In most states, teachers’ unions work like this: there is a local affiliation at the district level, overseen by a state organization, which in turn belongs to a national group like the AFT or the NEA. When I was a new teacher, after just days in my first classroom, a union rep knocked on my door and asked to chat. He outlined what the union did and he didn’t mince words when he told me that, although I had the right to refuse to join without jeopardizing my employment, if I didn’t join, I was little better than a parasite enjoying union benefits without chipping in.
He really didn’t need to strong arm me. I was union bred. My father walked picket lines a number of times at the meat processing plant where he worked for over forty years while the company sought to break the union – which it eventually did. I was a good union girl. I wouldn’t cross picket lines, and I joined.
Although the union offered a somewhat reduced membership fee for first year teachers, I made only $18,200 my that year. And I saw only very modest raises for nearly a decade. In that first year — with dues, rent, utilities and student loans — I was lucky to scrape up $50 or $60 for groceries every two weeks. And forget about discretionary spending money. I had $20 to my name at the end of every month.
But I paid my dues for ten years. Until one day, after reading yet another newspaper article about our union president and his widely divergent political ideals and machinations, I resigned. The union may have gallantly bargained in my name, but the politics – ideas that I supported financially – seemed to be specific to a small group of people, and largely out of step with my own.
I spent the last ten years of my career as a parasite, and I can see the union’s point of view. They expend time and energy negotiating contracts for all employees, regardless of affiliation. But they also foist ideals and goals on their membership that are paid for by those members without much representation.
Linn-Mar teachers in Iowa recently decided they’d had enough of the state union and the NEA. They felt their interests — and the needs of their students –were being unheard, or even sacrificed, in favor of larger political interests they didn’t agree with. The teachers took a vote and resigned.
This spring the Linn-Mar teachers will negotiate their own contract with the school district without assistance from the ISEA (Iowa State Education Association). Outwardly the make up of the Linn-Mar collective hasn’t changed. They have an elected president and representatives from each school. The cadre that negotiates their contract will be made up of representatives who have done this type of thing before, albeit with the state union support.
The general public rails against unions, calling them obstructive to the teaching process, but unions came into being mainly to ensure fair working wages and to protect teachers from unfair personal harassment by parents, administrators and school boards. All politics being basically local are best illustrated by the nepotism and good old boys network of local school systems where teachers who try to initiate necessary changes — or speak out on the behalf of better teaching practices — can, and have, lost their jobs when feathers of well-heeled community members or administrators were ruffled.
The Obama administration is attempting to foster a top down overhaul of our public school system, but schools have always been local matters. The founding fathers deliberately left education to the states and local communities. Teachers taking matters of change into their own hands, with an eye on what matters to the community, is the real change we need.
photo credit: Teachers by Old Sarge