For Teachers' Unions to Survive, It's Time to Go Positive for Students
After the Janus decision and a year of teachers strikes, unions are at a crossroads
The U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decision in the Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees Council 31 case barred mandatory “agency fees,” dealing a telling financial blow to teachers’ unions. Whether this is a death blow or a turning point will be determined by the vision and persuasiveness of union leaders. It’s a classic crisis that presents both peril and opportunity.
The perils are obvious. The predicted loss of revenue will mean diminished capacity for the unions and will likely translate into diminished influence and power at the federal, state, and local levels as well as within the Democratic Party. Teachers’ unions have been a potent force in all of these quarters. In the eyes of some, the unions have been a regressive, conservative (as in status quo-oriented), anti-reform force in the field. In the eyes of most of their members and some of the public, they have done an admirable job of standing up for teachers individually and collectively, bringing the voice and expertise of practitioners to the policy table, and assuring fair, middle-class compensation for members.
There has never been any doubt that teachers need a voice and protection in the education sector. Teaching has long been an exploited, overworked, and undercompensated field. The advent of teachers’ associations in the 20th century signaled an end to some of the most egregious violations of fair treatment by education managers. The unions stood tall and insisted on fairness and equity. Even today in states where unions have already been disempowered by “right to work” state laws that prohibit unions from charging fees from nonmembers, teachers have taken to the streets. In places like West Virginia and Oklahoma, teachers have organized outside of conventional unions in “wildcat Facebook” fashion and have become a potent, successful movement for fair compensation and better funding for schools.
These wildcat strikes may portend the future of teacher activism in an environment where unions are hobbled. Anti-unionists, be careful what you wish for! Post-Janus, policymakers and education managers may have to contend and negotiate with a hydra-headed, multifaceted, fragmented teacher constituency rather than with a single, stable union.
In response to Janus, union leaders will have to decide on a course of action to sustain their work and influence. First steps will clearly be restating and reinforcing the value proposition for union membership to dissuade those who might now be inclined to stop paying dues. While necessary, this is only a beginning. Leaders will need to project a future vision for the work of the union.
One vision could be rear-guard: combative, defensive, and reactionary. Organize to resist the forces that have brought the nation Janus, President Donald Trump, and all manner of assaults on unionism. A corollary of this approach, one already much in evidence in some unions, would be to resist any attempts at education reform, to call for a rollback of standards and accountability, to push potential allies like business and philanthropy out of the sector, to quash any form of competition, and to demand more money while insisting on getting sole authority to run the sector in whatever way unions see fit.
This approach would be a disaster, playing right into the worst stereotypes of teachers’ unions purveyed by the extreme right. No one in the world of policy is going to go for the “give us more money, trust us, and leave us alone” argument. It’s been tried and failed. There is too much at stake and too many other constituent voices like parents, taxpayers, elected officials, and various advocacy organizations who deserve to be heard.
Another approach would be for union leaders to present a vision for a successful education future starting with meeting the basic needs of children that are a prerequisite to their coming to school genuinely ready to learn. Without running away from accountability, union heads could insist on “shared accountability” with communities, meaning a platform of supports and opportunities, which must necessarily be in place outside of school before we can achieve the nation’s goal of “every student succeeds”.
Union leaders would be deliberately reopening the “opportunity to learn” debate. Abandoned decades ago, it centered on the notion that children’s opportunities and school system capacities must be in place before teachers or schools can be expected to educate all children to high levels.
What if unions mounted a “children’s campaign” aimed at ensuring all young people have access to health, mental health, and dental care, stable housing, safe neighborhoods and various other essentials for well-being? What if unions campaigned for all children, irrespective of wealth, to have access to early-childhood education, after-school and summer learning, athletics, the arts, tutoring, access to tools of technology, internships—in short, all the enrichment opportunities that those of us who have privilege routinely provide for our children?
After all, children are in school only 20 percent of their waking hours between kindergarten and 12th grade. Most of their learning takes place outside of school, yet we only measure it in school and hold schools accountable for all of it.
Good teachers know that the supports and opportunities described in such a vision are prerequisites for children to come to school genuinely ready to learn. As the privileged know well, it’s very hard for kids to be successful without the ingredients described in such a “children’s campaign.”
It’s in the interest of teachers (and school reformers for that matter) to do everything possible to guarantee that children have all the supports and opportunities they need. Teachers can’t succeed unless children are truly ready to learn. Simply improving schooling alone won’t work if children are not present or otherwise unable to offer their best efforts.
The unions could be heroes to the public and to their members and potential members with a kid-centric strategy. Presenting a solution-oriented, constructive vision for education would be far better for teachers than mounting a negative, reactionary campaign. Unions could fully embrace the new, grass-roots organizing for better pay and school funding, while at the same time prioritizing a children’s equity and opportunity agenda, thereby becoming leaders in the fight for universal student success. Going positive does not mean dropping defenses against injustices or failing to speak out about misguided policies, but it does mean putting a constructive approach forward as the face of the union and making common cause with so many others who see children’s success as the key to this nation’s revival, success, prosperity, and democracy.