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.


Things I Know 67 of 365: Hope’s waiting for Lefty

The labor movement was the principal force that transformed misery and despair into [Hope] and progress.

– Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

I’m having a difficult time reconciling some rhetoric.

Unions are big. They are bad. They stand in the way of progress.

They add to the burgeoning bureaucracy of America.

We will save the banks, but break the unions.

Workers, it seems, are not too big to fail.

In education, one of the most oft relied upon arguments against unions centers around teacher quality.

It is the unions, we are told, that stand in the way of removing ineffective teachers from the classroom.

The paperwork, the proof of corrective action, the negotiations, the documentation. We’re told it’s hardly worth it to go through the process to divest bad teachers from the classroom. I mean, all that work just to make sure students are receiving the highest quality education possible. Yeesh.

And yet.

In the course of 21 days, the district has removed from the classroom, held hearings on and recommended the termination of a teacher who gave transit tokens to her students.

I don’t understand.

A teacher loved and respected by her students and colleagues, with no failing test scores that can be traced to her, has been stripped of her classroom in under a month, and I’m led to believe it’s the union that stands in the way of clearing “bad” teachers from the classroom?

Sure, Union President Jerry Jordan promised to fight the termination every step of the way, but I hardly see this as the flexing of political muscle we’ve heard so much about.

Teachers unions are ridiculously powerful, right? I mean, they’re spooky, angry, unthinking powerhouses of collective might.

That’s what I read, hear and see on the news.


Unless the teacher hands out transit tokens.

Ignore students, stay in the classroom. Yell at students, stay in the classroom. Insult students, stay in the classroom. Fail to show up to school, stay in the classroom (if you ever get there).

In these things, the union can and will protect you.

Provide students with the means to participate in an authentic act of civil disobedience and a moment in which to use their still broken democratic voices and your voice and your will will be broken.

Give them tokens, and you will become one.

In the teachable moments, the union’s hands are tied.

So, don’t teach the students. Don’t teach the students, and you really give the union something to stand behind and fight.

I’m told the unions are the reason “bad” teachers aren’t fired. I’m told my union will protect me.

Someone’s lying.