Education Opinion

Unions, Pt. II: Class Act

By Nancy Flanagan — March 25, 2011 3 min read
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Unions. Distasteful mark of low class/culture--or representation of genuine American democracy?

On this moving centennial anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist disaster, I have been pondering why some teachers reject the idea of banding together to leverage greater control over their own work.

Some of those teachers are young and believe that “the man” will never come for them, because they’re ambitious, smart and dedicated. Some teachers are dissatisfied with the power wielded by big-city union bosses, or leaders at the top of the union food chain. Some teachers live in the South--some of my best friends are Southern teachers!--where unions represent a different kind of worker than they aspire to be.

I took a couple of friendly knocks upside the consciousness after my previous blog, from ed-buddies who suggested that when it came to teacher unionism in the South, especially states where collective bargaining is forbidden by law, I just didn’t get it. That’s probably true.

I once naively assumed that teacher associations had a central role in education policy-making across the country, whether right-to-work state or not. The idea that teachers might see their unions as dangerous--or unprofessional and unnecessary--was foreign to me. Friends from the Carolinas disabused me of this notion, telling me the belief that unions were radical was carefully orchestrated and embedded in the middle class culture in the South. Unions, such as they were, were organizations for people like textile workers, who were lower class. A caste system. One sent me this story:

The "right to work" tradition is part of the culture of the South, imposed after the textile barons literally machine-gunned union workers in the 1930s. They were folks off the farms, there was no industrial union tradition, so a few murders, killer dogs, and bulls with bats sufficed to intimidate.

I saw a documentary about this a few weeks ago. They interviewed old folks who were young then, recalling how no one in their towns ever talked about this in the decades that followed for fear of losing their jobs in the textile plants, which were about the only jobs around. One friend 's mother never mentioned it even though her father was on that picket line in Honea Path, until her last illness, when she pulled out some old photos and news clippings and shared the family's dark secret.

I sent my friend a link to the glorious Diego Rivera murals at the Detroit Institute of Arts which illustrate progress through industry--crowing that “we celebrate working people in the north.” Then, about fifteen minutes later, I read about Governor Paul LePage removing a 36-foot mural depicting the history of labor in Maine from the lobby of the Department of Labor building there. Unbelievable.

Then there’s this, from Andrew Rice’s article on Michelle Rhee in New York Magazine:

When, in the midst of Wisconsin's standoff, I ask Rhee whether she was supportive of the draconian anti-union bill, she says no. She believes that teachers should be able to collectively bargain salaries and benefits, though not issues surrounding in-class performance. But she adds that she sympathizes with the impulse behind the legislation. "There's frustration, and rightly so, with the way collective bargaining has played out over the last couple of decades."

Rhee’s comment underlines her conviction that all unionized teachers care about is salary--which is disproven by the vast number of teachers who continue to pour their intellectual energy and personal resources into what amounts to a low-paying, low-status job.

Davis Guggenheim tried to pit good unions against bad unions: The good unions protect the intellectual property of the well-heeled--and the bad unions try to “create policy.” Scott Walker tried to divide unions into good and evil, too--basing his dividing line on party preferences in the 2010 election--but the unions in Wisconsin weren’t buying it.

Rhee (and hedge fund manager-types) lead off their reform arguments with paying some teachers--the good ones, in charter schools--more. Lots more. Because they (the worthy) deserve it--and aren’t we all driven mostly by the benjamins?

Zeke Vanderhoek, founder of The Equity Project Charter
(language matters!) paid his expert teachers --hand selected in a national search-- $125,000. Then he used his two-year depth of pedagogical expertise to watch them and their achievement data like a hawk. Finally, he fired a couple of them, just to show that he could.

So it’s about power. But in the end, it’s also about social class.

The idea that teachers should be able to bargain salaries, but have no control over the policies that impact their core intellectual work is an argument grounded in classism. It shows a profound disregard for teacher professionalism and public service. Michelle Rhee believes that experts (like her) should control what matters--curriculum, instruction, evaluation-- and if teachers align with her beliefs and perform well, she’ll pay them handsomely.

Actually--now that I think of it--it’s the same principle that drove the Race to the Top: The feds make the important policy decisions, and those who follow their goals most closely are rewarded with hundreds of millions. There is absolutely no reason (or data) to believe that novice Teach for America corps members will outperform well-trained teachers, either--but class-conscious administrators pay the premium to hire them, too.

They cost more. So they must be worth it. Right?

The opinions expressed in Teacher in a Strange Land are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.