THE BLOG
03/15/2011 04:40 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Confession of a Former Union Hater

It's time for a confession. I used to be an unabashed "union hater". When I worked in the private sector, I didn't see the purpose or need for any unions, much less a public employees union. I wasn't part of a union and I did fine. I worked hard and things worked out great. If they didn't, I could take my talents elsewhere.

I saw the union as an antiquated institution that mainly focused on self-preservation. My perceptions were largely shaped by what I saw in the media. Employee unions inhibited productivity and seemed to have the mentality of union first, everything else second.

A funny thing happened after I became a teacher.

After accepting my first job, I begrudgingly joined the union (I liked the legal protection I got with my membership). Beyond that, I didn't feel the teachers' association did anything of importance for the average teacher.

I just wanted to educate students. As I quickly found out, most teachers share the same desire. We just want to teach. We want to have the tools to do our jobs and to be treated with respect. That's it. A transformation began to take place as I learned how the dynamics of our educational system worked. I realized my perceptions about unions were incorrect and I was wrong!

Teachers need a voice and the only way to attain one is to organize collectively. It became apparent to me that it is not only important, but vital, for educators to have the ability to organize and bargain collectively. The bottom line is that without these, teachers are powerless to affect change. They are at the complete mercy of their employer. In any relationship, when one person/group holds all the power, it opens the door to unfair treatment. Any healthy relationship, or institution, needs a balance of power.

One way to define power is the ability to affect change. If a person or group has power, they can alter a situation. If they are powerless, they are at the mercy of others who hold the power. Individually, teachers have little or no power to affect change. We are not able to affect change in our personal employment situations, nor do we have adequate input into decisions that relate to educating our students.

As I mentioned earlier, I had the ultimate power when it comes to employment in the private sector: I could change employers. I was not at the complete mercy of my employer. This balance of power ensured that I was treated fairly and equitably.

Teachers do not have this ultimate power when it comes to employment. They can't take their talents elsewhere. Like many people, I was not aware of this reality until I became an educator. Let me explain by sharing my story: I have been teaching for 11 years. If I were to switch districts, I would most likely be started at year five of the pay scale. In other words, I would have to take a significant pay cut to switch districts. Financially, it is impossible and irresponsible for me to change districts due to the impact it would have on my family. I am, in all reality, locked into my current situation. Thus, I am at the mercy of my employer.

There are no checks and balances without a teachers union. We are at the complete mercy of our administrators without a union. This is not necessarily bad, but if you have leadership that focuses on administrative priorities and not classrooms, not only do the teachers suffer, the students do as well. I have experienced this firsthand and, unfortunately, my experience is not unique.

Several years ago, some of the administrators where I worked were feasting while everyone else was fasting. They gave themselves double digit pay increases and created a new assistant superintendent position. At the same time, we were in the midst of cuts to the librarians, nurses and classroom budgets. In addition, the teachers were told the district could only afford a tiny portion of the COLA the state had provided to our district. The only voice we had was the result of our ability to act collectively.

That brings us to today. The events in Wisconsin extend far beyond finances -- they're a poorly disguised attempt to break the teachers' union. My prediction is that this is only the beginning. If this is only about fiscal responsibility, as Scott Walker contends, why isn't he including other public employee groups? If the recent law he signed applied to all the public employee unions, it would have more credibility. If it saves money with one group of public employees, why not extend it to all public employee groups? Wouldn't the state save millions more? The answer is simple: Scott Walker is going after the teachers' union. I believe we must live within our means, but educators shouldn't be singled out as the sole cause of the problem.

While I find myself disagreeing often with what I see the union doing on a macro level, the union is essential in providing a balance of power on the micro level to teachers and employees who want to be treated fairly and have input into decisions that affect not only them, but their students as well.

There is a glaring need to attract and retain talented, creative, passionate teachers to the profession (even Spike Lee spoke of this recently). If teachers are powerless, this is going to have the opposite effect. Either people will not pursue a career in education or they will leave after a few years, when they realize they have little or no power to affect employment and/or work conditions.

It is time to focus on all the factors that are involved with fiscal and education reform, not just the teachers and their union.

Lastly, if you took away all the collective bargaining rights and tenure of every teacher in our country, we would still have education problems. (We would just have these problems with less qualified and lower paid teachers). Until we look at all the factors (including teacher issues), lasting educational improvement will continue to elude our nation.