Teaching Profession Opinion

Why unions remain relevant

By Diane Ravitch — March 19, 2007 2 min read
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Dear Deborah,

One of the great things about this ongoing conversation called blogging is that you never cease to surprise me. I told our blogmaster Mary-Ellen Deily at Education Week that the blog should be retitled “Never the Last Word.” It is that love of intellectual mano-a-mano that keeps us energized. I hope we never lose it.

In your last post, you restate your objection to mandates, then shift into a defense of teachers’ unions. I expect that the anti-union people will jump all over the opening that you created for them to rant against mandatory dues payments by teachers who are forced to pay to unions that they never chose to join. But I’ll leave that rant to them.

I am sure that our readers expect that we will engage in the grown-up version of Mortal Kombat (that’s a beat-em-up video game series). But this is an area where we agree.

I continually am amazed by the anti-union sentiment in the media (and it seems to be growing). Politicians get great press coverage when they thunder on against the teachers’ union, about ending tenure, getting rid of bad apples, etc. The public apparently likes this swaggering tough guy approach. I think this is so stupid! A few weeks ago, Steve Jobs—the CEO of Apple Computers—said to a big convention that the biggest problem in American education is the teachers’ unions. Al Shanker (one of my personal heroes) would have said to him, “Let’s make a list of the highest performing states and a list of the lowest-performing states. Which list has strong teachers’ unions? Which list has weak ones?” If Steve Jobs were right, the South would have the highest academic achievement, but it does not. Shanker would win this one easily.

Al Shanker also used to point out that the kids do a great job of weeding out incompetent teachers; within their first five years of teaching, somewhere between 40-50% of all new teachers leave for greener pastures, either another district or another line of work. Teaching has always been a hard job; today it is harder than ever, now that the public expects all children to become proficient (I agree, by the way, that the goal of 100% proficiency by 2014 is absurd).

You are quite right about the paternalism that became deeply embedded in public education from its earliest days. The supervisors were men, most of the teachers were women. For many years, teachers (mainly women) were not allowed to marry; in some districts, they were not allowed to become pregnant (if they did, they had to retire at once).

Today, unions remain important for teachers because of the huge imbalance in power between administrators and teachers. Many administrators, especially the non-traditional ones, think they should emulate the corporate model; they would like to be able to hire and fire at will, without just cause, hoping to intimidate the people who do the actual work of educating children. Authoritarian leaders remind us why teachers need the protection of a professional union.

Many years ago, a friend and labor leader, Victor Gotbaum, said to me that politicians should stop knocking the unions; as he put it, “We are the furniture that comes with the building.” Some leaders of our time would rather burn down the building than live with that furniture. But when the current crop of would-be CEOs are long gone, the unions will still be here—because they meet real needs.


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