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