Most full-time public schoolteachers in the United States are members of a union. Over the course of my twenty years in the classroom, I was part of two local chapters of the California Teacher’s Association (CTA). During that time I never had to go out on strike. I only came close once, during difficult contract negotiations over salary increases and health care coverage several years ago. I made a sign (see image above) and picketed with my colleagues every morning on the public sidewalk facing the school. After a few months of tense stalemate, the union and the district came to a tentative agreement and the strike was averted.
Labor unions for educators go way back in American history, almost to the beginning of the public school movement. Low wages, poor working conditions, and involuntary transfer between schools led to teacher frustration and action. The CTA dates back to the period of the Civil War and is among the largest teacher unions in the country. Its history includes a long string of legal victories, including protections against racial and religious discrimination for students and the establishment of tenure and retirement pensions for teachers. Other states followed suit over the decades, and today teachers’ unions have a powerful voice in local, state, and national politics.
They have also come under intense criticism, especially from conservative groups. Many elected officials on the right have pointed out the more left-leaning agenda of the CTA and other unions. Some parent organizations and advocates argue that declining student performance on state testing is the fault of “incompetent” teachers who cannot be removed from the classroom because of contractual tenure rules. Others point to the financial strength of the unions and claim that too much is spent on lobbying and not enough on kids.
As in any debate on public issues, the positions of both sides have merit. Teacher unions are indeed a formidable force to reckon with. They do protect the jobs and benefits of many teachers, and I certainly appreciated the support of the union while I was working full-time in public schools. I knew I would be paid fairly and could not be fired for arbitrary reasons. At the depth of the Great Recession I survived a “pink slip” scare when my district had to deal with severe budget cuts. But as a tenured teacher in a core subject area with many years of experience, I was in a strong position. Much of this I attributed to the strength and support of my union.
But there were limitations on what the union could do over the course of my career. I was not included during my two years teaching full-time in a private school or my six years as a part-time adjunct community college instructor. Public charter school teachers are also not covered by a union. And contractual restrictions on salary, schedule, and benefits make it difficult for schools and districts to sustain part-time faculty positions, even though many teachers are unable for a variety of reasons to work a traditional full-time (five fifths) course load.
If you are part of a union, you will have dues deducted from your paycheck every month. If the contract between the union and your district gets stalled, you will have to stand with your fellow members and go out on strike if that is the majority decision. This can be scary, as the compensation offered you on strike is far below your regular salary. Teacher salaries are still much lower than in other careers that require the same amount of education and training. The union is necessary to fight for higher wages and better conditions and benefits, but joining a union also involves sacrificing some of your individual choice for the good of the collective.
The best way to make a difference on the local level is to get involved with union leadership. I never had the time or inclination to do this, but if you do, joining negotiation committees or volunteering to serve as the union representative on your campus can be effective ways of helping yourself and your colleagues. In addition to guaranteeing that full-time teachers have fair compensation and reasonable job security, there are many others issues in which the union could exercise a positive influence. These include smaller class size, benefits for part-time teachers, flexible schedules, and greater choice in what subjects are offered on campus.
The debate over the collective bargaining power of teachers has intensified in recent years. Some states have restricted the power of the unions and strengthened so-called “right to work” laws. Others have allocated more public revenue to the growth of charter schools or private school voucher programs. High profile strikes and deadlocks in large public school districts across the country in recent years have threatened the economic and emotional stability of thousands of teachers as well as their students and families. State test scores have continued to decline since the 1990s, with blame assigned by various factions to teachers (and their unions), parents, students, politicians, or the tests themselves.
These issues are not going away anytime soon. But there is something you can do about it. Add your voice to the discussion. As a new teacher, you have a fresh perspective. This is important to the health of both the union and your school. Listen, do your research, and contribute what you can. Take advantage of the support offered by your union, your administrators, and your school district.
Remember that your most important priority is to educate your students. This includes taking care of yourself and demanding fair compensation for your hard work. The union is only as strong and healthy as its individual members. The other side of the poster I designed above read “Let’s Be Fair.” This applies to both union and school district. Hold them both accountable for the way they treat you.
Copyright (c) 2019 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.
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