Will Teacher Unions Survive? Do Teacher Unions Have to Change? What Should Teacher Unions Look Like in a Few Years?

With each year the number of workers belonging to unions declines, and, organizing increasingly targets low wages workers. In the February representation election in the Volkswagen Chattanooga plant workers turned down the union even through the employer did not actively campaign against unionization. Organizing efforts in Walmart and in fast food franchises has made incremental progress.

Highlights from the 2013 data:

In 2013, the union membership rate–the percent of wage and salary workers who were
members of unions–was 11.3 percent

–Public-sector workers had a union membership rate (35.3 percent) more
than five times higher than that of private-sector workers (6.7 percent).

–Workers in education, training, and library occupations and in protective
service occupations had the highest unionization rate, at 35.3 percent for
each occupation group.

–Black workers were more likely to be union members than white, Asian, or
Hispanic workers.

Part of the decline in a union work force is due to the shrinkage of the manufacturing labor force, traditionally unions represent workers in factories; automation and globalization sharply reduced the potential work force.

Teacher unionism stumbled for decades hindered by internecine warfare, Communist and Socialist factions vied for support of teachers with the vast percentage of teachers disengaged. The merger that led to the creation of the United Federation of Teachers resulted in a militant union – four strikes in the 60’s (1960: one day, 1961: one day, 1967: 13 days, 1968: 40 days) and another in the 70’s (1975: 5 days). As the teacher union grew the unaffiliated union, the National Education Association increasingly mirrored the AFL-CIO affiliated AFT.

Teacher union contracts mirrored the contracts of industrial unions – salary, health and pension benefits and long lists of regulations limiting management discretion.

No Child Left Behind (2002) began to focus more public attention on schools and teacher contracts. The US Department of Education, governors, mayors and education think tanks ratcheted up the criticism of teacher contracts as well as seniority laws, and, now in California, tenure laws.

Teacher unions were on the defensive fending off attack after attack. From Wisconsin to New Orleans, from Detroit to North Carolina tenure laws and pensions and the survival of public schools and teacher unions are in jeopardy. Unions are on the defensive.

What is the role of teacher unions in the current day economy? Is the role the same traditional role of contract negotiator and enforcer, or, has the role changed?

Unfortunately unions who only defended, who tried to maintain benefits, the traditional approach to unionism has begun to succumb to the assaults. Unions that moved to an organizing model, developing relationships with community organizations, unions that lobbied with community organizations attracted wider support.

For example in New York City the teacher union (UFT) is strongly supporting Universal Free Lunch, with the enthusiastic support of the head of the City Council.

City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, a leader in the campaign, said that the growth in poverty in the city has made passage of universal free school lunch more urgent than ever.

“As poverty and income inequality threaten more and more families in New York City, too many of our children are attending school on an empty stomach — hungry, distracted and unable to focus on their education,” she said.

The UFT is also in the forefront of legislation that changes the admission requirements at Specialized High Schools (Stuyvesant, Brooklyn Tech etc.,) to a multiple measures metric. The legislative Black and Hispanic caucus as well as anti-poverty and civil right organizations support the bills.

Michael Mulgrew, the president of the United Federation of Teachers, which is behind the push, said he thought the administration might get more forcefully behind it, too.

“I do remember candidate de Blasio speaking very eloquently about this issue,” said Mr. Mulgrew. “I’m sure they’ll be coming out shortly, one way or another, now that this is out there and it’s moving.”

On the national front the American Federation of Teachers is part of a major effort to revive one of the poorest counties in West Virginia, Reconnecting McDowell.

The just-negotiated UFT contract is filled with educational and community-oriented sections, from increasing the number of parent-teacher meetings to a school-based professional development committee to the opportunity to join a thin-contract zone to the creation of a variety of different teacher titles to a bonus for teachers in hard-to-staff schools. Although the contract was approved (77%) by a healthy majority members complained, why does the union “waste time” with all of these “education” issues? Union leadership took a risk, convincing membership that while salary increases are great, unless the union is perceived by the general public as caring about the wider issues, caring about the children they teach, they could be begin to lose public support, as teacher unions lost support in too many cities. In too many locations teacher are perceived as caring more about tenure, “protecting bad teachers,” than caring about the kids they teach.

The national union, the American Federation of Teachers publishes a superb journal, the American Educator;
the current issue explores Early Learning,

This special collection of articles in American Educator highlights the importance not only of early learning, but also of what, exactly, young children learn. It begins with an article explaining the research on children’s oral vocabulary development and how educators can effectively support students in learning new words. Acquiring and understanding a significant amount of vocabulary in the early years helps children build the necessary background knowledge that will lay the foundation for future learning.

However; the AFT doesn’t “own” collective bargaining agreements, local unions negotiate local contracts.

At the local level building representatives (in NYC called chapter leaders) have to move from contract enforcers to educational leaders in their schools.

Unions will survive, and prosper, if they move to a new role, not abandoning their role as negotiating salary and working condition, moving beyond their former role to unionists/educators: leading discussions on which textbooks to purchase, what kind of professional development would be of the greatest benefit, leading school leadership team meetings that look closely at issues of teaching and learning.

“Change will not come if we wait for some other person, or if we wait for some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.”
― Barack Obama

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One response to “Will Teacher Unions Survive? Do Teacher Unions Have to Change? What Should Teacher Unions Look Like in a Few Years?

  1. Terrific post! Great overview of the whole situation. Thanks for writing. Will share with the union community out here on the West Coast. – Cynthia (You might remember me from the NPE Conference. We shared a cab!)

    Like

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