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.