The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) recognized the Northwestern University football team’s right to unionize in February and the players just held a unionization vote. Quarterback Kain Colter began the program’s union movement primarily to address player safety, but supporters of the team’s efforts believe unionization will improve college athletes’ experiences across the board. Northwestern management, however, opposes granting a collective voice to their underlings; the university tried to convince players not to unionize and has appealed the NLRB’s ruling. The NCAA, meanwhile, has begun a fear-mongering campaign to obfuscate the plethora of issues with the way it conducts business, issues that a union can help the players address.
If that story sounds familiar, it’s because the NCAA’s behavior in this case resembles that of wealthy interests in most other industries. Misinformation about union purpose and impact abounds in education especially; prominent education reformers have successfully hoodwinked large swaths of the intelligent public into believing that teachers unions undermine student interests. I am often taken aback by the inaccurate, negative comments about teachers unions I still hear from otherwise well-meaning members of charter school networks, education advocacy groups, and Teach For America (TFA).
I am encouraged, however, by the initial efforts taken by TFA and Leadership for Educational Equity (LEE) staff in the Bay Area to debunk member misconceptions about teachers unions. A few weeks ago, LEE invited me to speak to a group of current corps members, alumni, and LEE and TFA staff at an event called “Unions Matter.” During the event, I described the difference between social justice unionism and industrial unionism and laid out five important roles that unions play:
1) The traditional union role – Most people are familiar with this category of union activity; it covers salary, benefits, working conditions, and grievances. Anti-labor interests often denigrate teachers unions that focus on this “industrial” role, arguing that it has little to do with student interests, but they’re wrong for three primary reasons. First, there’s an extremely high correlation between good working conditions for teachers and good learning conditions for students. Unions that advocate for adequate classroom resources, a sustainable work day, and functioning air conditioning systems do so as much for their students as for their members. Second, the families of many students in low-income communities benefit significantly from the strength of the organized labor movement. The ability of unions to collectively bargain for fair wages and benefits is essential for the well-being of low-wage workers who are frequently exploited by their employers. Third, people mimic what we do more than what we say. If we want teachers to inspire their students to take collective action and advocate for themselves, district leadership needs to model that approach with teachers.
2) Collective voice – Unions provide a forum for educators to band together, prioritize action items, and communicate with management about those items. For example, the San Jose Teachers Association (SJTA) has helped teachers identify professional development and resource needs during the rollout of the Common Core State Standards, and San Jose Unified School District (SJUSD) has worked hard to respond to teachers’ collectively expressed requests. When district leadership unintentionally overlooks the impact initiatives have on students’ classroom experience, union members can use their collective voice and collaborate with administration to quickly resolve problems. Unions also foster a sense of community among members, connecting teachers across the district and thus building school and district culture.
3) Community and family outreach – SJTA helps coordinate teachers during Read Across America, sponsors little league baseball teams, works with parents from community service organizations like Sacred Heart, partners with Vision to Learn to bring eye doctors and prescription eye glasses to students who might not otherwise have them, and awards scholarships to aspiring teachers in our high schools. Unions can, should, and often do engage parents and advocate for students and public education at community events.
4) Political advocacy – School boards, other elected officials, and ballot initiatives matter significantly for students, and unions work hard to elect candidates and pass propositions that will positively impact kids’ lives. Without the efforts of the California Teachers Association and local California teachers associations in 2012, Proposition 30 would likely have failed, an outcome that would have resulted in a significantly shorter school year, increased class sizes, layoffs, a reduction in extracurricular programs, and/or a reduction in elective offerings in most California schools. SJTA also helped put two excellent SJUSD school board members in office in 2012. In addition to education-specific issues, teachers unions can advocate for a broader set of social justice policies that make a difference in our students’ lives; that purpose explains why SJTA joined the South Bay Labor Council in supporting San Jose’s minimum wage increase in 2012 and why we consider endorsements for the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors and the San Jose City Council.
5) Education reform – Though typical uses of the phrase “ed reform” conjure anti-labor images, teachers unions can and often do drive smart, ethical modifications to education policy that improve opportunities for teacher satisfaction and student learning. SJTA and SJUSD recently co-developed a new teacher evaluation system (see Article 16000 of our contract) that, though not yet fully implemented, uses multiple measures of effectiveness to help teachers of all skill levels grow professionally, requires multiple evaluators for both formal and informal observations, and grants joint control of the process to teachers and administrators. We are hoping California will grant our request to either shorten or lengthen permanent status timelines when doing so is in the joint interests of students, teachers, and the school. Our contract also allows for new teacher leadership pathways (although we currently lack the funding necessary to implement our Model Teacher and Master Teacher Leader positions). We co-developed several other teacher-empowering, student-centered policy decisions with our school district and other unions can and often try to do so as well.
The current and former teachers I talked to at the LEE event were, as most teachers I encounter from both TFA and other programs are, thoughtful, intelligent, and passionate about improving the lives of low-income kids. They astutely noted that they don’t see all of these roles pursued by their unions all the time and wondered how SJTA became so proactive. Their question is a great one, and while I haven’t been involved in SJTA long enough to see the process unfold firsthand, I believe I can lend some insight.
Throughout history, labor-management relationships have typically involved some combination of management withholding information, misappropriating money, imposing unreasonable working conditions, and lying to the media about the effects of negotiations and employee objectives (the NCAA is currently engaged in all of this behavior in its attempt to prevent the Northwestern football team’s attempt to unionize). It’s important to note that, anytime one perceives intransigence from a teachers union, that intransigence is typically in response to irresponsible and/or unethical behavior from the school district. The district and union have a joint obligation to behave responsibly, but unions are the less powerful entity in the union-district relationship and the onus is therefore more on districts to create the conditions – transparency, openness to union ideas, respect for union membership, and a willingness to work together – under which a union can adopt the social justice approach described above. SJTA can function as we do in large part because SJUSD has demonstrated its commitment to honest, collaborative negotiations and messaging. Most seemingly obstinate union positions, on the other hand, arise in response to corrupt and/or incompetent management decision-making processes.
That said, unions must also work proactively to define themselves as social justice organizations. I believe establishing a positive mission statement (SJTA’s is to “empower teachers to educate, inspire, and change lives through public education”) can go a long way. We should try to develop contract structures, like salary formulas (see Appendix A of our contract), that enable us to spend a smaller percentage of collective bargaining time on salary and benefits. We must also consider innovative ideas that have a compelling rationale and research base behind them.
It’s important to remember that members of teachers unions work directly with students every day – we are students’ most credible advocates. We care deeply about educational equity and the learning that takes place in our classrooms. Education reformers who are likewise passionate about helping students succeed will therefore stop bashing unions and start working with us to develop the intelligent, ethical policies that can benefit students most.