What good are teacher unions?
I joined the teachers union when I was a student teacher, though the union didn't make it easy. Hardly anyone knew that student teachers could join — albeit not as voting members — and in acquiring my first union membership card I got into the first of many conflicts I've had over the years with union leaders. I've always had a strong commitment to harness the power of teacher unionism to make schools and society better, and to help unions live up to their potential as defenders of teachers' rights, wages, professional commitments, and working conditions. But since I switched careers and became a teacher educator, I've struggled to find a way to help my students understand that they should "own" their unions, that the unions will be only as good as they make them.
It's an uphill battle to prompt a thoughtful discussion about teacher unions. One reason is that powerful interests in our society are opposed to the most basic premise of unions, the need for collective action. As a society we tend to stress individual effort and competition, explaining poverty or social inequality as results of individual effort or ability — or lack of them. Unions are based on a contradictory idea: To make progress, people must band together. At the workplace, that means we need to bargain with our employers collectively, rather than going in one by one to negotiate a salary or class size or sick days.
For my students, many of whom are the first in their families to attend college and are struggling financially to get their degrees, it may be disheartening to analyze the barriers society has placed in their path. They have a fierce desire to succeed, and it appears to me that they often find my criticisms of individualism discouraging. So in discussing teacher unions, I battle against an ideological tide that covers the media and popular opinion, as well as my students' beliefs that as individuals they can "make it." I'm the first to acknowledge that the unions themselves make it hard to persuade anyone that they are good for education.