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On the Need for Unions and Seniority

This blog post was originally composed as a response to a comment by Kelly Amis, but as the post grew, I figured it could hold its own as a blog post.

Thanks for continuing the dialogue, Kelly. I like a good back-and-forth with people who push my thinking.

You wrote: “I’m pro-union (for jobs in which people are nearly powerless and easily replaced, like farm or factory workers, I’m just not sure it is helping teaching as a profession).” Regarding unions, I think it’s not only a matter of skill and replaceability, but also power imbalances. Teachers I know and hear from in non-unionized states describe the arbitrary and punitive use of power to silence troublemakers and embolden poor, unethical, even illegal practices in administration and school governance. There’s also considerable political pressure and involvement in education that necessitates the strength in numbers that comes with unions. Think of the science teachers who dare to teach about evolution as a fact, health teachers who mention birth-control, LGBTQ teachers harrassed or silenced, or teachers who dare to suggest that a student with two moms comes from a family every bit as normal as others, journalism teachers pressured to restrict their students’ First Amendment rights, librarians who allow students to check out controversial books, English teachers who use controversial books or creative writing assignments, social studies teachers who teach students about the Islamic Golden Age… Think about the teachers who give the starting point guard an F that will remove him from the playoffs, teachers who bust the school board member’s child for plagiarism, teachers who say something unpopular in the public sphere, signing anti-war petitions or letters to the editor, etc.

These are not hypothetical issues – they happen all the time. Daily. A vinidictive (or intimidated) administrator has so much power over a teacher – even with union support. A principal can ruin a teacher’s year, ruin a career, run their their health and morale into the ground. Removing the union actually makes it harder for most of us to do good work in difficult circumstances, harder to speak up on behalf of students and families. I think the overall educational outcomes in union vs. non-union states and countries undercut your suggestion that unions do not help education. True, I’ve also heard stories about local associations and union reps who are bad for schools and kids. It happens. But I don’t see those exceptions as an argument against unions – it’s an argument for better governance, management, and ethical decision-making by those individuals.

In To Kill a Mockingbird, Jem reacts to the unjust conviction of Tom Robinson by suggesting that we should do away with juries. Of course, the point is that he lacks perspective and is reacting out of emotion; he’s offering a “solution” that might solve the immediate problem he’s thinking of, but create many more, and much worse problems. The imbalance of power and the high-stakes, politicized arena in which we work, make the union a useful counterbalance that protects teachers and students – to the extent that teachers often face trouble by advocating for or serving as role models for students.

As for seniority, I think you’re right to distinguish between big urban districts and others – my impression is that the problems are worse in larger districts. I would love to see unions negotiate a modified form of seniority to balance layoffs among schools in a more equitable way (if we must have any layoffs at all). No one would want their own child taught by an unqualified teacher, nor would I want my own students coming to me from or heading off to classrooms with unqualified teachers. When that happens due to seniority and “bumping” practices, it’s wrong; we should not layoff a qualified teacher to replace her/him with an unqualified teacher, and unions that have the opportunity to negotiate a better way should be doing so. (Let’s apply that idea to TFA recruits too – there should be no TFA corps members taking spots that were previously filled by qualified teachers who were laid off).  So, seniority within a subject area or grade level/range might work. Seniority within a school or department perhaps. That approach would also create an incentive for good teachers to consider struggling schools – put yourself higher up the local seniority ladder faster.

However, if we go further than that and start using evaluations to determine layoffs, we will fail in a couple of ways. First of all, what’s the incentive to admit you’re struggling with any aspect of your teaching? If the goal of evaluation is improvement and growth for all teachers, then evaluation must be safe enough to enter into honestly and with pure intentions (to get better, not just to save one’s job). If evaluations are going to figure into layoffs, then we’ll have worse evaluations instead of better. Additionally, seniority provides a predictable and orderly approach that serves schools well. Remove seniority and you create disincentives for teamwork or for taking on challenges. Co-workers become competitors, and despite what some business-minded reformers will tell you, schools are not environments that thrive on internal competition. This is not an NFL team where we want our quarterbacks to compete with each other so we can put the best one on the field to defeat our opponents. We need quarterbacks who are willing to spend more of their time coaching their peers, not trying to distance themselves from their peers. In this game, we need every player to be good, every player on the field, and most importantly, every team winning.

(EDIT, 5/6/13): Joe Bower has an amusing but serious video on his blog today, asking the question, Should union dues be optional? He suggested it would make a good complement to my post, and I agree – take a look!


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David B. Cohen

David B. Cohen is the Associate Director of Accomplished California Teachers (ACT). His main responsibilities are in communications and membership, and he works t...