False Perceptions and the Future of Teachers Unions

My defense of teachers unions comes after a long period of ambivalence and maybe too late.

Two decades ago, teachers unions – or more precisely my misapprehensions about them – were the reason why I did not become a teacher. I took on an education double major in college for selfishly practical reasons. As an English major, I had a hard time picturing a career, and I liked school well enough as a student that I thought I could probably teach. But even as I took courses in education and did my pre-practicum and became increasingly immersed and interested in education issues and ideas, I remained stubbornly steadfast in another, seemingly incompatible conviction: I could be a teacher – I might even want to be a teacher – but I wouldn’t be a teacher, at least not right away. My rationale for resisting the allure of teaching was the result of distorted thinking. In short, I feared becoming beholden to the tenure system. Like a lot of 20-year-olds, I liked to imagine myself in any one of a number of possible futures and I was reluctant to foreclose on any of them. Depending on the day, I saw myself variously as a liberal arts academic or a public health advocate or a poet or an astronaut or a non-descript non-profit do-gooder. And I worried that being a teacher – and a tenured teacher, with its job security and pension – would make me too risk averse to pursue any of these other futures. I thought I owed it to myself (and my imagined students) to live my other futures first. It seems odd now, but I think then I saw my resistance as charitable.

I held stubbornly to my conviction not to teach even as I did my student teaching, which for me was a few sections of 11th and 12th grade English in a Boston public high school. Much to my apparent surprise, I loved it. I loved reading and re-reading and thinking deeply about books and ideas. I loved the creativity of lesson planning. I loved designing projects and reading student writing. I even grew to admire the attitude students gave me when they could see (invariably before I did) that a lesson was not working. But as my college classmates went on teaching interviews, I demurred and instead started looking for scarce jobs in the non-profit sector.

Rather quickly and not at all surprisingly, my path through the non-profit world led me back to education, and I have probably spent almost as much of the last 20 years in schools as I did during my first 20. Working with and learning from teachers has been joyful and eye-opening and deeply humbling, and I fully hope and expect that working with (and on behalf of) teachers will be my life’s work. And in the many years since the waning days of my undergraduate career, when I looked upon union protections with suspicion and as a trap to avoid, I have gradually come to appreciate what unions offer to teachers.

I am thinking about this now, because teachers unions – those institutions whose hard-won protections were intimidating enough to turn me away from teaching 20 years ago – are seemingly on the verge of being humbled themselves. The case argued before the Supreme Court this week – Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association – seems tailor made to defund and defang unions. The question before the Court is whether public sector unions, like teachers unions, can compel non-members to fund “non-political” collective bargaining activities from which they benefit. Existing precedent, which the Court is being asked to overturn, says that unions cannot compel members (or non-members in unionized workplaces) to fund overtly political speech but that they can levy so-called “agency fees” that fund collective bargaining work benefitting members and non-members alike.

The plaintiffs in Friedrichs – 10 teachers working in California schools – sued the CTA on free speech grounds, arguing that they were coerced into funding political speech they find objectionable. The union – joined by the state and federal government, as well as over 70 civil rights organizations – responded that collective bargaining is not political speech and furthermore that the benefits won through collective bargaining accrue to members and non-members alike, meaning those who do not pay the fees that make bargaining possible would be getting an unfair “free ride.” (Ben Spielberg, a former CTA member, also observed that members can opt out of paying for the union’s political activity).

The First Amendment framing of this case is savvy, because we have a collective fetish for free speech, an almost fanatical love for the freedom to say what we want and an abiding suspicion for anyone who would limit that freedom. In some ways, accusations that one’s free speech is under attack are akin to those made during the witch trials of long ago: to be taken seriously – gravely seriously – accusations do not need to have clear logic or demonstrated merit, they only need to be made. But in this case, free speech is not the issue. The free speech rights of the 10 teachers suing the CTA have not been abridged in the slightest. They can say or do whatever they like, and if they object to the CTA’s bargaining positions in contract negotiations they can – and I suspect they do – say so freely and vociferously.

But while I do not doubt that the plaintiffs have legitimate and reasonable objections to the union’s bargaining positions – some of which, like the seniority provisions and due process rights, were struck down in the contested 2013 Vergara decision – they nevertheless benefit from collective bargaining. They benefit from negotiations about wages and health insurance, about retirement contributions and paid sick leave, about professional development hours and tuition reimbursement, about class size and facilities. Incidentally due process rights also protect teachers’ actual right to free speech. (Take, for example, a New York City teacher fired for designing lessons about the “Central Park Five,” teenagers who were wrongly accused and convicted of rape, or a Boston-area teacher fired for using a profanity after school hours). Taken together, these issues impact not just their quality of life outside school, including financial security (or insecurity) for themselves and their families, but also the working conditions within school that enable their continued professional growth.

But even as I revel in all the good that unions do for individual members – and even as I rage against what I fear will be the Supreme Court’s decision – I also concede that teachers unions’ allegiance to members may sometimes hamper their collective service to the profession as a whole. The persistent bifurcation of districts into two intractable camps – “management” and “workers” – brings with it a popular perception that teachers are workers to be managed and not autonomous professionals deserving of respect and reasonable discretion. As evidence, one need only look at all of the laws and regulations aimed at managing (some might say micro-managing) teachers’ decision-making: what to teach, when to teach, how to teach. This is not to say that the mere presence of unions inhibits professionalization – Finland’s teachers are unionized and arguably some of the most well-regarded teachers in the world – but rather that the false image we (including my 20-year-old self) have constructed of unions may be imperceptibly but unmistakably eroding teachers’ chances at full professionalism.

In the end, I am somewhat sympathetic to the position of Dan Weisberg, CEO of the teacher development organization TNTP (whose report on PD I critiqued in a recent post). In a just world, he says, the union in the Friedrichs case should prevail, but in all likelihood – given the current makeup of the Supreme Court – they won’t. And so unions ought to reflect now on what role they have to play in relation to the teaching profession and individual teachers. Weisberg’s view is that if, as expected, the CTA loses, unions will not viably be able to serve both well. And if they have to choose one – collective bargaining for individual teachers or political advocacy for the profession as a whole – then it would be better long-term planning to choose the latter. By reinventing themselves as professional associations, like the American Medical Associations, Weisberg suggests that teachers unions “could put all their resources and political clout behind a long-term plan for elevating the teaching profession through higher pay, more rigorous performance standards, and better working conditions.” 

I would like to see a world in which unions can serve both their members and the profession. I think such balance would serve teachers and students well. Moreover, I think that many unions and union members wish the same thing, and I think that with time and some difficult internal conversations and sustained engagement on the part of members and non-members alike such a balanced transformation is possible. It’s a possible future that, like my 20-year-old self, I am stubbornly holding on to. I only fear that the Supreme Court will foreclose on it with their ruling in Friedrichs.