As school systems across the state of Wisconsin cancel more classes -- the result of massive protests in Madison following Governor Scott Walker's effort to strip educators of the bulk of their collective bargaining rights -- I can't help but think of the old adage that two wrongs don't make a right.
The first wrong is how teacher unions have come to operate. Clearly, unions need to reinvent themselves if they want to remain viable in the 21st century, and old-school policies like "last in, first out" (LIFO) and the fact that in many places it's almost impossible to fire a bad teacher don't serve anyone's best interests. We can do better.
The second wrong, however, is to suggest that the answer will come from abolishing the right to collectively bargain altogether. This is not just a core American principle -- it's designated as a "fundamental right" in the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights. We would be wise to remember that an absence of this power led to some of the worst moments from our history -- take the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory disaster, which laid bare the need for more humane working conditions, or the exploitation of Chicano and Filipino farm workers, which was only mitigated thanks to the leadership of Cesar Chavez and the establishment of the National Farm Workers Association.
Understood in that light, thank god we have teacher unions that can generate sufficient power to slow the runaway train of new teacher evaluation policies (great idea) that, in some places, would tie more than half of a teacher's "quality" to student performance on test scores (horrible idea). And thank god we live in a country that recognizes the essential value of collective bargaining, as part and parcel of our country's commitment to liberty and justice for all.
The solutions we seek won't come by abolishing collective bargaining -- but by reinventing the role of unions, so that right starts getting applied in ways that best serve the interests of union members and the larger community. The solutions will come when we stop demonizing the teaching profession as a monolith of self-interested adults who don't care about children. And the solutions will come when we remember that, at our core, we are a nation founded on the revolutionary notion that the power rests in the hands of the governed, and not the government.
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