I Don't Want to Weaken Teachers Unions, I Want Them to Use Their Strength for the Right Reasons

In a recent article, Mark Paige argues against the possible weakening of teachers unions due to the upcoming Supreme Court case concerning the constitutionality of mandatory union fees. Paige presents a useful synopsis of the focal point of the upcoming case, Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees:
In states that permit agency fees (there are about 20), a teacher may decline to be part of a union but must still pay those fees. If the Supreme Court rules that those agency fees are unconstitutional, and many teachers do not voluntarily pay, local unions will be deprived of resources needed to negotiate and enforce bargaining agreements.
The issue is fairly straightforward. Should teachers have to pay dues to unions they do not necessarily choose to join? And further, should teachers benefit from the collective bargaining agreements unions fight for while not being a contributing member of said union? It is not the merits of the case itself that interest me at the moment. Rather, it was a strange assertion of Paige’s later in the piece that caught my attention. According to Paige, when so-called "education reformers" criticize unions as impediments to improving our nation’s education, what they are really saying is “if union power were minimized and collective bargaining rights weakened or eliminated, school leaders would be able to enact sweeping changes that could disrupt public education’s status quo.” Paige is wrong. As someone who would likely be labeled an "education reformer," I don’t want a weaker union; I want a stronger ally.

The Fight My Union Wanted

In the spring of 2010, I had been a member of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (PFT) for one year and was wrapping up my first year of teaching in a high school in West Philadelphia. Word came down that our school, which had been among the lowest performing and most "persistently dangerous" schools in the city for years, had been selected to become a Renaissance School. As such, the school would be radically revamped. Every teacher at the school would receive a forced transfer, meaning that while they still retained a job within the School District of Philadelphia, they would have to reapply for their position if they wanted to stay at the school. So, what was among the strongest factors in a teacher’s application? Teaching effectiveness? Commitment to pedagogical practice or instructional development? Neither. Among the strongest factors in a teacher’s application was seniority. This means that teachers who had simply shown up to work, regardless of work quality, received preferential status. While this of course benefited teachers, or rather teachers who had been longtime, paying union members, it is questionable at best to argue that retaining teachers for their longevity, rather than their effectiveness, was in the best interest of students. But this was the fight my union wanted, the fight my union threw its money behind, and the fight my union won. And [pullquote position="left"]it was this fight that made me leave. I saw the youngest, most enthusiastic, least jaded teachers pushed out of the school while veteran teachers, some of whom were teachers of unparalleled skill and expertise while many were disillusioned and burned out, pushed to the front of the line, not because of merit, but tenure. That’s why I left.

The Action Plan

Little has changed in the last decade. Recently, the School District of Philadelphia released its Action Plan 3.0. It is a 59-page document that lays out an ambitious plan for achieving equity in our city’s public education system. The plan spells out funding initiatives to support students living in poverty, trauma informed and restorative practices to cultivate positive school climates, specific action steps to ensure autonomy for highly successful schools, steps to streamline central office spending, and specific interventions for lowest performing schools, including turnaround models facilitated by charter school networks with proven track records of success. The Action Plan, which is a basic declaration of goals that have yet to be met, is progressive, thoughtful, ambitious and aligned with research and best practices. It is precisely what our teachers union should support. But does it? Of course not. The PFT’s Caucus of Working Educators produced what can only be called a shamefully weak and flimsy response to the Action Plan—a whopping four bullet points, all of which inveigh against charter schools. That’s it. No mention of fighting for greater state or federal funding. No mention of trauma-informed practices. No mention of greater autonomy for high-performing schools. No mention of career readiness. No mention of schools as community centers. No mention of partnerships with the Community College of Philadelphia for dual-enrollment programs. No mention of investment in professional development for teachers. Nothing apart from hackneyed anti-charter diatribes. No student of mine would ever turn in such drivel. Getting back to Paige’s dire warning of the weakening of teachers unions, Paige worries that “without fees from some teachers, unions may lack the resources to ensure that contract negotiations and enforcement are robust and done well.” So, here’s one teacher’s response to Paige’s concern for a weakened union: If my local teachers union would rally itself to compose a response to the district’s action plan that took more than five minutes to write; if my union would finally work for students half as much as they work for their paying members; if my union would become partners in education rather than adversaries, then perhaps I would support their upcoming arguments before the Supreme Court. Until then, they're on their own.
Zachary Wright 
Zachary Wright is an assistant professor of practice at Relay Graduate School of Education, serving Philadelphia and Camden, and a communications activist at Education Post. Prior, he was the twelfth-grade world literature and Advanced Placement literature teacher at Mastery Charter School's Shoemaker Campus, where he taught students for eight years—including the school's first eight graduating ...

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