Many believe students are the pawns when teachers strike, but it’s teachers who are being played by the union. As a teacher for nearly twenty years who’s worked in a state that required membership, and one that didn’t, I’m grateful for unions’ initial efforts to improve working conditions. However, my experience is, unions bloated with teachers’ hard-earned money are treating us like pawns. Lacking accountability to members, unions merely masquerade as teacher advocates.
Annually, educators pay mandatory and voluntary union dues of over $1 billion dollars. Meanwhile, union leaders like American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten make nearly a half million dollars each year, and head of the National Education Association, Lily Eskelsen Garcia, makes over $317,000. Local unions are directed by national leaders to negotiate salary schedules in contracts which insult beginning teachers, like my brother, and keep excellent teachers from monetary recognition. I might have the opportunity to make six-figures, too, if a union negotiated to recognize talent instead of mere years on the job. Instead, unions convince teachers striking is the way to increase compensation. Once the teachers are on strike, the union swivels around to sympathetic legislators they’ve campaigned for with union dues and promise to call off the strike; as soon as legislation gives what they want. Never mind teachers may not always agree with the legislation unions use dues money to achieve, such as legalized marijuana in Oregon. Unions frequently spend teachers’ money on things that have nothing to do with education, and with which educators disagree.
Teachers’ manpower is enlisted via union peer pressure. The current incitement of teachers to strike in right-to-work states is a scramble to make it appear there’s unrest only a heroic union can quell. Merely a stop-gap measure against possible loss of dues with a U.S. Supreme Court case Janus v. AFSCME decision, these strikes come off as the union buying teachers. The Janus case could give all public employees the right to choose whether or not to pay a union. Threatened with an end to automatic revenue, unions are posturing as the teachers’ superhero. Energy may be better spent creating stellar services teachers would voluntarily choose because of their quality, instead of forcing dues payments as a condition of employment. I found superior legal services elsewhere with double the coverage through the Association of American Educators, which also provides classroom grants and informative publications. Legitimate superhero status might be achieved, rather than bought, if the unions were willing.
As it is, a wide chasm separates teachers from unions. We love our students. National and state level unions love control. We know how precious instructional minutes are. Unions organize strikes that cost needy children instructional time. We promote peaceful, respectful conflict resolution. Unions make demands and instigate revolt. Teachers hold students accountable and keep parents informed. Unions dodge accountability for spending and implement hidden resolutions. Many teachers lack understanding of their union. Too often, unions fully perpetuate and exploit this reality.
This isn’t the 1850s. Unions once brought us out of glaring injustices. Capitalizing on teachers’ trust and gratitude, however, it’s rebuilt a hierarchy with working educators at the bottom. Top-down unionism isolates leaders from teachers. Teachers generally don’t read their contracts, but trust the leaders to take care of it. Especially in instances of Los Angeles, New York City and Chicago where contracts are hundreds of pages long! Unfortunately, union leaders have filled contracts with details contrary to teachers’ best interest. When nerds like me do read and analyze the contract, we feel as though someone has pulled the wool over our eyes. For example, under the guise of exclusive bargainer, unions have negotiated themselves exclusive use of teacher mailboxes, lounge bulletin boards and district email. Teachers have little chance of learning about options for bargaining representation because of this inappropriate use of exclusivity.
Unions also place in contracts a quagmire of intimidating procedures and paperwork that leads to continuing employment of ineffective teachers. They’re blind to the existence of those who don’t wish to teach alongside incompetent educators. It’s bad for the students we love, and makes our jobs harder. After personally interviewing multiple teachers on this topic, not one thinks employing perpetually poor performing teachers is a good idea.
Union power emanates from national and state headquarters. Most teachers never question the leaders, cost of bargaining, or dues spending, and therefore unwittingly empower an organization frequently straying from its educational focus. Large teacher compensation packages feel like a win, but are a cloak for union operations far removed from the classroom. Support of Planned Parenthood in my state, for example, is unnecessary for a teachers’ union.
Why are teachers still marching to the union drum? Some have been hearing the drumbeat so long they’ll do whatever the beat taps out – for many, strike. New teachers feel following the beat just comes with the job, as natural as decorating a classroom. I myself didn’t understand the union and my rights regarding membership until I researched it. Ironically, as a nonmember and an agency fee payer, meaning I paid only the portion of dues not spent on political causes, I received detailed fiscal reports of union spending. Full dues-paying members receive only a summary of union budget information. Unaware union drumming originates at the national level, reverberates through the state level, and dictates the locals’ actions, teachers carry on.
An independent, per-school-district union without state and national ties could have no mask as it serves teachers, parents and students at the local level. Decertification of national and state affiliates would empower teachers, but union drumming mutes the existence of this right. Teachers can take charge and be masters of their union dues. After all, shouldn’t decisions be made by those closest to the work? In this way fairness would be restored to the community educators serve. Teachers who inform themselves of their rights and true nature of their union will no longer be pawns.
Kate Bowers taught elementary school in Colorado for eleven years, and now teaches in Oregon. She’s an aspiring author and blogs @ myfellowteachers.wordpress.com.
- Amici Curiae for Schworak and Mitchell in support of Friedrichs
- Vaandering, Hanna. “Joining the Fight for Equal Rights.” Today’s OEA, Fall 2014 pp.10-11
I agree with many of your assertions regarding use of fees and top down pressure. Regarding political issues, I don’t vote party line (union or otherwise) in anything, as I try to be an intelligent and informed voter. So I do have mixed emotions about political spending.
Having spent time on the bargaining committee, I will say that district reps have your best interest in mind, but are also realistic that not everyone’s wishes will be fulfilled.
Teacher performance… I have seen several colleagues be put on a plan of assistance, as per our union collective bargaining agreement for poor performance, and subsequently be dismissed for lack of performance improvement. Likewise, I have seen colleagues be allowed to continue teaching even though their assignment did not match their skills. I’ve personally had to teach with 2 who lacked ability to adequately teach the subject matter and did not want to meet the culture of expectation we had created. Despite concerns addressed to administration, nothing was done because the subject was PE. We were even told that because our department was so strong that it was felt that we could basically absorb the lack of competence. In this instance, going to our union was for naught since the administrator can choose to allocate staff where they choose. This was an unfair burden to me, created a less than happy environment, and diminished the quality of the PE program.
Additionally, I have seen colleagues continue to teach despite seeing them underperform in the classroom as well. How did they get to continue to teach when it was common knowledge that they weren’t? With the common performance matrix this issue should have been addressed. How is that possible? Performance reviews are given by administrators. Was this teacher able to “turn it on,” so to speak, when the administrator was present for scheduled observations as well as drop-ins? The teacher must have been a good actor. In this instance, I feel the administrator was negligent. That teacher’s assignments were parsed to electives, one of which was PE…
The dismissals spoken of above were by 2 different administrators in my tenure who weren’t’ afraid of culling the herd. The teacher who was allowed to continue and misassigned was by a 3rd admin who apparently did not want to deal with performance issues head-on. Or, perhaps, the admin’s knowledge and observations lead to a different conclusion…
My understanding is that the union’s requirements upon administrators who need to make staff changes are exceedingly burdensome. Coupled with the possibility of poor administration being in place. . .yikes! Your examples are great and help show multiple issues within the system.