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An opposition movement, NewTLA, is emerging within United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA), the second largest teacher’s local in the U.S. In the article “Frustrated Los Angeles teachers now have a progressive voice” Mike Stryer argues that UTLA (and by implication most other teachers unions) is an antiquated organization stuck in the 1950s that needs to get over their obsession with seniority rights and contractual issues. He implies that these are somehow backwards objectives and that to truly be “progressive” UTLA needs to be at the forefront of “pushing through proven education reform.”
Stryer has a naïve understanding of “reform” and very little knowledge of labor history or even the reason to have a union. His new voice for teachers, contrary to being progressive, is a voice of reaction that promotes a collaboration with ed deformers that would set working conditions AND school quality back decades.
Workers and Bosses Have Nothing In Common
Let’s start with why we need unions and what their objectives should be. To really understand this, we need to go back to the preamble of the IWW constitution, which starts with the line, “The working class and the employing class have nothing in common.” This is to say that our interests at work and our social and economic interests are very different than those of the bosses. As workers, we need to always keep this in mind and collectively fight for what is best for us, and not get sidetracked by their false claims that it will harm students. While the point of a union is to fight for the interests of its members, these interests coincidentally are usually good for our students, too, contrary to the rants of anti-union pundits and politicians.
|Huck/Konopacki Labor Cartoons|
While administrators and teachers alike always say that they are for the kids, it is a gross exaggeration to say that we have the same interests. Administrators’ idea of what’s good for the kids is often based on abstract policies and “reforms” coming from politicians and billionaire investors who have no education background, or from education researchers who assert that their latest new “reform” is scientifically proven, an assertion that is rarely, if ever, accurate. It is virtually impossible to do a really well-controlled education study. Biases are rampant and data is easily spun to support one’s objectives. Furthermore, even if a reform does show promise, it is generally implemented without taking into account a serious cost-benefit analysis comparing how much students might benefit versus the costs in time, money and labor to implement them. Unlike teachers, none of these people work daily or intimately with our children and are the least credible individuals to determine what is best for our students.
Individually, workers have virtually no power against the bosses. Without a good contract and a union to back it up, the boss can fire you because of the color of your skin, because you criticized a policy, or for no reason at all. If Washington insists that we give NCLB tests, administrators are unlikely to refuse. But if teachers refuse, they can and likely will be disciplined or fired by their bosses for refusal to carry out their job duties, despite the fact the NCLB tests do not benefit our students or schools in any way. Indeed, they actually harm students by taking away instructional time from real learning, forcing teachers to teach to the test, and by adding more anxiety and stress to students. This is perhaps the most glaring example of teachers being compelled by their bosses to do something they know is not in the best interests of their students.
Our working and living conditions are directly linked to our contracts. The better the contract, the better our pay and benefits, and the less stressful the work environment. Without decent wages, benefits and working conditions, we cannot effectively do our jobs and our students consequently suffer. If our pay drops too low, we will find other work and schools will lose the most experienced and the best quality teachers. Bad working conditions have the same consequences, with the additional effect of deteriorating the classroom climate and denying teachers the supplies they need to do their jobs. Both harm our students. Thus, the contract has to be the main focus of our collective union activity, not only from a class perspective, but from a professional one as well.
In Injury to One is An Injury to All
While the contract must be one focus of union activity, I have to agree with Stryer that it should not be the only one. However, I disagree with him why.
|Huck/Konopacki Labor Cartoons|