It is summer vacation and after many months of teaching, making supports and accommodations for my students, and writing IEPs (Individualized Educational Plans), I finally have time to watch a few movies from my favorite movie genre, documentaries. Here are a couple of documentaries that I've seen that have sparked some thoughts around unions.
After watching the PBS documentary, "Park Avenue: Wealth, Power, and the American Dream," (2012) by Academy Award director Alex Gibney and Robert Greenwald's Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Prices, it got me thinking about how important unions are. Both documentaries highlight how important unions are to the lower-middle class in preserving fair treatment, fair benefits, and fair pay. The union in New York for teachers, the United Federation of Teachers (UFT), ensures that we have proper health benefits, pension, and due process. The UFT argues on our behalf and makes sure we are neither taken advantage of nor accepting inappropriate pay, among other things. Our monthly salary in New York City, by the way, just breaks even with living expenses and does not really allow you to invest and save your money. So, in effect, we are scraping by. In any case, I feel lucky and grateful for my union; it helps ensure that I can teach to the best of my abilities, knowing that I will be a healthy and somewhat financially secure professional.
But, even mentioning "unions" can polarize people just like the mentioning of Teach for America can make two people feel like they are walking on egg shells, if one is for it and the other thinks its disastrous for education. A union is a force in and of itself that can lobby for its interest and protect its members from unwarranted abuses by employers and other agents. Left unchecked, though, it can also overextend its power. Many people remember the 2009 article in the New Yorker reporting about the Rubber Rooms in New York City where teachers were held indefinitely and paid according to their contract while their hearing was pending. The pay, I don't think, was the problem (although the time it took for the hearing to get to an independent arbitrator and the money wasted is a problem). The problem is with the logistics of how cases are handled in that these hearings become backlogged and no one addresses them in an efficient manner. It took between two to five years for a case to be heard by an independent arbitrator at the Department of Education. That timeline is unacceptable. If you are a perfectly competent teacher and you were unfairly fired because someone had an axe to grind with you, you should have a right to due process. Pay should not be suspended because it has not been proven that you are or are not competent. However, you should not be waiting around a room not doing your job while you wait for the hearing. The process was the problem and the process has since been revised for probationary teachers and others who get a discontinuance notice. The union and the Department of Education came to the decision together. It's good that there was discussion and eventual action regarding this issue. The discussions between the union and the DOE are like checks and balances, where one would hope both sides are open to listening and to self-edification.
These movies certainly made me think about how unions can be a powerful force for the good, but unions also need to be self-policing in making sure it does not overextend its power. So far, I think my union is doing a good job. With all the vitriol being written about unions and having a documentary lambasting teacher's unions, I think people need to understand that unions are not out for their own self-interest. They protect people in public service and protect their livelihood when they are doing their jobs. The narrative that unions protect "bad" teachers is so prolific that people forget the union's larger purposes. Also, in any occupation, there are lazy workers. Unions do not intentionally protect them just like how employers do not intentionally hire lazy workers. Unions follow measures and protocols such that there is due process. They do not knowingly protect "bad" workers upon knowing that there have been transgressions. On the contrary, they terminate them immediately if they know there have been transgressions.
The views expressed on these pages are mine alone and do not reflect those of institutions, organizations, or employers associated with me, past or present.