Earlier this month, news about a US Supreme Court case Friedrichs v California Teachers Association raised concerns for progressives everywhere – and for good reason. As my colleague Dave Johnson writes, the case is about “making every state a ‘right-to-work’ state, and suppressing unions and wages.” So this case is another example of right wing conservatism siding with concentrated wealth and power to undercut the abilities of working people to organize and demand better wages and work conditions.
Others warn Friedrichs is another attempt to limit the collective voice of workers at a time when corporations continue to enjoy virtually limitless voice in the public sphere.
And numerous critics of Friedrichs point out the case’s legal underpinning has been orchestrated and funded primarily by the same right wing network – the Koch Brothers, the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, the John M. Olin Foundation, and others – that has been pressing a radical agenda for the country for at least the last 30-40 years.
But because Friedrichs started with a disagreement among teachers – the plaintiff is a teacher who feels she is unfairly having her income extracted from her paycheck by the union – some people who might normally support progressive causes have so far been less than vehement in voicing their concerns.
You often hear even left-leaning folks question the idea of teachers having a union. Since teachers are professionals, the argument goes, why do they need a union? Aren’t unions just for “workers” who punch a clock and are paid “wages”? Other sorts of professionals, such as doctors, they don’t have unions.
Actually, teachers need unions because of their profession. Let’s look at why that’s so.
Teachers Aren’t Doctors
First, comparing teachers to other professionals is inappropriate and not useful given the nature of teachers’ work. Take doctors, since so many people tend to draw that analogy most often.
As classroom teacher and popular blogger Peter Greene explains, “Education is not medicine.” Students are not people who have a sickness, injury, or other malady that has to be “cured.”
Also, while doctors’ work can often be compartmentalized in a number of discreet steps, – to sew up a wound, fix a broken bone, or prescribe an antibiotic to defend against bacteria – teachers’ jobs invariably involve multiple factors outside the teacher’s control. It’s really way hard, and takes many years, to teach a kid how to read.
And what teachers do is much more subject to the judgment of others, including students, their parents, even the whole community. The consternation that so frequently occurs when a teacher assigns a particularly controversial book or teaches a scientific theory that is not universally accepted is generally unheard of in the day-to-day work of the physician.
Why Teachers Need Unions
There are very good reasons why teachers formed unions. As Dana Goldstein explains, historically, teaching was a job for itinerant males who wanted a temporary way to earn money before they went on to higher paying white-color careers. Two hundred years ago, the vast majority of teachers in America were male.
When our nation determined schools should serve more than just the wealthy and privileged students who generally attended them – historically, we’ve reached near-universal access until relatively only recently – we needed to have a more ample and permanent workforce. But government and policy leaders heeding the call for universal access also determined the teaching workforce needed to be less costly. So that meant hiring more women.
As Goldstein recounts, “Most female teachers earned just half the salary of a male teacher, and their jobs were getting harder and harder each day. In turn of the century Chicago, classrooms housed 60 students, many of them new immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe who couldn’t speak English. Yet teacher pay had been frozen for 30 years.”
Back then, women couldn’t vote either, so organizing into a union became virtually the only way to have enough power to help create a teaching workforce with the capacity to uphold the promise of universal access to schools.
Of course, the work of teachers and the rights of women have changed a lot over the years. But that doesn’t make teachers unions an anachronism. Women in general, and teachers in particular, are still chronically underpaid and subject to exploitation by male-dominated management.
And although there’s constant rhetoric about paying teachers more and granting them more autonomy, those sentiments are always undermined by efforts to target better pay and work status only to those deemed to have “merit” – a legendary status we’ve yet to be able to validly and reliably identify and connect to better outcomes for students.
The fact is, if we want a relatively stable teaching force – and research shows high teacher turnover hurts all students – we have to pay them well and provide them positive work conditions. But while the general public tends to believe that universal access to public schools is important, they often are reluctant to part with the money to fund the education of students other than their own or their immediate neighbors. So given those circumstance, teachers unions will continue to be a necessary aspect of the education enterprise.
Teacher Voice Matters To All Of Us
Finally, the organizing capability unions provide is essential to the whole function of schooling. Public education is the most collaborative endeavor the nation undertakes, by far. But teachers, who are often so critical to the education effort, are often left out of the collaboration. There is a reason for this.
Many of the maladies that plague our society – the ravages of poverty and racial discrimination on children, parental abuse or neglect, the prevalence of malnutrition and poor health care among children – present themselves in public for the first time in a school classroom under the purview of a teacher. Teachers simply see things that are not only invisible to the general public, but also are inconvenient for the public to accept.
A teacher here or there speaking these inconvenient truths to the public can be easily ignored. Teachers speaking out en masse with the collective voice of a union behind them are harder to ignore.
So a month or so from now, when you hear about the court has decided to uphold the plaintiffs in the Friedrichs case, and not the teachers union, as many expect will happen, please understand the judges’ decision won’t just hurt teachers’ paychecks and their rights to organize and speak out. It will hurt our children’s education.