Blaming Unions: The Easiest Game in Town

And so, here we go. A teacher’s union is on strike–more specifically the Chicago Teacher’s Union–and the bewailing begins: the strike is hurting students; the teachers should put their selfish interests last; get back to work, don’t you know you are hurting the students? As I pointed out a few days ago, if there is one thing that unites our political parties and leads to a great, Kumbaya, sea-to-shining-sea holding of hands across party divides it is this: teachers are to blame for the supposed educational crisis in public education, and they, and their unions alone, should reform if our schools are to get back to work and get on with the business of making our students into the finest, able to compete globally with all those busy eating their lunches.

I have no doubt students are being hurt by the strike. I was the ‘victim’ of two teachers’ strikes myself: once in my first undergraduate  year when faculty at Delhi University went on strike for two months, and then again, in my second undergraduate year, when they went on strike for three months. By the end of the second one, I had lost interest in going back to attend classes, and skipped the rest of the year to study on my own for final exams. I did the same thing in the third year (there were no strikes, but I skipped most classes anyway). Needless to say, I did terribly in my undergraduate degree. (I wasn’t a terribly diligent student in any case, but I’m going to blow past that for now.)

Back then, like most around me, I blamed the teacher’s union. I knew little about the university administration and the prolonged crisis in negotiations between teachers and them, about governmental funding for higher education. My view of the world was narrow, immature and restricted: the teachers were the ones not reporting to work, they must be lazy, they must be selfish, they must, surely, bear all the blame.  I knew little about the poor salaries paid to my faculty (though I had an inkling of the poor conditions they labored under).  The teachers were visible; the university administration was not. There was a bull’s-eye painted on their union banner, and I aimed for it.

My memories of this reaction to the 1984-1985 strikes colored my responses to any mention of the possibility of a strike during union chapter meetings here at Brooklyn College. (A strike at CUNY has always, always, been a very distant possibility.) I remembered, all too well, the visceral, angry, poorly-directed backlash against them. But by then, I was a teacher myself, and had found out just what hard work it was (and the work of schoolteachers is orders of magnitude harder than that of university faculty), I had grown up, and understood a little more of the ecology of the university, its embedding in broader socio-economic-political realities. I had come to understand that if a teacher’s union went on strike, it represented a desperate, backs-to-the-wall measure of last resort.  Teachers would always find a way to keep coming to work, somehow, precisely because we knew students depended on us.   What they hoped for, more than anything else, was that those that paid their salaries, and controlled the destiny of students just as much, would participate in some, even if not all, of that concern. The burden of caring for the students rested on them too.

The reaction to the Chicago Teachers’ Union strike will be revealing: those that lazily trot out the ‘teachers need to get back to work’ line in preference to mounting any critique of the Chicago city administration will show, to me at least,  that facile scapegoating is still the easiest game in town.

One thought on “Blaming Unions: The Easiest Game in Town

  1. There’s always two sides to every story. (Which is why one cannot without exception defend either side.)

    Does anybody really say “their unions ALONE?” I haven’t heard that.

    A few things that cross my mind and I’ve been through.

    1. When you are defending a position that benefits you personally, and you’re emotional, it’s understandable, but by definition less objective. This is human nature, I do it, and you do it too, but it would be more impactful if someone that’s not a teacher was writing it. Obviously you’re not going to change your profession or stop writing, but some will see it as “talking your book.” That just goes with the territory.

    2. I’ve always felt that it starts at home, I’ve mentioned that to you, and I continue to believe that.

    3. I remember thinking about going into teaching, and decided to chase the money. I have to live with that decision, and you have to live with yours. Teaching has never been known to be lucrative.

    4. We’ve discussed job security. You’ve asked in prior posts, or maybe on facebook, something to the effect of “why are people so interested in firing?” or “why do people not take more vacation time?” Fundamental economics addresses both of these, and it is in NO WAY unique to teaching. The more flexible it is to fire, the more hiring that you’ll see. As I mentioned once, imagine that someone tells you that if you date a girl, once, you have to marry her, and it’s nearly impossible to divorce. Guess what? you’d have a lot less dating. This is simple economics.

    All of my inlaws, including my wife, were public school teachers or administrators. These are people that I love and respect. There needs to be some level of a meritocracy.

    I don’t presume to know what that meritocracy is, and how to evaluate teachers. And, to try to be entirely reasonable here, I would further say that nobody knows how to do that better than teachers. I have no interest in imposing an evaluation system on teachers, but I think that there has to be one. (As there is in virtually every other “unprotected” profession.)

    you see, I think that excellent teachers should be rewarded handsomely. There is nothing more important than education. In order to pay the best teachers extremely well, which I very much believe in, others can’t. It needs to be a steep curve, it needs to be a meritocracy.

    I know that it’s dififcult to implement such a system, but I think teachers would be best-suited to construct this imperfect system.

    What we’ve seen out of teacher’s unions is that they try to get rid of the teachers with the least seniority. What this does is prevent the system from changing the cost structure, the original problem.

    I would be the first to raise my hand to pay more taxes if it went directly to education, and I believed that there was a real meritocracy in place that rewarded good teachers and REMOVED BAD ONES. I think that a system designed by teachers would work best. This is not seniority.

    Here you have someone who wants the best for education and teachers. Here you have someone willing to pay more taxes for education. Here you have someone that wants to see our best teachers make a lot more.

    Here you have a reasonable person that wants reasonable issues addressed.


    When the only answer is seniority and protecting all teachers, not willing to lose the bad ones, not willing to propose a workable meritocracy, then, then you lose me. And that is too bad, it would be strategic to have folks that think like me on the side of the teachers.

    I don’t think that this is in any way unreasonable. Job security? I don’t have it, most people don’t have it, and I don’t believe in it. If one wants to keep their job, one should do that through their efforts, that exceed others on a relative basis.

    Do you agree with any of this? If you do, I’d love to see you be an activist in this vein. Go to your union….talk to them. come up with a meritocracy, a steep curve. Get ride of tenure, and find a way to fire bad teachers.

    My assumption is that you’re a great teacher. I hope that you are. While I think it would be foolish for anyone to go into teaching for the money (I often hear that people go into it for other reasons, but the strikes are about the money,) I would like to see you rewarded handsomely, for excellence. you’d get what you deserve, and other teachers could strive to be like you. They could aspire to be better.

    I love teachers. that is why I believe what I believe. If the unions keep pushing protection and seniority, there is going to be a lot of Wisconsin going forward. Read the tea leaves.

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