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Why teachers like me support unions

By Timothy Boyle on Mar 22, 2011 09:22 AM

Today is EduSolidarity Day. The idea behind this action is for teachers across the nation to answer the question “Why do teachers like me support unions?” Here is my answer.

I support unions because I believe in the legitimate power of the collective. Around the world we see people turn against hegemony. The tolerance for the omniscient, all powerful leadership is nil. Union membership affords me the ability to shape the decisions that affect the students I teach. There is space between what I believe and what others believe and mechanisms to bridge the differences. I see no signs saying it is one person’s way or the highway when I am at meetings. Instead, I participate in dialogue about what are the ways we can make positive change across the School District of Philadelphia.  

Being in a union means being greater than myself. We are better when we are together. I am a smarter, more effective teacher because of my peers. I can escape the sometimes crushing walls of my isolated classroom and go to my brethren for guidance, support, and critique. Whether it's going to professional development, linking with educators on Twitter and blogs, or attending workshops, I get better at what I do because of my interaction with other teachers.

I am in a union, not because I believe in the existence of pernicious management that is forever seeking to undermine me, but because kids need labor and management both to be on their side. As Gamal Sherif said in his guest blog on the Notebook, teacher working conditions are essentially student learning conditions. Providing a teacher with anything less than optimal working conditions makes no sense in light of the need for students to have optimal learning conditions. A true consensus cannot be formed about what great student learning environments look and feel like without the input of those on the ground.

I am a proud member of the Teacher Action Group and Philadelphia Federation of Teachers. I am proud because I know that we are fighting to improve the education of the students we teach.

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Comments (20)

Submitted by K.R. Luebbert (not verified) on March 22, 2011 11:17 am

I am also a proud member of both the PFT and TAG. We work together to make sure our students get what they need, and support each other to make sure we can do our job well in a sometimes difficult and challenging environment.

Submitted by Monica (not verified) on March 22, 2011 2:31 pm

Unions, as Chris Hedges points out in his latest book, "The Death of the Liberal Class", have a tradition of serving as one of society's stabilizing forces, mediating between the very powerful few and the less powerful many who labor at their behest. In the recent case of teacher Hope Moffett, the teachers' union was able to function as it was meant to do, helping to protect her right to free speech and her job against the flawed judgment of a few in power.

And, as Hedges prophetically and rivetingly tells us in the book, labor movements are under siege, along with other traditional outlets, by which society's grievances can be aired, examined and resolved in civil and peaceful ways. These outlets include, besides labor movements, the press, universities, liberal religious institutions and arts and culture in general.

Why are they under siege? Hedges says that the continuously growing excesses of corporate wealth and influence have corrupted all these important institutions and will continue to do so even more and that our civil democracy is in mortal peril because as a result.

What does it really mean when for-profit corporations are allowed to run "public" schools? What does it really mean when a few in power use a sledgehammer approach to try to silence any opposition to such plans?

What does it really mean? Read Hedges' book.

Submitted by Ron Whitehorne on March 22, 2011 4:46 pm

 Well said, Tim

Submitted by Che Che Bradbury (not verified) on March 22, 2011 5:42 pm

Wow! Nice work, Tim.

Submitted by Jonathan (not verified) on March 22, 2011 8:13 pm

"Being in a union means being greater than myself."

Sometimes the simplest ideas are the most powerful.


Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on March 23, 2011 7:34 pm

Unions are necessary as a buffer from the Corporate Money World who would make "regular" folks serfs if they could. Look at WalMart for example. People who are against Unions are either the very rich or the very stupid. Clear thinking persons understand how important Unions are in a Capitalistic Society.

Submitted by Taxpayer (not verified) on March 23, 2011 7:36 pm

“Despite what some among us would like to believe it is not because of our creative ideas. It is not because of the merit of our positions. It is not because we care about children and it is not because we have a vision of a great public school for every child. NEA and its affiliates are effective advocates because we have power.”

“And we have power because there are more than 3.2 million people who are willing to pay us hundreds of millions of dollars in dues each year, because they believe that we are the unions that can most effectively represent them, the unions that can protect their rights and advance their interests as education employees.”

-Bob Chanin (Former General Counsel, NEA)

Laughable. You are in a union so you can strong arm corrupt politicians to get higher pay and benefits for yourself. That's it. Nothing else.

Submitted by Frank Murphy on March 23, 2011 10:20 pm

 Here is a link that provides a detailed description of the group that is responsible for the commercial cited by anonymous as proof of his/her negative claim regarding teacher unions.

 Here is the link to the full speech of NEA General Council, Bob Chanin. It is lengthy (25:32) 

 The commercial funded by Crossroads GPS uses a 25 second excerpt from Mr. Chanin’s speech.  It is easy to misinterpret his remarks in this limited context.  

View the full speech starting around 15:40 and you will draw an entirely different conclusion than the one presented in the partisan ad cited by this poster.


Submitted by Pete (not verified) on March 23, 2011 8:14 pm


Consider the following statement that you made in your post:

"I can escape the sometimes crushing walls of my isolated classroom and go to my brethren for guidance, support, and critique. Whether it's going to professional development, linking with educators on Twitter and blogs, or attending workshops, I get better at what I do because of my interaction with other teachers."

I am not in a union nor am I a teacher. However, I also can give and receive guidance, support and critiques from by peers. We share ideas and promote one another without the presence of a union.

I imagine you and your coworkers would still interact and help one another if you were not unionized. If not, they certainly are not acting in the best interests of the school or the students.

