Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Teachers' Unions

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.


Blogger Darren said...

What the unions have done in the past bears no relation to what they're doing today. They can't rest on their laurels and say "look what we did for teachers 40 years ago!" while at the same time shafting teachers today.

The LA Times story about NEA-sponsored investments for teachers, that severely underperform the market and charge high fees because of kickbacks to the union, is the biggest one recently.

And just because I'm conservative, that doesn't make me reflexively anti-union. I'd gladly join my local union because I accept and support collective bargaining. But I can't join the local without also joining CTA and NEA--who, the unions or me, is creating the problem?

7/15/2006 10:37 PM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Darren, thanks for stopping by. I had given up on anyone commenting on this post, but you came through.

I can't argue with anything you say here. As you know, times change, and we are now in a time when it is very much in vogue to bash unions. I just wanted to remind people that unions have done some good things, and to say that, at least for me, they still are doing some good things.

You are in California and I'm in Minnesota, so I wouldn't dare challenge you about the CTA. But I think Education Minnesota has been fairly reasonable, even though it leans farther left than I would like. For example, it has cooperated with the state legislature in trying to set up merit pay type systems in local districts that want them.

By the way I hope you took my comment on conservatives and unions in the same spirit that it was written. If not, it's not the first time that my amazing wit has gotten me into trouble, and I'm sure it won't be the last.

7/16/2006 7:20 AM  
Blogger Spangles said...

I currently teach in Virginia, a right-to-work state. We have an 'education association' that is what some people refer to as a union. It isn't. They aren't part of collective bargaining and they aren't involved in negotiating our contracts.

I feel the lack of a union regularly. Last year my school system decided that the best way to make up a snow day was to extend 45 days of school by 10 minutes. Without asking permission from the state. The state didn't accept this time as making up a day of school and we still had to make it up later in the year. NOTHING was ever done about the extra time we worked. Would this happen in a union system? I hope not!

This is only one example of the little things that bother me about my non-unionized system. These types of incidences are frequent and make me feel petty. But I think it illustrates the lack of power that teachers have and my school system's lack of respect for professionals that work hard for our students.

I'm also impressed with the efforts that you cite within your own state. Taking a proactive stance about education and teachers is something that I admire about Minnesota. I hope that you continue to feel that your union represents your interests.

7/16/2006 5:32 PM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Thank you, Spangles, for an important perspective that more people need to be aware of.

7/17/2006 5:23 AM  
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