To Union or Not To Union


Well, I was planning on and have been researching much more into a different topic (and much more controversial, at least I think it is). I have been looking into the grade inflation debate, especially for high schools, but Jon Ralston, being the evil man he is, decided to write about unions. I knew as soon as I saw his column that not only would I share it with all my fellow Facebook teachers, but that most of them would find strong agreements with his views as do I.

This issue of a teachers union is a divisive issue that seems to bring more hate in today’s politics than does most. Even progressives and tea party supporters can find common ground with their disgust with the teachers union. I must disclose up front that I am a union member and don’t have any intention of leaving right now. This does not mean I agree with or particularly enjoy the union but I will get into this more later.

First I guess I should begin with my view of any union. I’m not going to get into a historical discussion of unions and their value. Bottom line, they were a necessity. But let’s look at the purpose of a union. Their only interest, as it should be for the most part, is to their members. When it comes to teachers unions, I always hear the vile that they don’t care about the students. Well, they shouldn’t. This isn’t to say that the individual members don’t care but the entity shouldn’t. To put this into perspective, are the other unions out there supposed to care about the customers interests or the members/employees? And why should they. I know the argument that customers can just take their business elsewhere while students technically can’t, at least not as easily. But the bottom line is that the unions job is to fight for the interest of the teacher, not the school, the administration, the public or the students. There are many other interest groups fighting for the rest of them.

On the same token, what is the interest of a corporation? It’s not technically to the customers or employees. When it is, it is only for their own self interest of profit. Bottom line is that their interest is with the investors and making them money. They will keep prices down only so far as to keep the business coming in the door but to do that, they must also keep costs down which isn’t in the best interest of the employees all the time but it is all for the purpose of finding the best economic balance to gain the greatest profit. That is where unions come in. They fight to keep a reasonable wage, benefits and safety for the employee, which can sometimes cost the customer in the price of goods and the investor in profit margins. Teachers unions handle the same role, fighting for class size, wages, benefits and working hours.

So, what of this union? A coworker and good friend said it best, this isn’t a professional organization but rather a trade organization. Teachers want to be treated like a doctor or lawyer but are represented like a laborer or operational engineer. This isn’t meant to be offensive as I have friends and family in both but the tactics employed by our union bear striking resemblance to those of other trade unions. The image of a construction worker or truck driver picketing in front of a business is sometimes enough to drive scabs away but that of Mrs. Johnson, our 3rd grade teacher, or Mr. Wilson, the lovable English teacher, doesn’t strike fear into our hearts. Unions have history in organized crime, they have had to employ violent techniques or aggressive means to meet demands, things teachers just are not built for.

Instead we want to be treated and respected for the service we employ just like a doctor or lawyer. We sacrifice our economic futures to a point to give back to the community as a teacher and all many ask for is a small level of respect and at least a salary that will cover the cost of our degrees, which everyone must get to become a teacher, and to live a decent lifestyle were we aren’t worried about if we will have enough to pay the power or if the car will continue to get us to work. No one is asking for the mansions and the yachts, we don’t expect to drive the BMWs and Benz but we expect that the years of education, the service and sacrifice we give to Americas children, will afford us a midsize Ford and a basic home to raise a family in. Is the American dream too much to ask for to those who help all of us reach that dream?

Now, is this union broke or broken? I don’t know and frankly I don’t care. There is only so much I can care about so this is one of my sacrificial lambs. For those who feel it is time to get rid of the union, both teachers and public, I ask you, what would this past years budget cuts and reform movements been like without the speed bump that is the union? Class sizes? Schools were seriously discussions 4 day weeks and student numbers above 50. For a nation that claims our schools are failing and need to be reformed, how in any way would this help? How about cuts to wages and benefits? I ask any of you, with a 4 year degree or above, would you become a teacher at that price? Sure there are many people with no degree who would take the job but that isn’t the option and would you really want someone who skipped college to be the example of a path to college to students?

