Although most of the new crop of self-described "reformers" have denied it, we've all suspected that union-busting is ultimately behind the scapegoating of teachers for turning America into a "nation at risk." But in case there was ever any doubt, New Jersey Governor, Chris Christie, former DC schools chancellor, Michelle Rhee and L.A. mayor and former union guy, Antonio Villaraigosa aren't mincing words about going after teachers unions.
There is no doubt that unionism in the U.S. has a checkered history including corruption, conservative politics, and dictatorial control by union bosses. However, democratic struggles within unions have also always been part of unionism. In fact in Chicago the democratic forces have recently been victorious. CORE (Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators), led by Karen Lewis, is now THE union in Chicago. United Teachers of Los Angeles, the current target of mayor Villaraigosa, also has a progressive recent history.
Moreover, because a mere 8 percent of private sector workers are unionized, we have no organized group in this country to push back on neo-liberal policies that have gutted the working and middle classes. While many of us are increasingly frustrated with Obama for caving to Republicans on tax breaks for the wealthy, the fact is that without an organized opposition to capitalism's systemic need to seek cheap labor, we are all left vulnerable. This opposition has traditionally been the role of unions, and continues to be so in some countries where they are defending previous working and middle class economic gains.
Teachers unions can also be frustrating. Highly bureaucratic, hierarchical and largely averse to innovation or taking courageous political stands on issues like mayoral control, they tend to place bread and butter issues above all else. However, make no mistake, without teachers unions, teachers' salaries and working conditions would plummet precipitously. If you have any doubt, ask meatpackers, or any other industry that hasn't been outsourced, what they earned in the more unionized 1960s and what they earn today. It is largely the stagnation of wages, coupled with the increased productivity and profits workers produced, that has resulted in so many new millionaires and billionaires. If the goal is to make teaching a more attractive career choice, busting teachers unions will have the opposite effect.
Here's a thought experiment: Education Management companies, like Edison, can't make much money on Education because it is so labor intensive. To make money managing schools, you have to bring down labor costs. In order to do so, you would have to have a narrow test-driven, scripted curriculum in which teachers could be replaced by paraprofessionals or young (cheap) teachers with limited preparation who are not interested in teaching as a career. This is a kind of proletarization of the teaching profession, in which teacher's craft and professional knowledge is broken down into separate parts so that a semi-skilled worker, trained only in classroom management, could implement it. Under such a system, corporate franchises could have, say, four low-wage paraprofessionals cover four elementary classrooms at each grade level, with a floating "master teacher" as coach. Profits would begin to roll in and shareholders would flock to buy education industry stocks. Oh, but wait, we already have such a system in place. The only fly in the ointment is the teachers unions.
So teachers unions must continue to defend teachers' wages, benefits, and pensions, but they will be vulnerable to attack if they allow themselves to be defined as roadblocks to innovation and protectors of bad teachers. Perhaps more ominous, many working class Americans who failed to protect their private sector unions are now turning on teachers, whom they view as overpaid and with fat pensions.
One approach that has begun to change the image of teachers unions is Peer-Assisted Review or PAR. It involves peer evaluation of teachers that addresses teacher induction and development as well as due process issues. The peer evaluator and teacher meet with a board made up of district administrators and union officials who ultimately decide on the outcome of the peer-evaluation. This system not only allows for a more collegial form of evaluation and support, but also involves both the district and the union in decisions about teacher quality. This system has also been shown to be more effective at identifying incompetent teachers and either making them better or moving them out of the system. More in depth information on PAR can be found in Jennifer Goldstein's book, Peer Review and Teacher Leadership: Linking Professionalism and Accountability, and on the Project on the Next Generation of Teachers.
Increasingly, we are seeing both republicans and "new" democrats going after teachers unions. We have got to be prepared to defend teachers unions, while also pressuring them to take courageous political positions and engage in collaborative practices like PAR that show they are willing to work with districts to get rid of bad teachers. They also need to reach out to their international allies, since Neo-liberalism is not just an American phenomenon. Lois Weiner's book, the Global Assault on Teaching, Teachers, and their unions: Stories for resistance, provides a good overview of what some progressive teachers' unions are doing in other countries. Now that Christie, Rhee, and Villaraigosa have made it politically popular (and opportunistic) to go after unions, we will see an avalanche of more explicit anti-union rhetoric and policies. How prepared (and willing) are we to defend teachers unions and to keep pushing them toward progressive change?