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.

Things I Know 53 of 365: The hypotheticals aren’t looking so good

Sixty kids in a class strikes me as a lot.

On average, I teach about 30 kids at a time. In moments when the controlled chaos gets to be a little out of control, 30 feels like it could be 60.

If 60 ever got out of control (wink, wink, nudge, nudge) I suppose that would start to feel like 120.

Last night, I was asked, “What do you think the GOP is thinking by decimating school budgets? I mean, do they really think that 60 kids in a class in Detroit will be anything other than civil war?”

I took the hypothetical bait and started playing out how I would teach in an chronically economically depressed inner-city school where the average class size was 60 students.

It didn’t take long.

In my hypotheticals (and I’m guessing in GOP lawmakers hypotheticals) I’m not in that classroom.

Education is the largest chunk of combined state and local budgets, and teachers are the largest chunk of that chunk.

If you want to save money, eliminate the teachers.

And if you want to back up your argument, trot out selected passages from Christensen, Johnson and Horn’s Disrupting Class. Not the whole book. Present only the pieces of their argument that sound like they back up your plan.

Cite budget deficits and slowly lay off the most junior of your teaching force. This will leave your most senior teachers with little patience and overflowing classrooms.

Some will stick it out, but many will decide things have gone too far and take an early retirement.

You won’t have to worry about much standing in the way of finding reasons to fire the hangers on as you already broke collective bargaining when you destroyed the last vestiges of a collective.

You’d think you’ve saddled yourself with an ugly mess at this point, but this is where the truly beautiful part comes in.

Again, you’ll have the benefit of bastardizing Christensen, Johnson and Horn.

For a fraction of a cost, say $25K each, you hire aides – half hall monitors, half data entry specialist – to oversee the computer labs with which you’ve outfitted your school buildings. Sixty kids to a room starts to sound like a low-ball estimate, so you start to schedule kids in shifts, using the computer rooms around the clock – constantly overseen by what we’ll label education accountants.

It looks like there’s a hole in the plan. All the capital outlay for those computers is going to set you back.

Don’t worry.

Some multi-billionaire benefactor will step in and his foundation will donate the proprietary technology to stock your learning centers.

It will be a happy coincidence the students in your learning centers develop an unquestioning brand loyalty to the corporation founded by your multi-billionaire benefactor in his previous life.

It will be another happy coincidence that the proprietary brand loyalty will quietly suffocate the open source movement that threatened the corporate donors who filled your re-election coffers.

So, you’ll have your closed system. You’ll eliminate your greatest cost, you’ll increase learning production, you’ll increase consumer production (the production of consumers), and you’ll find a place for most of the young people from your electorate.

Most of the young people.

See, what you will be creating is the “public option.”

You won’t be eliminating all teaching positions or schools. The private options will still exist.

You’ll send your kids there.

Your donors will send their kids there.

The best teachers from the old model (many of them likely the most seasoned) will fight tooth and nail to cling to the profession they love. They might disagree heartily with the new way of doing things. You don’t have to worry about that. They’re not a collective anymore, so their voices will be mere whispers on the wind.

So, your children and your donors’ children will be educated. The public option will fit the needs of your electorate. You’ll eliminate the majority of your budget deficit. And, all will be right with the world.

In the early days, you’ll hear grumblings from the disenfranchised about the morlocks and the eloi, but such hesitancy is to be expected in times of great innovation.