And frankly how many people want a job that requires them to stand in front of a class of 30-50 students for an hour to and hour and a half, 3-6 times a day, no running to the bathroom unless it is an emergency, no break for the most part as students are standing at the door when you walk in and you are pushing them out at night, then you get a whole hour to hour and a half to grade, plan and prepare for the 200-280 students you have (have you read the great works from out nations average and below average youth, then try grading it). That isn’t to mention the sports, clubs, meetings, paperwork for IEPS, behavior plans, parent emails, student emails, collaboration groups, department meetings, events, assemblies, awards nights, student orientations, parent nights, plays, music recitals and not to mention if you have your own children’s schools events as well. Let’s not get into the trainings, requirements for furthering our education, conferences and keeping up on the latest trends to keep the material fresh (watching Jersey Shore to make references to it should come with hazard pay alone).

And don’t give me the weekend, holiday, summers off argument. The 60-80 hour work weeks all year long more than make up for it. Bare minimal I arrive at 6:30 daily and stay until between 3 and 4:30 primarily trying to grade the students work or tutoring those who come in for the help and that’s not to mention the evenings where I might be grading or lesson planning, in trainings and professional development, at a club or sports event, running a club or sports event, or answering emails from parents, students and other staff.

No one complains when the accountant pulls massive hours during tax season then takes a month off or a lawyer takes a break after the big case or the game developers relax some once the game ships. But that’s not to say we are sitting around the house staring at a wall. At least I’m not. I’m evaluating my lessons from the previous year, traveling around locally to learn more history to add to my curriculum, attending summer institutes to become a better teacher and to learn the changes to my subject, beefing up on the latest research, or shockingly, helping out former students who are off into the “real world” now and are still looking for advice and guidance. I know that not all teachers do these things and many shouldn’t do nearly as much as I sometimes do but removing the union doesn’t solve this problem. In fact it can compound the issues. In my limited years of teaching, I have seen too many teachers leave just because they work twice as hard teaching and for half the money than they made in the private sector.

As for the ones actually caught in the middle of this, the students. Let’s be real, if the student is coming to school hungry, or worried if their brother is going to get shot by the local gang or while deployed in Iraq, or if their father will be able to keep his job, or if the family is going to have to move again because of the unemployment or any of a vast amount of reasons, then is it the teacher that has failed or the union for that matter. Maybe it is society, which teachers and everyone else is a part of, that has failed. To blame one group is to remove blame from the rest of us.

We are notorious as a people for deflecting our own misgivings on to others. Schools are messed up or unions have powerful contract, then it’s the unions and teachers fault? Why not the school districts and administrations fault for agreeing to the contract or the politicians and the voters who supported them for appointing and agreeing to the demands? Why do we blame the winners instead of going after the losers for not being good enough? Why do we blame others for our inadequacies? You don’t like the union contracts, renegotiate. If your a teacher and you don’t like the union, get more involved, change it.

And if the other side gets all they want, the society can deal with the continued exodus of teachers, some bad but many that are good, as this profession slowly gets turned into a peace corps where young idealistic college grads, many from top universities but wildly uninformed to the tragedy of the inner city, volunteer a couple years to rebuilding an inner city school instead of the African village or Haiti, then move on to allow the next group to come in but in the end doing little long term progress as they aren’t around to ever see it through. Make teaching more and more unattractive and let’s see the quality of teacher we get and with that, the quality of student they help shape that then gets sent into our work world to help secure and stabilize America’s future and prosperity and with that, our generations retirement. I’m sure it will all work out in the end.

In the end, teachers need a different type of organization to represent us but laws the way they are and society the way it is, this is the group we are stuck with. And the biggest problem that this brings is that society seems to associate the actions and views of the union with those of the common teacher. The news loves to bring on the union heads to debate the politicians, educrates, and fake reformers more interested in selling a product or book. What is lost is the classroom teacher. And bottom line is that most will never hear from that teacher because as I hopefully showed, they are too damn busy and concerned with your children to make the time to get that involved in the politics of the job. Those who can, teach. Those who can’t, stop teaching and find a way to bash it daily for a paycheck.

To end this and many more in the future, I’m taking a page from my favorite┬ácommentator, TryHardNinja.

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