Teacher Voice

The Necessary Work of Teachers Unions Just Got a Lot Harder

By all accounts, it's about to be a lot harder for unions to do the work they do, starting tomorrow. There are smarter and better people than me who understand this problem better, and who have been working on solutions since Janus started rolling downhill towards us. Bless them. My experience is this: Often, people come to me with issues they are having in the buildings with bosses or whatever, and the first thing I find myself asking them is, "do you know your union steward?" I ask this because, time and time again, I have seen the strength of the union in any particular conflict as a huge determiner of how just the resolution will be. This is especially true in cases where staff is speaking up for students. It’s just easier to speak up when you know there is someone standing behind you, and it’s far easier for you to be shuffled away because you’re making it too easy for someone powerful to do bad work. I have gone back and forth with my own level of involvement in my union. I was the secretary of my local union for a good while, did contract negations and raised grievances from members. It wasn’t always a pleasant experience, but it always felt important. I worked with my state union on bringing in younger members earlier, and to make sure our newest members had places where they were heard. Now, I pay my dues on time and open more than half the emails I am sent. Part of this detachment has to do with some bad personal experiences with some uniony jerks, part from being busy with all the other stuff of teaching and part because the beauty and power of the union is that no one person among us needs to do all the lifting all the time. I have always believed the best version of our union was the one that included all of us. Too often, there is a small group of decision makers that get away with swinging the big hammer of "all our teachers." Too often, we have leaned too heavily on how easy it is to do too little. Too often our locals are places for petty attacks on one another, for that one teacher everyone knows isn’t good enough to hold their status as a union what-ever-whatever, and as a way to bully themselves into building power and extra protection. We’re not perfect. Even at this moment, it’s important we understand that. At this moment, it’s important we ask ourselves why our twice-yearly meetings aren’t full, why there are sometimes divisions between teacher-leaders and union-leaders. We need everyone to show up, so we’re going to need to figure out how to re-invite some dis-invited people. But also, this week I'll be going to the #EdJustice2018 conference held by the NEA, which is just one piece of a large amount of work our unions are doing to be inclusive and empowering of a diverse group of us. In even the relatively short time I’ve been teaching, I’ve seen local, state and national leadership begin to better reflect the diversity of teachers—sometimes even modeling how much more diverse our profession should be. Increasingly, our unions are fighting not just for us, not just for our students, but for a better version of the world we live in. They are standing up for Black lives, for immigrant families, for the LGBTQ community, for so many places and people who could desperately use the strength of our unified voices, our unions are stepping up. I'm disappointed the work unions do is about to get harder. I also have faith in our leaders and our members to hold our power together and keep pushing.
Tom Rademacher
Tom Rademacher (Mr. Rad to his students) is an English teacher in Minneapolis, Minnesota. In 2014 he was named Minnesota Teacher of the Year. He teaches writing and writes about teaching on his blog. His book, published by University of Minnesota Press, is called "IT WON’T BE EASY: An Exceedingly Honest (and Slightly Unprofessional) Love Letter to Teaching."

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