Social and Cultural Foundations of American Education/Staffing Practices/Unions
|“||Our mission is to advocate for education professionals and to unite our members and the nation to fulfill the promise of public education to prepare every student to succeed in a diverse and interdependent world.||”|
—National Education Association
According to Merriam-Webster, labor unions are defined as organizations usually consisting of workers of the same trade that are formed for the purpose of advancing its members’ interests (as through collective bargaining) in respect to wages, benefits, and working conditions. Union formation has brought about many improvements in the labor system of the United States. They protect the rights of workers and the conditions of their employment. The teacher’s union is by far the largest organization of unionized workers. With over 3 million members, which account for 80% of all teachers, they are a powerful force. In contrast only 11% of the private sector is unionized.
Teachers in the 1800s were limited in their ability to communicate with other teachers. Fifteen states had formed education associations in hopes of improving teacher to teacher communication. In 1857, Thomas W. Valentine, president of the New York State Association, called together the other associations to join forces in Philadelphia and form the National Education Association. Over the next one hundred and fifty years, the NEA has worked to transform education and the teaching profession. The American Teachers Association (ATA) began in 1904 when teachers in black schools were encouraged by John Robert Edward Lee to form a national association. In 1916, in Chicago, their name changed to the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and they became a new national union and later an affiliate of the AFL-CIO. In 1947, these two organizations began the process of uniting to work on the improvement of the public education system and the teaching profession. After almost twenty years of negotiation, an agreement was forged and in 1966 these two powerful organizations merged (NEA website).
Early educators were treated with bias and discrimination.The women and blacks were paid far less than the white male in the same position.Hours were long and benefits poor. Establishment of the union led to improved working conditions for teachers.Their implementation has ensured proper salaries and benefits of employment.Teachers are strong supporters of their unions. A 2003 national survey of teachers by the Public Agenda Foundation showed that 87 percent of veteran teachers and 79 percent of new teachers feel a union is "absolutely essential" or "important".The same amount of veteran teachers agrees that "without collective bargaining, working conditions and salaries of teachers would be much worse"(Kaboolian,2006). Improving working conditions for teachers has benefited the educational system as a whole. By providing teachers with a voice, the unions are advocates for students as well. Who better than teachers, to know first hand the necessary improvements needed in the classroom and schools. Because of unionization and the collective bargaining process teachers are able to voice concerns about the education system that both the government and the school districts must listen to. Mandated collective bargaining legislation was formed with these basic intents:1) To create a harmonious and cooperative relationship between school corporations and their certified employees,2) To provide school employees the right to organize, and 3) To protect the public from any material interference with the normal educational process (Cochren, 1998).Union bargaining for lowering class size and teacher hours has benefited students everywhere. A breakthrough was made in 2000 when The Harvard Educational Review released a study (as cited in New York State United Teachers [NYSUT],2004)on the issue of unions. This study revealed a strong positive link between teachers unions and higher academic achievement. A team of researchers from Indiana University and the University of South Carolina in Columbia examined rates of teacher unionization in each state and compared them with interstate variation in SAT and ACT scores. Even they were surprised when it was concluded that students being taught by unionized teachers scored higher than their counterparts educated by non-unionized faculty.
Presence of such a strong union constituency has brought marked criticism.The advent of collective bargaining legislation came to public education 40 years ago.In 1975 there were 241 teacher strikes in the United States.That number has steadily declined over the years with 15 walk-outs reported in 2004.This decline is due in part to laws barring teachers from striking, mandating mediation or binding arbitration procedures (Hess & West, 2006).Yet many agree the decline is due to many school boards and superintendents inability to compete with the unions. Most school board members are volunteers working with the district in a part time capacity. Administrators, principals, and board members are often more interested in avoiding confrontation and disruption in education.Unions on the other hand provide a large range of services to bring to the bargaining table.The NEA’s UniServ system for example provides guidance to local affiliates on matters such as negotiations and grievance resolution.This nationwide network of 1,650 full-time and 200 part-time employees provided services amounting to $50 million in 2001(Hess & West, 2006).Many union opponents blame unions for the lack of accountability.Although most teachers are effective and dedicated professionals, there are some who should not be in a classroom. With the presence of strong union contracts,removal of a teacher for incompetence is rarely attempted.When it is necessary, the procedure is complex and lengthy. In many cases union contracts are written to allow for seniority to outweigh education.For example, in the Los Angeles Public Schools a strong union allows teachers to determine what they teach based on seniority rather than expertise in the field.A highly qualified teacher in a subject area may not be able to teach in that area because of their lack of seniority.Unfortunately, many principals have no say in department chairs or teachers for specific courses.In some governing councils, principals exist as a non-voting member and the union members make all the decisions (Ouchi, 2003).
The New Union
While it has been a rocky road between unions and administrators, steps are being taken to improve this relationship.In the late 1990's,former president of the NEA, Bob Chase, called for a “new unionism” in which he advocated a change in attitude in which union members that once saw the central office as an adversary can work in collaboration with administrators for the sake of school improvement. In 1996, a few union leaders formed the network known as Teacher Union Reform Network (TURN) to search for innovative ways to enhance education and involve the unions in bettering education. TURN co-founder Adam Urbanski describes his organization as “therapy” and a “safe environment for thinking out loud.”Many districts around the country are using ideas founded in TURN to develop teacher performance-pay plans and peer-review plans. Tom Blanford, associate director for education policy at the NEA states, “A lot of the locals that are participating in TURN are on the cutting edge of a lot of education reform issues and are really exploring ways in which the union can be a partner in promoting quality education.That is very valuable to us”(Honowar, 2006).
The formation of unions was a pivotal point in labor relations in all fields.Overall, the quality of education has improved largely due to the presence of union representation.Plans for resolution of difficulties between teachers and administrators are in place, and must be implemented,so the real goal of education can be achieved.After all, it is the goal of all parties involved to see that every child is provided with the best possible education.
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- American Federation Of Teachers website. Retrieved November 10, 2007. www.aft.org/index.htm
- Cochren, J. (1998) Teacher unions: a career educator’s perspective [Electronic version] Contemporary Education 69 pp.214-217.Retrieved September 18,2007 from WilsonWeb database
- Honowar, V. (2006, February) Union agitators[Electronic version] 25 pp.28-30. Retrieved September 15, 2007 from ERIC database.
- Hess,F.&West,M. (2006) Strike phobia [Electronic version] Education Next 6 pp. 38-48. Retrieved September 18,2007 from WilsonWeb database.
- Kaboolian, L. (2006) Table talk [Electronic version] Education Next 6 pp. 14-17. Retrieved September 18, 2007 from WilsonWeb database.
- Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of Law. Retrieved September 16, 2007 from Dictionary.com website: http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/laborunion
- National Education Association website. Retrieved September 6, 2007 on the World Wide Web: http://www.nea.org/index.html
- New York State United Teachers (2004). How unions benefit kids: new research dispels myths about unions. In Pro/Con Education (pg. 118-121). Danbury, Connecticut:Grolier
- Ouchi,W. (2003)Making schools work: A revolutionary plan to get your children the education they need. New York: Simon & Schuster