Teachers Have a Right to Unionize

The recipe is as follows: use “research” and phony evaluation systems to create a wedge between teachers and the public. Then, legally dismantle the basic right of teachers (and working people in general) to organize to defend their interests and the interests of the sector in which they work. Claim this is necessary to improve schools in order to hide the fact that the real drive is to cheapen education and siphon off the public resources expended on education into the hands of various financial and industrial monopolies (Bill Gates get 10 million for every 4 million he donates!).

Recent news confirms what we have known for a long time: change is coming, and it doesn’t look good. But a key part of contending with change — good or bad — is to step back and analyze how that change is legitimated. In the case of the attack on the right to organize, much can be learned if one examines how the matter is framed and justified.

The Nature of the Right to Organize

Key to attacking teachers is disinformation regarding teachers and their rights. By definition, a right cannot be given or taken away. It is a valid, legitimate claim based in the existence of the holder of the claim. Rights, by their very nature, are not “granted” on the basis of performance, ability, opinion, or any other consideration. I have the right to participate in decision making about matters that affect me, like my working conditions, the condition of my community, the economy in general, etc…whether or not I’m good at math, nice to my neighbors or have friends in high places. I have that right by virtue of being a member of that community, that economy, that workplace. Whether that right is recognized is in practice quite different from whether or not it exists.

So, even if the existence of unions are shown to correlate with some malady, this correlation does not correctly justify attacking a basic right, like that of a group of people with common interests to come together to defend those interests. Does the existence of teachers unions make it harder for administrators to do their job? Sometimes. Does that justify attacking teachers’ right to organize? Absolutely not. This logic would suggest that we should throw harder to educate kids out of school because they make the school’s job harder. Rights establish the boundaries for the negotiation of contending interests, a process which should be governed by the aim of harmonizing those interests, not empowering one group of people at the expense of another as current rhetoric suggests.

So think of it this way, as the right to organize in terms of unions is not simply a matter of “labor rights” but basic to democratic rights in general. Involving all constituencies in making a decision takes longer, is probably a drain on social resources, and might even be properly rendered as “inefficient”. Should we thus abandon the hope that society can be democratically organized? Does this fact negate the claim to have a say over matters that affect our lives? If the process for firing ineffective teachers is burdensome is expanding arbitrary authority of CEO-types with their brooms and bats really a solution? I don’t believe the vast majority of Americans want to wake up in a world run by these broom and bat wielding people.

I hope that these quickly-formulated thought exercises reveal that the logic behind proposals to outlaw or at least largely emasculate collective bargaining are very dangerous. One proposal in fact appears to block teachers from having a say over education policy — so, teachers are key to improving the quality of education, but they should be barred from decision-making (collective bargaining is a decision-making arrangement) about the very thing they are to lead improving? Not convinced?

Certainly, lurking in the public mind is this retort: “yeah, but the teachers are all self interested.” And the billionaires driving school deformation strategies premised on a for-profit model which requires cheap, temporary labor are what, generous and selfless? But let’s actually be serious. What does it mean to be self interested?

Teachers Working Conditions are Students Learning Conditions

The line that outlawing teachers unions is required so that school boards and parents can be empowered is lunacy. Parents are not empowered if the teachers that teach their children are treated like shit. School boards are not representing the interests of their community if they treat teachers like shit.

More to the point, the line that the problem is that teachers unions only serve the interests of teachers needs to be interrogated. Is self interest wrong? Why is it wrong or socially harmful to want higher wages, better healthcare, and small class sizes, rest and leisure and assurance of being cared for during retirement?

That sounds terrible! I’ll sign up instead for the work camp where I can salute the master every day, as my body cripples and spirit is crushed under the mighty pressure of standards gaps and evaluation evaluation assessments data driven decision-less making brain-numbing ignorance of the 6,000 pound gorilla who just got laid off, has no healthcare and is being evicted, with three children, all of whom are not meeting “benchmark” (although they might be sleeping under the bench, which is not one of the marks). (And, of course, because the gorilla is sooo big, it can’t choose to even live under the bridge, let alone the bench.)

It is a material fact that teachers working conditions are students learning conditions. That is, teachers self interest is connected to their students’ interests. Students under the tutelage of teachers who are themselves under the thumb of a broom or bat totting CEO with unbridled power to hire and fire at will and extend the working day and increase class size at will (all so they can be “empowered to strategically use resources” — i.e., cut costs) will not be served well. Period. Teachers and parents and tax payers have well over one hundred years of experience fighting for real public education. I know its tough, but we need to remember: teachers are tax payers. Teachers are parents. And teachers are mostly women.

