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Is This the Teachers Unions Alamo or a Chance for Resurgence?

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Democrats in the White House and Republicans in the state houses are challenging the collective bargaining and tenure rights of teachers unions. "Waiting for Superman" vilified unions as standing in the way of educational progress. Large foundations are pressing for fundamental change in how unions do business. Whether it's under the guise of education reform or an opportunistic power grab, life as union members know it may be changing forever. And union members seem to be going to the mattresses to save their long fought for rights. Is this intense pressure on teachers unions going to do nothing more than strengthen an already weakened movement?

Last week, United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) held elections for their new president. 17 percent of all eligible teachers voted. To provide some Los Angeles context, LAUSD has had its budget cut for three consecutive years -- with more on the horizon for this year. As many as 5,000 more teachers may receive lay-off notices this Spring. Thousands have received them in the last few years -- disproportionately impacting high poverty schools. LAUSD has also allowed new schools to be put up for bid and operated by charter schools without union teachers. The board of education is largely backed by the mayor, a former UTLA organizer and presently anti-UTLA force. With all of this, still only 17 percent of all eligible teachers voted -- with a business as usual candidate and current union VP topping all vote getters.

Is this an anomaly about Los Angeles? On the other side of the country, during the last United Federation of Teacher's presidential election in New York City, only 32 percent of all teachers voted -- more than half of the votes cast were from retired teachers. This percentage was up from 30 percent when Mike Mulgrew was initially voted into office in 2007. In Baltimore, less than 10 percent of teachers typically vote in union elections. Fewer than half voted to ratify a new contract several months ago which tied their salary to student achievement.

What can we learn from history? We can take a lesson from Wisconsin. In 2009, then Democratic Governor Jim Doyle signed a law requiring history teachers to provide students lessons in the history of the labor union movement. The Wisconsin Department of Education provided links to lesson ideas. One such example is below.

The Wisconsin Labor History Society recommends that, when teachers talk about labor unions and collective bargaining today, they use the following talking points:

1. Unions work closely in the community, are responsible for passage of key civil rights laws and other citizen protections.
2. Unions face greater employer challenges after President Reagan fired striking air traffic controllers in 1981.
3. Unions develop highly successful political efforts during last two decades of the 20th Century.
4. Organizing and aggressive political action became the top two priorities of the AFL-CIO with the election of John Sweeney as President in 1995.

The more pressure unions are put under and the higher up it comes from, the more entrenched, better organized, and politically savvy the unions become. All of this recent anti-union movement seems antithetical to the goal of these "reformers". If education reformers and lawmakers really wanted unions to disappear from the political landscape all they'd really need to do is continue to ignore them and slash their jobs - death by a thousand cuts.

Instead, anti-union forces are going for the kill shot. Backed into a corner, the union is coiling up and preparing to strike (literally and figuratively). I'm afraid what we're going to come away with are stronger and more entrenched unions as opposed to more progressive and truly reform minded ones where students come first. Having worked in both a UTLA school and a non-union charter school (with much more support from the charter community), I once thought I'd say I'm 100 percent behind the anti-union movement. In reality, both sides have now lost track and the students are the ones who are suffering. There is no magic bullet in education -- eradication of collective bargaining rights is not a means to improve education. Look to the South. Teachers don't have collective bargaining rights in those states and student achievement is no better off. However, teacher tenure and seniority is not the best way to determine salary increases, placement, and lay-off decisions either.

The battle between "education reformers" and unions has caused us to lose sight on who all this really impacts -- our students. We can shout all day "Students First!" but when adults fight it is rarely about kids -- and this is no exception. How do we get to a place where the first talking point from the Wisconsin Labor History Society is realized as opposed to where we are with points 2, 3, and 4?