Things I Know 211 of 365: Unions hold two sets of truths for me

The only sound approach to collective bargaining is to work out an agreement that clarifies the rights and responsibilities of the parties, establishes principles and operates to the advantage of all concerned.

– Charles E. Wilson

Earlier today, I was reading this Daily Kos column from Marie Corfield announcing and explaining her campaign for the New Jersey State Assembly.

I’m not sure what rock I was under when Corfield started making waves last September when she confronted Gov. Chris Christie.

Perhaps I was in my classroom teaching.

To get up to speed, I watched the video of Corfield and Gov. Christie’s exchange.

While I am still no fan of Gov. Christie’s rhetorical style, I did find part of his rhetoric interesting.

In response to Corfield, Gov. Christie says, “I have not lambasted the public school system in the state of New Jersey.” He takes a break there to chastise Corfield for her body language and later picks up, “My lambasting and my rhetoric is directed very clearly at one set of people, and that is the leaders of the teachers’ union in the state of New Jersey.”

It’s an interesting distinction.

I can see how Gov. Christie sees it.

“I’m not against New Jersey schools or teachers,” he seems to be saying, “I’m only against the heads of the teachers union.”

It almost sounds as though his explanation is expected to assuage Corfield’s worries.

Strangely, had he been speaking of the leaders of some of the Philadelphia teachers’ union, it might have come close to assuaging mine.

My first union meeting in Philadelphia felt like a bit of a repetitive kick in the groin of my idealism.

The union negotiates fair wages and equitable labor practices, secures health benefits and paves the road for the retirement or pension fund teachers work toward in exchange for salaries that continue to remain out of step with the services they provide.

In a profession where the easiest thing to do is lose yourself in what you give to your students, the union remained an anchor ensuring teachers didn’t lose the pieces that kept them housed, fed and healthy.

This was the image in my head.

The picture that unfolded in the meeting of thousands of teachers was one unmindful of the best possibilities of what it meant to be part of the union. The tone was adversarial and the words were devoid of the passion for teaching.

My feelings at the end of it all existed somewhere between the cliché about never wanting to see how sausage is made and Grocho Marx’s never wanting to join a club that would have him as a member.

I didn’t turn away from the union after that, though it likely sounds as though I would have. I didn’t even want to.

The truth of what I witnessed in the meeting was no greater than the truth behind the union securing a wage and pay scale long before I arrived in Philadelphia that made it economically feasible to move to and stay in the city. It was a truth no greater than the fact that the union worked to negotiate a sick bank so that district employees could invest their unused sick leave so that they or their colleagues were more secure should they be stricken with a chronic illness. It was a truth that couldn’t overshadow our ability as a site union chapter to govern ourselves in a way that allowed for the structure and schedule necessary for SLA to work best for students and teachers.

Both truths existed and still do.

And this is the piece that makes the specificity of Gov. Christie’s response mute in the ears of many teachers. While I’m certain many, if not all, teachers would denounce one local union head’s urging of member to pray for the governor’s death, when Gov. Christie lambasts the heads of the New Jersey teachers’ union, that’s not what members hear.

They hear the governor attacking those whom the teachers have elected to protect their salaries, the medical coverage of their families and the guarantee of fair working practices.

What’s more, rhetorically speaking, when Gov. Christie allows those with whom he disagrees to dictate his tone, he chooses a road that makes it all but impossible to hear him as a statesman.

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