Teachers and their Unions, Part II

This is another look raising legitimate questions as to how, or even if, teacher unions can reasonably be said to recommend their members which, of course, they maintain they do.  These are not carefully selected events but essentially random occurrences that have appeared in a wide variety of districts over a long period of time, and continue to do so.

For example, in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, some high school teachers and administrators developed a plan which would have used aides to free teachers from nonteaching duties, increasing by 450 minutes a year the time teachers would actually spend with students while at the same time reducing the teaching staff at the high school by 12 positions.  It needs to be added that this district and high school are large enough that any staff reductions could be achieved by attrition, avoiding the necessity to actually cause anyone to lose their job.

Nonetheless, the union president and a union staffer promptly opposed the idea, the staffer bluntly saying, “They seem to have put this together thinking they were doing what’s best for education…but this is a business.”

Accepting this nonsense for a moment, it might be asked why, if schooling is a business, do they oppose for-profit firms engaging in it?  Or, again, if it is a business does this mean that innovations are to be ruled out?  This would be news indeed to most of the business community.

In Minnesota where the teachers union was itself annually recognizing a Teacher of the Year, three winners were later laid off because more senior teachers had a priority claim to employment when reductions occur, a requirement of the contracts negotiated by the same union.

In San Francisco, the union filed a grievance against a charter school because it paid its teachers $2,800-$3,600 more than they would have received in the regular schools and, a key point, did so without first negotiating the pay increase with the union.

In a somewhat similar circumstance. when the superintendent in Richmond, Virginia wanted to give new teachers a $5,000 signing bonus the union objected.  In nearby Washington, D.C. when the superintendent wanted to raise starting teacher salaries by 11%, the union objected.

Some years ago the then-president of the Washington (State) Education Association, told his members they should stop trying to “control” the association so the hired staff could do its work.  He added that those members would be responsible for the WEA’s death, and that (not to coin a phrase), “We have met the enemy and it is us.”

Union officers and staff regard their own members as “enemies?”

In another publicized case, a former teacher wishing to return to the classroom was offered a job by a school district, but without full recognition on the salary schedule of all her prior years of teaching.  She willingly accepted these terms but the union objected, saying the board could not hire her unless they paid her an additional $9,000. 

The teacher said that the salary offered her was fair and that she wanted the job.  The union held firm and the teacher was not hired.  So she not only didn’t get the extra  $9,000, she didn’t get anything at all, thanks to the union ands how it “represented” her.

Perhaps the epitome of such a union attitude came in Colorado when a package of  education reform legislation was introduced in the state legislature and the Colorado Education Association promptly announced it would oppose each and every one.

A very lengthy book could be written with such examples, and not exhaust them.

In brief, despite claims that any critic of union procedures is anti-union and out to destroy them, the problem, for many of us, is not the existence of unions but the absence of union democracy, a lack that is virtually universal throughout the labor movement.
As Mario Fantini has said, “…the issue is not participation but control..To insist that the bargaining agent represent teachers on all matters forecloses any alternative route to teacher involvement…There is a basic difference between teachers and teacher unions.”

Fantini has also observed that “An inverse relationship seems to exist between teacher militancy and the quality of the schools.”

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David W. Kirkpatrick, a Senior Fellow with the Commonwealth Foundation (www.CommonwealthFoundation.org), is a retired public school teacher and former president of the Pennsylvania State Education Association labor union.