Monday, July 13, 2015

Who Is Served by the Unions?

We're going to have this argument again because folks are pissed about the early endorsement of Hillary Clinton by the AFT. But there's another issue quietly simmering on the union back burner that is far more significant in dealing with the question of which interests, exactly, are served by the big teachers unions.

Who am I?

This whole topic is so fraught and land-miney that I feel the need to place myself on the union spectrum before leaping in. If you don't particularly care, you can skip ahead to the next subheading.

I don't have a lot of patience for the dopes at groups like Free To Teach who are sure that the union is holding them back from being rich and wildly successful as teachers. If you think you would get a better deal for yourself without a union, you really don't understand the situation. I have been a local union president during contract negotiations and a strike, and I know how invaluable the assistance and expertise of the state union can be. Regardless of how confused they get at times, the union still provides some powerful protection for teachers who need it and deserve it. I have no patience for bashing unions as a way to bash teachers.

At the same time, I'm never going to go along with the union just because they think I should. Calls for unity that are actually calls to shut up and go along do not move me (except occasionally in the opposite direction). I am acutely aware that sometimes the interests of the union, the interests of local teachers, and the interests of public education do not always perfectly align.

It's that misalignment that brings up the topic of discussion at hand.

The Noisy Political Issue

Political endorsements are the most visible of national leadership activities, and as witnessed by the continuing blowback over Randi Weingarten's endorsement of Hillary Clinton (an early Christmas gift that helps push Clinton up and away from Bernie Sanders without requiring her to actually acknowledge him).

I have complained to my state leaders about their endorsement of politicians who sucked for education. The standard response is some combination of A) we want a seat at the table and B) you should see how much the other guy sucks.

These are not completely invalid arguments. A teachers union can't do anything for its members if nobody with actual power doesn't listen to it, and that means political horse-trading for a seat at the table. I know there are people who believe that we should simply stand out in the yard, far away from the table, throwing a tantrum and refusing to come inside for anything less that 100% purity and compliance by politicians. Insisting on political purity may be satisfying, but it doesn't get a damned thing done in the real world.

But it's also true that in the real world, politicians say all the right things to make supporters happy until those supporters realize they are sitting at the children's table and nobody is paying them a damn bit of attention (see, for example, George W. Bush and the religious right, who supported him and didn't get a bit of help stopping The Gays).

What did or will AFT get out of endorsing Clinton? I'm going to predict the answer is "Nothing At All." Particularly now that she landed the endorsement without even having to make a show of backing public education. This is not realistic politicking. This is giving away milk for free in hopes that someone will then decide to buy your cow.

Teachers do have an interest in having their unions cultivate political power. But the union leaderships interest in political power does not always align with the interests of teachers.

The Quiet Charter Issue

That mis-alignment could get even worse.

Not as sexy as discussions of testing and Common Core are the ongoing discussions of if or how to bring charter school teachers into the union fold. There are several arguments in favor of this.

1) Making charters deal with unionized teachers will make chartering less attractive and make charter operators behave better if they do still enter the business.

2) Charter teachers are teachers, mostly, sort of, so why not include them in the unions?

3) The unions are desperate for members and would enroll my dog if they could.

I get the value behind the first two possibilities. And I understand how it would be good for the union to have more members. More dues, more clout, more reach, and fewer headlines about shrinking unions.

But there's an inevitable side effect. If charter school teachers are members of the union, the union has an obligation to represent them, and that means a conflict between old members and new. Because charter schools, as currently structured in every state in the union, cannot thrive without sucking the life blood from public schools.

How will things work in this alternate universe? A bad charter is about to close, and that will mean the loss of many union teacher jobs-- will the union fight for the survival of that bad charter? Yet the closing of the charter will stop some of the money-sucking damage to the public school-- will the union support that?

As the charter system in this country is currently set up, charter schools and public schools are competing interests. How can a union serve both? This brings us back to the original question:

Who is served by the unions?

Does the union serve the interests of teachers? Any teachers? All teachers? And does that mean that the union has a vested interest in the survival of anyone who employs those teachers?

Does the union serve the interests of public education? Lots of folks who see the union as obstructionist think so, but are they right? And if the union does have a vested interest in public education, how can it ally itself with those who would tear public education apart?

Does the union serve the interests of the union? And if so, does that mean that all schools and all teachers need to watch their backs in dealing with a union that may screw them any time such screwage serves its own interests?

As the traditional public school system is attacked, broken, busted down for parts, and sold off, will the unions stand with teachers to fight for it, or will they set their sails for whatever way the wind is blowing? And if that's the plan, how can they possibly hope to hold onto and recruit members to survive?

These are not easy questions to answer, but the answers are going to determine the future of the unions and the fate of teachers who depend on them. On the national level, the news has not been good for a while, with support for Common Core and AFT's endorsement of the Very Reformy Clinton signs that sails are set and teachers need to either grab on tight or be thrown overboard. But for those of us who care about the unions, we need to stop reacting to the issue du jour and start paying attention to the bigger picture, the answers our leaders are coming up with for the question-- just who is served by the unions?

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