Thursday, February 17, 2011

Busting Teachers Unions

I put the following on my facebook, but it seems germane to our on-going discussion, even if it is, at times, a bit polemical in format:

Seems there is a move on to bust teachers unions as a means to balance budgets and improve educational outcomes. I would suggest that a better means to improve educational outcomes would be for parents to 'team up' with teachers and have their children turn off electronic 'playthings,' require meaningful homework and make sure that it is done correctly and on-time, improve critical thinking skills, not to mention reading and writing skills, and actually take an active interest in the fundamental role that education should be playing in all our lives. We should stop treating education and learning as simply a means to an economic end and start treating it as an end in itself as a lifelong activity that enhances one's sense of self worth and personal identity.

As far as busting the unions - this is simply an example of the historical attempt to put (keep) 'workers' in their place as 'tools' to be used (and discarded if possible) to achieve economic ends designed to create profit and wealth for owners and stockholders. Instead, we should be working with Unions to weed out, or improve the poor performers and develop good educational goals and objectives so that everyone can perform to the best of their abilities and develop into the persons they want to be. We should not think this is accomplished  by denying people their right of free-association as members of a union. After all management, owners, and stockholders are 'unionized' (Chambers of Commerce, not to mention Congress and state legislatures.)


  1. Other than being a parent of one kid in the K-12 system (in K) and being a former participant myself, I know very little about the situation, so I'm wary to say much here.

    When I read these discussions about busting teachers unions, however, I am often taken back by the assumption that really all we need is to (A) get rid of bad teachers and (B) reward the good ones.

    I don't doubt there are bad teachers. However, I doubt they are anywhere near the majority here, so I would guess that the real "hope" expressed lies in the magic potion of (B). However, (B) strikes me as odd, for three reasons.

    First, surely (most) people do not go into teaching "for the money" so it seems odd to dangle a year end bonus in the face of someone who was never motivated by that sort of thing in the first place.

    Second, I assume that the "goals" would be test-based, which would be asking people who go into education because they like teaching to further debase and dishonor what they do for the sake of a standardized test score.

    Third, I doubt the economic incentive would be much anyway. Are states suggesting that if they can only get rid of unions they will suddenly start offering teachers way more starting pay? Ah, I don't think so.

    I don't doubt that unions can be problems. I've worked with some of the most notorious (in a former life in business). But until it is clear to me what we're supposed to be gaining by busting those unions, I remain skeptical.

    Perhaps someone can offer up some convincing points here. I'm open to being convinced, I'm just no where near that point as it is.

  2. I'm with John in that it seems clear that efforts to bust teachers' unions are bait-and-switches, i.e., they are justified to the public in terms of being able to fire bad teachers and assure instructional quality but are really moves to cut costs and disempower teachers to the benefit of management. In other words,"improve educational outcomes" gives a more rhetorically respectable veneer to "balance budgets."

    At the same time though, I'm highly skeptical that teachers' unions do a good job fulfilling the traditional 'guild' function of unions. Ideally, unions don't just look after the economic interests of their members. They also establish (and enforce!) standards of excellence for the profession. My own observation is that teachers' unions (and I would include faculty unions in higher ed in this category) are almost wholly concerned with the members' narrow economic interests rather than with the profession's interests (and by extension, with the public interest). I suspect my perception is widely shared and explains much of the antipathy toward these unions.

  3. Mike: I think it is important to remember that unions have the fiduciary obligation to negotiate for, and defend, their membership and that any outcome that affects workplace behavior is agreed too and signed by two parties. Teachers unions may be as you say they are, but if they are, they are not solely to blame. Also, I think that there are plenty of teachers and teacher union leaders that have publicly indicated that they would agree to negotiating performance standards and holding teachers accountable to them. But implementing work rules is part of collective bargaining.

  4. At the same time though, I'm highly skeptical that teachers' unions do a good job fulfilling the traditional 'guild' function of unions. Ideally, unions don't just look after the economic interests of their members. They also establish (and enforce!) standards of excellence for the profession.

    Michael - what makes you think that this has traditionally been the function of unions. At least where I come from, they've typically been all about looking after the interests of their members (not necessarily or exclusively their economic interests). Often a concern with standards has been part of that, but it as a means to an end. (A deskilled, demoralised, deprofessionalised work force is a workforce that won't be in a strong bargaining position when push comes to what it so often seems to come to, ie shove.)

    Declaration: Not currently a union member since my non-US employer doesn't recognise uinions in my work-place. Member of the British AUT when employed (and when a graduatse student) in the UK.

  5. John and Frank - Hmmm. Well, I'm not a labor historian or anything, so I won't pretend to know what functions unions serve or have served. I know I've heard the claim that unions are more than just collective bargaining agents for their members — that they serve to 'police' the profession and maintain its standards. I've certainly heard that talk from teachers' groups and from the two faculty unions I've been associated with. In any case, the historical or sociological facts are beside point, I think: Unions would have a great deal more credibility if they could convince the larger public that they fulfill the 'quality control' function I mentioned.

  6. The questions are, I think, 1) do people have a right to collectively bargain? The answer seems clearly to be 'yes.' 2) Do organizations that sign collective bargaining agreements have a duty to fulfill them? Again, the answer seems to clearly be 'yes.' 3)Is WI's governor trying to set aside the collective bargaining agreement by eliminating the right of the union to collectively bargain for things other then wages. The answer seems to be 'yes.' If 3 is true then it seems fair to conclude that the governor is trying to unfairly (unjustly)avoid fulfilling his responsibilities as agreed to by the collective bargaining agreement.

    The question of whether unions (or other professional associations) could do a better job of self-policing is not relevant to this issue. Anyway, teachers unions across the nation have agreed they could do a better job of doing this and have agreed to discuss ways with administrations to address these types of issues. Furthermore, they have agreed that they should also be affected by the adverse economic conditions that are affecting their representative states and are willing to discuss increasing their contributions to health care and retirement costs. But they insist that this should be done as part of the collective bargaining process, not the unilateral decision of only one side of the parties affected.


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