. Unions support politicians who support the union's position on key union issues. It is extremely rare that any candidate tracks one's views on all issues -- but we vote for them anyway.

    Unions get involved early, and get people nominated who support their views. In the Democratic Party, we have plenty of candidates who are pro-union and anti-abortion.

    My experience is that it is corporate PACS who so often support Republican candidates who not only have it in for the union, but are willing to sacrifice the corporation and the state and the nation, in order to get at unions.

    Those are the guys who worry me.

    When unions are strong in politics, we get a wide variety of views on social issues. I think that's good.

    Union members should not be forced to have their dues support such candidates.

    People who purchase gasoline shouldn't have their money diverted to support junk science and pseudo science outfits that claim global warming doesn't occur and has no human-causation. People who purchase cheap goods from Wal-Mart shouldn't have their money diverted to support candidates who urge the gutting of clean food laws and employee safety requirements.

    I've never found it difficult to call a union political education group and express dissatisfaction with candidates they support. Just try to express dissatisfaction with GOPac. Just try.

    Unions are the worst form of human organization ever invented, except for all the others, to paraphrase Churchill.

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  13. Thanks Ed! I sure didn't have the energy to argue with an anti=gay anonymous poster. I'm glad you did.

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