The NEA Convention was held last week, so there have been a number of posts about teachers' unions on edublogs during the last few days. Coach Brown and Education Wonks both chimed in on the NEA, and Darren (The Conservative Teacher) had posts on the California Teachers' Association. I was surprised that all three expressed disdain for the unions involved. Darren didn't surprise me, because having disdain for unions is part of a conservative's job, but I wouldn't have expected the feeling to be unanimous.
I, too, have some problems with our teachers' unions. As I've said in previous posts and comments, I think our tenure and seniority systems prevent overall teacher quality from being as good as it should be, and our unions are those systems' strongest defenders. I have also been less than thrilled when the NEA and my own Education Minnesota have supported political positions far to the left of my own, especially when the issues involved are only marginally related to education. I am also bothered by the fact that our unions' endorsement for Democratic candidates is almost automatic, and I can imagine how a teacher like Darren feels about that. Nevertheless, my overall feeling for teachers' unions is one of gratitude.
No aspect of public education has been the subject of more scorn than teachers' unions. A secretary of education compared them to terrorist organizations, and Peter Brimelow, in his book The Worm in the Apple: How the Teachers' Unions Are Destroying American Education, compared them to the Communist Party. That has not been my experience with them. When I wrote my book, I knew that some of my most important ideas ran counter to positions Education Minnesota believed in. Nevertheless, they ran a full-page article on the book in their monthly newsletter, and despite the fact that the editor told me she disagreed with me, the article was completely fair. That doesn't sound to me like something the Communist Party would do.
The standard of living that my family has enjoyed has certainly been helped along by my unions. I don't feel like I'm overpaid, but when my income is combined with my wife's, we are now able to live very comfortably. That wasn't always the case. When I began teaching, my salary was so low that my wife and I qualified for a welfare program, I ate peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for lunch and dinner for an entire month, and my mother-in-law cried during her 200-mile trip home to the Twin Cities after seeing the house we lived in. Furthermore, prior to intervention by the unions, female teachers had been required to leave the classroom as soon as they became pregnant. Things have changed, largely due to the efforts of our teachers' unions.
The dominant industry in my community is a non-union business. That's probably a good thing, because in our changing economy, I'm not sure they could have survived if it had unionized. There is no question that in private industry, unions have become victims of their own success. It's tough for a company paying union wages to compete with companies paying nonunion wages, and with companies who pay what they pay in places like Mexico, India, and China.
By and large, the business in our community treats their employees pretty well, but every so often the management there will take some arbitrary action that leaves people shaking their heads. I also have to wonder how well any businesses would treat their workers if there was never a threat that a union might come in. Despite the generally good treatment of workers by the business in our community, there are a lot of families with both parents putting in 60 hours week after week just to make ends meet. Nobody has complained about parents more than I have, but I have to admit that it would be tough to be a great parent when they have to spend that much time at the plant.
Peter Brimelow tries to argue in his book that good teachers might get paid better if we didn't have unions, because people value education so much. Yah, right! I might not like tenure, I might not like seniority, and I might not like some of the political stands the NEA and Education Minnesota have taken, but when it comes to working out a total package for the teachers in our school, give me a union any day. I have no desire to go back to my peanut butter and jelly days.