Why Unions Matter

If you happen to be a member of your local education association, chances are you’ve received some emails this year asking you to rescind your membership.

Like too many issues (such as presidential elections), we humans have the tendency to make decisions based on emotion rather than fact. Many people are on edge, and you don’t have to look far online to find people with strong anti-union sentiments. However, I rarely am able to uncover facts or actual events that serve well to make unions, teachers’ unions in particular, worthy of such tremendous hatred.

Sure, there are the cases where a union enforced a poorly worded contract and a crappy teacher got to keep their job. It happens. There are plenty of actions that unions have taken that I personally don’t agree with, and thus I am working “from the inside” to change as an active union member.

If we want to know why unions matter to teachers and to public education, Wisconsin has engaged in a deeply unfortunate experiment we can all learn from. The gist: The state government of Wisconsin passed what it called the “Wisconsin Budget Repair Bill” that included as one of its “repairs” the destruction of labor unions’ rights to collectively bargain. Here’s the whole article, but details worthy of noting:

  • Total teacher compensation has dropped 8% since the Bill.
  • There is no way for teachers to negotiate for pay increases or for better benefits; meanwhile costs of benefits have increased.
  • Certificated teachers are leaving in droves; the article includes examples of positions left unfilled or filled by unqualified, non-certificated staff. (I’m not clear how this could be filed under “In the best interests of students.”)

Unfortunately, the public face of the union has done us any favors: To people not familiar, picturing a union means picturing a bunch of people not working, but rather pacing, chanting, holding signs…acts that I understand in terms of labor relations but which I also believe are the worst possible public relations moments our organizations can ask for. This unfortunately masks the real work that unions do: advocating for the working and learning conditions of staff and students in all of our schools.

This year, my district recruited a handful of teachers from “right to work” states where the powers of unions are restricted. They tell me again and again how different everything is here in Washington: they as teachers feel valued, their students are safe, there is consistency and stability in policy. These create the conditions that enable students to succeed. It is easy to focus only on compensation as the primary focus of an education association, but the reality is far more complex: Yes, unions negotiate pay and benefits, which are about recruiting and retaining top quality educators. Unions also negotiate class sizes, special education caseloads, access to curriculum and resources, and programs from STEM to the arts to counseling to intervention. Unions are a powerful voice for teachers and the strongest voice for students.

When our legislature comes together in the new year, we need to be careful to watch for threats to public education from all angles (like this one), not the least of which being threats to educators’ powers to organize and advocate. We need to learn from Wisconsin.

3 thoughts on “Why Unions Matter

  1. Tom White

    We can’t let Wisconsin happen to Washington. I’ve talked to several teachers from that state and they are, to put it mildly, discouraged.

    Unions aren’t perfect, but they are far, far better than the alternative!

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  3. Mandy Manning

    My first teaching job was in the state of Texas, a “right to work” state. My only educational experience previous to that was a stint three years earlier as a paraeductor here in Washington state. I remember when I learned about my health care coverage in Texas, I was appalled, because my coverage back in Washington had been stellar – covering everything I needed, plus full dental. I barely had dental coverage in Texas. It covered only cleanings and nothing more. At the time and likely because my pay as a certificated teacher was more than I had made as a para, it didn’t occur to me that this could all be attributed to working for a state with union support for workers, as opposed to Texas, in which we had no representation at all, and could be fired for any reason whatsoever.

    Every time I get one of these letters in my inbox, I’m horrified that people are working so hard to dismantle our Educator’s Union. This is one of the great things about being an educator in the state Washington. I know I have support. I like to see the collaboration that happens between administrators, teachers, and educational support staff, precisely because we have a union.

    Thanks for this post, Mark. It is timely and necessary.

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