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Why unions remain relevant


Dear Deborah,

One of the great things about this ongoing conversation called blogging is that you never cease to surprise me. I told our blogmaster Mary-Ellen Deily at Education Week that the blog should be retitled "Never the Last Word." It is that love of intellectual mano-a-mano that keeps us energized. I hope we never lose it.

In your last post, you restate your objection to mandates, then shift into a defense of teachers' unions. I expect that the anti-union people will jump all over the opening that you created for them to rant against mandatory dues payments by teachers who are forced to pay to unions that they never chose to join. But I'll leave that rant to them.

I am sure that our readers expect that we will engage in the grown-up version of Mortal Kombat (that's a beat-em-up video game series). But this is an area where we agree.

I continually am amazed by the anti-union sentiment in the media (and it seems to be growing). Politicians get great press coverage when they thunder on against the teachers' union, about ending tenure, getting rid of bad apples, etc. The public apparently likes this swaggering tough guy approach. I think this is so stupid! A few weeks ago, Steve Jobs—the CEO of Apple Computers—said to a big convention that the biggest problem in American education is the teachers' unions. Al Shanker (one of my personal heroes) would have said to him, "Let's make a list of the highest performing states and a list of the lowest-performing states. Which list has strong teachers' unions? Which list has weak ones?" If Steve Jobs were right, the South would have the highest academic achievement, but it does not. Shanker would win this one easily.

Al Shanker also used to point out that the kids do a great job of weeding out incompetent teachers; within their first five years of teaching, somewhere between 40-50% of all new teachers leave for greener pastures, either another district or another line of work. Teaching has always been a hard job; today it is harder than ever, now that the public expects all children to become proficient (I agree, by the way, that the goal of 100% proficiency by 2014 is absurd).

You are quite right about the paternalism that became deeply embedded in public education from its earliest days. The supervisors were men, most of the teachers were women. For many years, teachers (mainly women) were not allowed to marry; in some districts, they were not allowed to become pregnant (if they did, they had to retire at once).

Today, unions remain important for teachers because of the huge imbalance in power between administrators and teachers. Many administrators, especially the non-traditional ones, think they should emulate the corporate model; they would like to be able to hire and fire at will, without just cause, hoping to intimidate the people who do the actual work of educating children. Authoritarian leaders remind us why teachers need the protection of a professional union.

Many years ago, a friend and labor leader, Victor Gotbaum, said to me that politicians should stop knocking the unions; as he put it, "We are the furniture that comes with the building." Some leaders of our time would rather burn down the building than live with that furniture. But when the current crop of would-be CEOs are long gone, the unions will still be here—because they meet real needs.



Dr. Ravitch,

I'm so pleased with this post. I'm glad that you agree with the need for tenure and unions - protection in a word - in education.

I'm coming at this from the higher education angle, but the insidious, related problems of part-time faculty and decreased tenure protection are not causing the changes hoped for by conservative higher education watchdogs.

I haven't read all of your and Dr. Meier's posts, but keep up the good work!

- Tim

"Al Shanker also used to point out that the kids do a great job of weeding out incompetent teachers"

Am I understanding this correctly? Dr. Ravitch thinks it's the students' responsibility to maintain teacher quality? That urban students, who are frequently criticized for boorish behavior, should act out to force teachers from the profession?

Workforce quality is a management issue. Either administrators or unions, preferably both, need to take on the issue, because they each have significant management rights. Fair or not, holding management rights without accountability opens unions up to significant criticism.

Dr. Ravitch's unsupported statements about "authoritarian administrators" ring hollow in districts where administrators fear the significant, sometimes career-threatening, repercussions of taking on under-performing teachers.

The "incompetent teacher" issue would go away if unions took steps to take on the professional growth of their members. Professionals receive authentic feedback about their performance, recognition for growth and accomplishments, new opportunities for provide professional challenges. District central offices are certainly no models for good management, but unions can also do a better job of treating their members as true professionals by promoting policies that deprivatize teacher practice.

Once unions reclaim the moral high-ground, the public will be much more receptive to their legitimate complaints about district practice and federal policy.