Submitted by Timothy Boyle on March 24, 2011 3:40 pm

 I completely agree that a unionized workforce is not the only type of workforce that collaborates. I think that unions lend themselves very well to collaborate decision making, be that in school policy or classroom instructional techniques. I just wanted to present my experience of working with members of TAG, PFT, and CASA.

What I find frustrating is why so many people, I don't want to just single you out Pete, go to the best interests of students line so quickly. To suggest that teachers only collaborate because of the membership in a union is a wide-net statement certain to label people inappropriately . Some teachers do adhere very strictly to their Collective Bargaining Agreement, others are more flexible. To my knowledge however, CBAs are legally binding contracts. Why non-educators get upset by workers following a negotiated contract, like any other worker or entity does, really is beyond me. I think most teachers make the choices they do at work because they think it is the right thing to do, not because it follows correct procedures.

I understand and agree with the position that non-union workplaces can share many of the positive attributes as union workplaces. What I do not understand or agree with is that because desirable conditions or attitudes exist outside of the union environment that unions are unnecessary at best or that their members are against children at worst. 

Submitted by Philly Parent and Teacher (not verified) on March 24, 2011 6:16 pm

Thanks for your response, Timothy. I appreciate having a contract because, without it, there would be too many administrators running crazy over staff. Even with a contract, some administrators abuse it.

That said, I don't have much faith in the PFT - it is a weak, reactive (rather than proactive) and too much of an insider organization. The staff are entrenched and as disconnected from the classroom as many at 440 N. Broad.

Teacher collaboration obviously doesn't require a union - my most important collaboration with colleagues has nothing to do with the PFT. While some colleagues go well beyond to support students, I get tired of some "die hard" union members who focus on what a principal can't make us do rather than what we can do.

That said, I would not want to work in a non-union school because I am too leery of administrators.

Submitted by Parent (not verified) on March 29, 2011 1:04 pm

With all this said I do have to state my only point. There is to much concentration on the political factor of Union contracts and not enough concentration on the future of our country, which lies with this said generation of kids. If we don' t take a good look at what is really going on with our kids/public schools. We must put forth an effort to set aside any and all can do's, cannot do's or will not do or don' t have to do and just do our jobs; if not then I must say we are in for a horrific disaster. If the concentration in school by teachers is solely set by what your contract requires that you must do and don' t have to then I feel as a public school parent nothing gets resolved, and our kids future becomes dim.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on March 23, 2011 11:58 pm

NJEA members stage a "Grade-In" at the Deptford Mall. Click the link below to learn what NJEA members are doing to inform the public about the hard work teachers do each and every day.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on April 3, 2011 9:49 am

What a fantastic idea! Good for you NJEA teachers!!!

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on April 28, 2011 6:20 pm

I also was gung ho union until the union didn't back me up. They didn't show up at my "investigatory conference," and once I got a 204 form (after what I realized was undue process), they didn't come to my follow up meeting either. They were not there at all. I don't know if this is typical or just this particular staff person, but I was left out flapping in the wind for myself. If this is typical, then this sort of thing needs to be discussed and understood b/c it is NOT what a union was supposed to do.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on April 28, 2011 8:20 pm

Doing nothing, but urging members to "wear a red shirt" is about the extent of the PFT's defense strategy for administrative harassment. I had to fight to come back to work a few years ago because I insisted my injury was work related (the doctor who examined me told me to quit the job as I was at), but hadn't file for workman's comp. The school district wouldn't let me return to work until I dropped the claim that my injury was workrelated. The PFT made excuses as to why they couldn't do anything to help. The union reps have been out of the classrooms for so long they have no idea of the crap we are having to deal with daily. They really are only concerned with preserving their jobs long enough to eventually retired without ever having to return the classroom.

Submitted by Gamal Sherif on October 8, 2011 5:53 am

I've met many open-minded and hard-working representatives within the PFT. This union, as part of the AFT that was founded in 1916, is essential for the long-term enrichment of a democratic and equitable public education.

But I wonder what it would be like if we re-imagined union representation.

For example, what if the PFT created "fellowships" for each school so that 1/2 of a teacher's contract was dedicated to research and advocacy? These PFT Fellows would have one foot firmly planted in the classroom and another foot in the union. Teachers who have the time and resources to develop their school-based leadership could enrich the union's capacity while helping colleagues become more influential. Teachers are the experts in the room whom are too often marginalized from policy decisions.

Not only would the PFT Fellowship distribute knowledge of the labor, professional and social justice frameworks within schools and the district, but there would be a stronger, classroom-based network of teacher leaders who could cultivate effective working conditions, co-represent colleagues, advance the profession, and advocate for public education.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on January 30, 2012 1:54 am

sounds like an interesting idea.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on January 30, 2012 1:32 am

thanks for sharing-- I know that I'm not alone in my experience, but it's good to read another fellow teacher's account.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on January 30, 2012 1:53 am

I'm pro-union but the PSD teacher's union didn't work for me when I needed support and I had to leave the school district. I was very disappointed with the union. One of the reasons I had originally decided to teach at PSD instead of a charter was because of union support-- which in the end I DID NOT GET.

It's important to be realistic and open-eyed about the teacher's union. Tim-- your support is inspired by the positive vision of the union -- that is great. However, it is important to be open-eyed about what the union is actually doing and what it is. Closing one's eyes to problems within the union is dangerous for union members. We need a union that truly works for its members. How to achieve that -- I don't know, but I do know we need to recognize the problems in the union.

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