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Stickin' to the Union: Why Teachers Like Me Support Unions

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It's 1993, and the United States Department of Education is hosting the first of a series of eight National Teacher Forums (a wonderful initiative that disappeared when the Bush administration moved in). As Michigan Teacher of the Year, I am in D.C. representing my state, watching a presentation by four South Carolina state Teachers of the Year on how to create a statewide teacher forum. Three of the four SC TOYs--all earnest, articulate women--are wearing pink suits.

The SC teachers describe the essentials of creating a state forum: Secure outside funding from a business that supports education. Invite honored district TOYs to a day-long event with "business trappings"-- a hotel meeting room, meals and mileage provided, professional attire required. End up with an advocacy product--a pamphlet, white paper or videotape. This, evidently, was the formula for how to get the voices of the most accomplished teachers to the proverbial table, to "dialogue with key leaders and policy-makers" about educational issues.

I am sitting next to the Wisconsin Teacher of the Year. I murmur, "Wonder what their union thinks about the Teacher Forum?" So he asks the presenters.

The pink-suit teachers look at each other, shrugging. "The Association, you mean? I think some of our Forum teachers actually do belong to the association. You know, to get the insurance." But none of the presenters did. Their husbands already had insurance plans.

My take-away from this experience: Some teachers work in a parallel universe, where access to control over their own work and well-being is determined through winning over a succession of principals--a dicey business. If they're deemed outstanding instructors, they get to put on a pink suit and meet in a hotel once a year to "develop leadership" and "provide a voice" on the critical issues that shape their daily practice.

This model of teacher-as-compliant-servant (probably wearing high heels) resonates in the business community, where a malleable, dependable, economical workforce is always desirable. And if their husbands' employment provides benefits, so much the better. Convenient and cost-effective.

This is not the path to building a genuinely professional cadre of highly skilled teachers, however--or to invest in the creative human capital that we need to retrofit our aging approach to public education in America. Teachers need an active, ongoing presence in policy creation. Not a token "seat at the table" where their voice can be co-opted, but real influence over what matters most: classroom teaching.

I have been a union member since the first day I worked as a teacher. I didn't have anything to say about joining the teachers' union, in my agency-shop state-- but it didn't matter. My dad was a Teamster. At my house, the union was the bulwark between the little guy and those who would take advantage of him for unfair gain. An organization of workers, whose ultimate goal was equity. Within a few years of launching my teaching career, I took on leadership roles in my local union--because the association offered the most reliable way to have an authentic voice on my own professional concerns.

I came to view the union in the same way I regard my family: I participate fully, no matter what conflict arises. I may not appreciate every decision made, or agree with everyone whose voice gets heard--but we're in this together. Strength in numbers, growth through community.

Do I wish the union were more flexible and innovative? More responsive to novice teachers? Lighter on its feet, when it comes to policy analysis? Sometimes. But I remind myself that a union is only as reflective and imaginative as its membership. I am an integral part of union's work and mission--and if I don't speak up, I have only myself to blame.

Occasionally, I will hear teachers lament that labor tactics--demanding, marching, picketing, adversarial relationships with the public education hierarchy--are "unprofessional." Better we should meet over a chef salad and have a nice, civilized conversation. Perhaps the union label should be replaced by "guild" as we strive for more professional credibility. And so on.

I'm thinking that the Wisconsin Experience--the union politely conceding all the economic bargaining chips, and still getting shafted in a naked, thoroughly undemocratic, demoralizing power grab--might serve as lesson to those who believe that activist teachers are unprofessional. We organize, because without such allied strength, we have even less control over difficult work for which we must accept accountability.

For better or worse, I'm stickin' to the union.

This blog is part of a nationwide campaign: EDUSolidarity. Find more posts at http://www.edusolidarity.us/ or using the #edusolidarity hashtag on Twitter.

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