I am sympathetic to unions and believe in workers' right to bargain for salary, benefits, and safe working conditions. I also believe weeding out under-perfoming teachers as the primary school reform strategy is misguided; fear does not create an atmosphere conducive to better teaching and learning.

But teacher unions can garner strong support through more compelling policies and messages that promote excellent instruction. Instead, we see LA union reps publicly encouraging their members to skip school at taxpayer expense so they can campaign for union-sponsored school board candidates. No wonder the media is cynical... but perceptions can be changed.

In reply to the previous comment: I was not suggesting that it is the job of students to maintain teacher quality, but quoting Al Shanker, who said that many new teachers leave because they can't handle the stress of teaching. Sorry, but it is not the job of the union to evaluate its members. That is management's job, and union is not management. Management has the responsibility to observe new teachers, help them when they need help, and do whatever is possible to enable them to teach effectively. If all support fails, then it is management's job to decide whether not to award tenure. When politicians rail against tenure, they should remember that unions don't award tenure; administrators do. It is the job of the union to make sure that its members receive due process and that their rights are not abrogated, not to do the job of administrators.

Diane Ravitch

That's exactly the crux of the issue. Unions did take management rights in many districts. For example, take the urban district where teachers can block an educational initiative with 80% of a building-wide vote - they have management rights. Unions won de facto staffing powers through seniority staffing rules. Examples abound where unions did in fact take management rights through the labor contract.

I don't blame them for taking these powers - districts gave them up. My only point is that unions have a PR problem because they took management rights without taking management accountability.

I agree that it's not the union's job to evaluate it's members. But it could be their job to systematically support the growth of their members as professionals, and support a work environment where teaching is deprivatized, professional growth is celebrated, and good teachers do not have live in fear of being the "tall poppy."

More often then not, union platforms have hindered efforts in this direction.

The teaching profession is as complex (if not more so) as any other, such as law, medicine, and finance. Why do their representatives develop policies reminiscent of 1940's factory worker, instead of 21st century professionals?

>> For example, take the urban district where teachers can block an educational initiative with 80% of a building-wide vote - they have management rights.

Care to provide us with a specific reference for this claim?

I am a parent and I attended the "broken" California schools. I think that tenure and teachers union need to be removed and teachers should be at-will employees. I see the union looking out for teachers only and not looking at their clients: students and their true employer:the taxpayer.

I can't speak for Diane, but I suspect she may be in agreement with me. Shanker's comment was tongue in cheek, and I think he occasionally got in trouble for his quick wit.

But, of course we suffer from two--at least--problems. Not enough teachers waiting to teach in the schools that need them most, so administrators have from experience often gotten "lazy" about the efficacy of getting rid of the ones they have. And not enough time in what we claim to be the teacher's day/year to do our jobs effectively.

Especially if we add working with our colleagues.

Unions have been struggling with how they can be both a supportive force, a force for collective solidarity while also taking on the improvement of their members/colleagues. But many, many locals have tackled it, including the UFT in New York City. It works best when the union feels strong enough not to have to be constantly on guard against being outmaneuvered--and thus needing maximum solidarity.

But I think that finding ways for teachers to be "critical friends," as some of us call it, is essential to the professional life of a good school. As for tyrannical principals, being "scared" is often the precursor to scaring others. It's the pecking order that ends up hurting kids. I think we agree on this too.

That same old friend, Al Shanker, once proposed that teachers (and I'd add parents) vote for their own leaders--including principals. Not such a bad idea. It even smacks of how we might create self-governing schools--of, for and by. There are all kinds of potential ways to govern schools so that everyone accepts responsibility for their shared student body and their colleagues.


I see there is no answer to the inquiry asking for a specific reference for this claim:

>> For example, take the urban district where teachers can block an educational initiative with 80% of a building-wide vote - they have management rights.

Perhaps that is because there is none.

The Unions have had the power to mandate any necessary changes for the betterment of the student.
Al Shanker was willing to allow many changes in 1989, but our communist system,as he called it, put noses in the air and the millions of students who "graduated" are unemployed or in poverty wage jobs.

Eliminate all School Districts. Have one State School Dept. Establish a "Teacher School".

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