So laid out this way, someone is going to have a hell of a time convincing the public that the self-interest of women is somehow fundamentally at odds with parents and the community, and that to counter this, we should put “students first”…because, uh, women are opposed to helping children, and benefit from, uh, illiterate, poorly educated youth?

You know what, I think its time the public eye scrutinized another collective — not teachers, or women, or parents — a much smaller collective, a collective for whom its self interest does not in fact correlate with the general interest!

Bill, Eli, are you there?

3 Comments Teachers Have a Right to Unionize

  1. D. Lawvere February 15, 2011 at 2:19 pm

    Lets talk about this with everyone. Teachers and parents are made to feel passive and powerless. The politicians discussion does not help us at all–both “sides” divert from rights and the needs of children and society. We aren’t allowed to even mention the military budget during the last election, for example. Schools are becoming like work camps to hold, control and narrowly train the youth to accept the next work camp. They just handed down the “core standards” at an all faculty presentation. No questions were answered by the invited presenter. The message was–your job is to implement, not question.

  2. Mark Garrison February 15, 2011 at 2:31 pm

    “They just handed down the “core standards” at an all faculty presentation. No questions were answered by the invited presenter.”

    I am assuming these “core standards” are the not-to-be named as such “national standards” imposed on the polity, almost as a national security measure? Details on what was presented would be very useful.

    I’m now reading this: http://www.aasa.org/uploadedFiles/Publications/Newsletters/JSP_Winter2011.FINAL.pdf

    What do you think of this argument? I think decision making should be driven by the aim — data should not determine the aim — data helps one understand implementation, and where things are headed. But it can’t determine the aim, so in a sense, the call for “data-driven decision making” is not a call to actually use data (which deformers don’t do in a serious way) but rather, it is the call of anti-philosphy — it is a call to take up a purposeless life. Or as Nike says, Just do it!

  3. D. Lawvere February 16, 2011 at 3:17 pm

    I’m sort of surprised that the author doesn’t consider the evidence found in: The Role of Obedience in Economic Development: Countering the Myths of Rights and (Local) Control–ok I made that up. And what about the outstanding piece of data driven scholarship: The Truth: Education Secondary to Main Mission of Schools and Standards—ok I made that up too.

    I think the piece is useful in diffusing the crisis atmosphere, and showing that the national standards are not based on data. Teachers naturally are inclined to want to constantly improve teaching and education. They are vulnerable to different forms of hysteria suggesting that they should be doing something differently. I have several concerns with the perspective of the article. For example, I don’t think the “one size does not fit all” argument is helpful, or sufficient (that is, of course from the perspective of trying to improve education). It is a form of standards to say that students should learn +, – x, / by the time they are in ___grade, and we can have any number of variations on how to do that based on “different sizes” of students. But, there we go again, thinking about improving education. Indeed, if the author isn’t adressing the aim of the national core standards, then there is an implication that the motivation behind them has to do with improving education, but it ain’t.

    The presenation we received was basically piles and piles of “standards”–those little phrases that sound good. The consensus amongst my colleagues was that “we do most of those things”, and there were a few points that people thought they should be doing.

    People did not like the atmosphere of being told what to do, and at least one raised concerns about “who is behind this.” Mostly, people felt like this was just the latest in the many cycles of extraneous requirements. The speaker was from BOCCES and tended to say “I don’t know ” when asked a question, but managed to convey that everyone WILL comply.

    My neighbor in the presentation, one of the longest serving of the old timers, is mellow, perhaps considered conservative, and not cynical, but he didn’t seem too concerned, as if this too would pass. But, when I raised the issue of decision making and local control with him, he was interested–and said “you’re conservative.”

    I felt like the nice sounding list of phrases known as “the standards”, were excessive in quantity,( and each subject and grade has a different lenghty list), but not neccessarily “wrong” somewhat like the old “standards”. I do think that there is a problem with the narrow data driven checklist approach, where you can “cover” the different standards and then students can demonstrate it on a test using the same nice sounding phrases. The bigger problem, as you mentioned, is of decision making and control.

    Coupled with the financial dependence which school districts have on the state and ever more increasingly with the fed, the core standards hammer home that we have no control and education is not a right. Its a huge challenge to point out to people, even though they know it, that the problem with the school budget is that the state cut their funding, and the temporary federal funds are cut, and we already are in one of the most “efficient” districts (meaning we spend the third least per pupil, and have top ten out of 97 wny districts in scores = high “return on investemnt”). So, its clear to most that there’s nothing remotely rational to cut, yet we are supposed to argue about what to cut. We should raise the demand that the state and fed should stop paying the rich and stop military funding. Everyone agrees with that, but don’t see it as a practical stand in the context of the immediate budget.

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