By Tom Alves, SJTA Executive Director
Unions matter to this country. And teacher unions matter to public education. The panic that is piling up in Wisconsin and other Republican states over whether collective bargaining rights should exist is real. This is a concerted effort by political lackeys of powerful corporate interests (it’s easy to follow the money on this) to step on the throat of unions by framing the false message that collective bargaining is the culprit of the current economic woes. Corporate profiteers have created this diversion to take our eye off their own culpability for the 2008 crash and the subsequent greed of corporate leaders that profited from the federal bailout. The latest shiny ball-like distraction is that public sector pensions are the major cause of the current economic woes. This is manipulative messaging at its finest as it shifts one’s eye off the irresponsible behaviors of corporate leaders and drives a wedge between workers.
Practically speaking, white collar and public sector unionism is all that remains of a middle class movement that has fought to guarantee equity and fairness in the workplace for the past 100 years, that includes the forty-hour workweek, health care benefits, sick leave, safety requirements, and modest pensions. Only 12.3 percent of today’s workforce belongs to a union as opposed to nearly 35 percent in the 1950’s. This is not because workers don’t want unionized workplaces. As Philip Dine writes in his recent book, State of the Unions, polling reveals that 53 percent of non-union employees would belong to a union if they could. This loss is mostly due to manufacturing and production leaving the country — nearly three million jobs (mostly unionized) have been shipped overseas since 1998.
California will not escape this attack on collective bargaining rights. Ultra conservative forces are already planning to place an initiative on the 2012 ballot that will gut the collective bargaining law. Wealthy right-wingers and venture capitalists have targeted their deregulation attack on public education as they advocate for reforms that force school closures, more charters and takeovers by outside organizations, and overly simplistic and flawed assessment systems for accountability purposes.
All unions must begin to transform themselves before it is too late. They must develop a split-screen mentality, one that continues to nurture its current mission, which is ensuring the rights and protections of fair and democratic workplaces, and one that simultaneously pursues a path of invention and innovation for continuous improvement and more productive workplaces. The industrial model of unionism served its purpose when factories dominated the workplace. But times have changed and unionists need to redesign their vision, refocusing their energies on invention and creative solutions to the challenges ahead.
As a progressive teachers union, we recognize our traditional role of advocacy for our members as well as our transformative role in providing the support to improve student learning. Both are equally critical to the survival of public schools in this country. When we focus on the former and ignore the latter, public education suffers. Look back to 1999 in California when the business roundtables convinced politicians to hijack student assessment from the professionals in the form of the School Accountability Act. Annual test scores in the form of standardized norm referenced tests became the sole scorecard to judge the merit of our schools. As a result, we now know, this quick fix was an abject failure as the professionals’ judgment was undercut, the curriculum narrowed to straight-jacket approaches in language arts and math, creativity and critical thinking squeezed out, and most importantly, the passion and joy for learning that brings the best out of teachers and students began to disappear.
The major lesson to be learned from the NCLB experience is that we can’t be absent from the debate. The local knowledge, judgment, and skills of the professionals and practitioners and their inherent desire to reach students personally and impact their learning dramatically is still the foundation of a great public educational system. And unions must elevate and meld their members’ voices into revitalized broad-based movement. This will not only keep the balance of power that collective bargaining offers in place but can become the source that revitalizes the public schools to become the self-improving, innovative, and sustainable system our democracy deserves.