Sunday, March 18, 2012

Collective Bargaining is Vital to Public Education

Before February 11, 2011, I rarely discussed with my Wisconsin non-union friends and neighbors the merits or demerits of union rights. However, as noted in last week’s post, Governor Walker’s dichotomous creation leaves no room, short of his recall, for safeguarding public educators’ union rights. Securing the recall of defective governorship in Wisconsin requires public educators to garner support for their unions from non-union workers.

Admittedly, defending teachers’ collective bargaining rights is a challenge when the vast majority of private sector workers are currently not union members. I do not claim to know what is best for non-union laborers in their own lines of work. However, I unapologetically believe that protecting teacher union rights is vital to the long-term future of quality public education.

A year ago, I made this very point to my local school board members in urging local opposition to Walker’s union-busting repair bill. In response, one commissioner wrote,

We are going to have to agree to disagree on your statement – “...protecting teacher union rights is vital to the long-term future of quality public education.” I understand your fears of losing that document that makes you feel safe. What I don't understand is how that document is vital to a good education. We have excellent teachers in this district that would do a great job teaching and molding our children whether those teachers have a union contract or not.

This commissioner raises the essential question in the call to recall Walker and his union-busting supporters. Public educators must help Wisconsinites understand why our unions are vital to quality public education. We must teach.

Essential Question: How is the protection of union rights vital to the long-term future of quality public education?

Historical Background:

Walker’s pitch to demolish collective bargaining smacks of radical regressivism rather than moving Wisconsin forward, as he contends.

A study of history reveals that the development of teachers unions in Wisconsin gave rise to professionalism in education and, consequently, improved the quality of public schools. Before union growth, sexism was rampant in public schools, pay inequity was common for female and elementary teachers, health insurance for most educators was non-existent or inadequate, and many Wisconsin teachers qualified for food stamps (see WEAC history). Teachers unions fought against these injustices to improve the work conditions and the standard of living of professional educators. The growth of teacher professionalism, made possible by educators unions, empowered Wisconsin’s teachers to greatly improve Wisconsin’s schools.

The aforementioned board commissioner’s recognition that our school district has excellent teachers, in the least, is acknowledgement that unionization does not impede teacher development. More optimistically, the professional development of educators, made possible by unions, gave rise to excellent educators enfranchised by collective bargaining through the decades. 

The commissioner might be correct that excellent teachers can keep the public education boat afloat for some time after collective bargaining, but the eroding of teacher morale and the Walker- induced mass exodus of our most experienced educators shows the detrimental, if not terminal effects of teacher disenfranchisement.   

Educators Unions Provide Constancy

Like a revolving door, students, parents, administrators, superintendents, board members, venture philanthropists, and venture politicians gyrate through our public school systems. Often, each layer and new generation capriciously propose new and old unproven ideas for achieving their latest ideals.

In the private sector world, board members are usually paid and united behind a common mission to improve profits. In contrast, the complicated world of public education has unpaid board members with varying loyalties and sometimes personal and political agendas that trump the mission of public education. School boards, also quite often attract well-meaning individuals not schooled in public school matters and business leaders who hope to inject their business worldview into our uniquely educational world.

Most often, it is professional educators, aided by their unions, who keep the merry-go-round of school reforms and leadership from careening the entire public school system out of control or into the control of entrepreneurs and politicalprenuers of many sorts. It is professional educators and their unions that provide steadiness, perspective, and common mission to an otherwise erratic organization that sees a constant turnover of board members, superintendents, administrators, parents, and students.

Our students need stability. Teachers and their unions deliver this.

Unions Protect the Professional Educator’s Voice:

Shamelessly, I contend the educator’s perspective is the most important in the complicated conversation of public education. Most parents and certainly politicians cannot match the experience and expertise of professional educators in managing the learning and development of students.

Unions protect the voice of the experts. Governor Walker likes to distort this point and fabricate that teachers unions provide unreasonable protections (even to the exploitation of a promising teacher). “[Teacher tenure] is not the same in K-12 education, even though critics confuse the public by saying so,” historian Diane Ravitch recently wrote. “Teachers in K-12 schools do not have a lifetime guarantee; what they have is a guarantee of due process if someone wants to fire them. The right to a hearing, the right to be presented with evidence against them.”

These union-fought-for protections allow for dissenting teachers’ perspectives to be spoken, written, aired, or published. This is what democracy looks like. Without union protections, many teachers’ valuable perspectives will be silenced. Without collective bargaining, public schools and its students will lose again in Walker’s Wisconsin.   

We must keep making our case: Protecting teacher union rights is vital to the long-term future of quality public education.


  1. If, as some contend, unions undermine education, then why do the states with strongest public employee union rights (Massachussetts, Minnesota...) have the strongest education systems? And why do the states with the weakest public employee union rights (Mississippi, Alabama...) have the weakest education systems? And why does the country that is generally acknowledged as having a model education system--Finland-- have an entirely unionized education workforce?

  2. This is an amazing and wonderful way to express what many have tried to say. We will lose so much by losing educational opportunities. The loss of collective bargaining is absolutely designed to put every person on their own and only advocating for their own self-interest. I can only see losses in that manner. Thanks for speaking out so eloquently.

  3. I really enjoyed your post, as it explains so very well the problems left with the lack of collective bargaining. It is absolutely a manner of creating a one person against the leadership, rather than many voices together. If this succeeds
    we will have every person for themselves, "and the devil take the hindmost" as my parents used to say. We need the power of speaking as one.
    Thanks again for your post and eloquence.

  4. Excellent, Steve. Keep fighting. If any of the states out there can turn this around, Wisconsin should be one of them!