A Ruling In Favor Of Friedrichs Will Hurt Education

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 … Continue reading “A Ruling In Favor Of Friedrichs Will Hurt Education”

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.

Teachers, with their unions, have been the driving force lifting the curtain that hides chronic societal problems in Chicago, Seattle, and other communities.

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.



8 thoughts on “A Ruling In Favor Of Friedrichs Will Hurt Education”

  1. So making teaching even less attractive to intelligent college graduates will improve educational outcomes? And the claim by one of the plaintiffs that he will be better off negotiating his own contract is ridiculous. What large school district will be willing to negotiate separate contracts for each teacher. They have neither the resources or the interest in doing this.

  2. Doctors and most professions have unions. They just call them associations. Big business has unions, Chamber of Commerce and many others. CPA’s have a union, AICPA. Doctors have unions, AMA among others. Pilots have unions. Engineers have unions. In America everyone needs a union, most of all those who are told they don’t need one!

  3. The author did very well, for a short article.

    Some thoughts for consideration:
    . A “career” is a term to hide the fact that the worker is working in that job. “Professional” is another term to mislead. It’s just another term used to underpay workers. When your workplace, times and behavior is significantly controlled by your boss, you are the worker.
    . Workers, united, can have a say in the total workplace. Individually, each is only able to bet.
    Too many working as teachers don’t “get it.”
    . Those who hold unfavorable views of “unions” are not people who we should allow control of our children in the classroom or as administrators of schools. They rule by domination and don’t foster improvement of the children’s social skills.

  4. Good article.
    It is important to understand that SOME of those JUDGES on the SC were chosen to be there because they are members of the MONEY WORSHIPING CULT, and have NO IDEA what it’s like to be down here with the rest of U.S.. NOW is the time to take that POWER AWAY FROM THE 1% and the only way to do that is NOT ALLOW another GOP in to the WHITE HOUSE. Some people do not understand that the SC as it stands is the POLITICAL FLUX CAPACITOR (FROM THE MOVIE “BACK TO THE FUTURE”) and is intended to take U.S. back to the 80’s, that’s the 1880’s, the time when voting wights were minimal ROBBER BARONS and CORRUPTION ruled the land. Some people have a difficult time grasping how bad the living conditions were back during the 1880’s. but the more power that they allow the BOUGHT AND WELL PAID FOR politicians have the closer we get to living in those, and worse conditions.

  5. Another problem for teachers (or professors) at the undergraduate or graduate levels is that of working as part-time or adjunct employees. In this status, which is growing monthly, there are no fringe benefits and no guarantees of salary or cost of living increases in wages.
    I worked at the same graduate school (at a distance) for 20 years for the same salary which was basd on how many students I taught. The fewer students I had (which was determined by the ever growing administration), the less I made. I calculated that I was being paid about $5 per hour for working with advanced graduate students and on doctoral committees.
    A union might have helped, but no one even mentioned that possibility. I finally resigned after 20 years, as I was not being assigned any students since the word got around that I was too demanding for those new students that the school was recruiting. The less demanding adjuncts and some of the full time faculty were doing most of the teaching.

  6. If you want better learning, let me tell you what to do,
    You’ve got to talk to the teachers in the school with you.
    You’ve got to build a teacher’s union, got to make it strong.
    If you all stick together then it won’t be long.
    Better teachers, more learning, happier students, yeah.

    Now conservative believers may persuade some poor damn fool
    To challenge the union, to say it isn’t cool.
    But you can always figure out who’s on the wrong track,
    They’ve got the right wing radicals behind their back.
    The Koch Brothers, Americans for Prosperity, the John Birch Society, yeah.

    So teachers of America, please listen to me,
    Stand together united and you will surely see,
    That the Board of Education will ultimately find
    Working together will improve a child’s mind.
    Classrooms would be lonesome without a teacher present. Yeah.

  7. I believe that relatively unfettered unions are necessarily a part of free enterprise and capitalism. Overly-restrictive legal limitations of unions (AND overly-restrictive legal limitations of cooperatives) effectively circumvent the very core principles of free enterprise and capitalism. In free enterprise and capitalism, and INDIVIDUAL can arrange business transactions and business relations to enable personal gain. The same can be said for MULTIPLE INDIVIDUALS. Here, the INDIVIDUAL or MULTIPLE INDIVIDUALS can
    (i) innovate and benefit from it by creating NEW products or services
    (ii) innovate and benefit from it by learning how to more efficiently product products or services
    (iii) work harder and longer, and get paid more because they have produced higher volumes of products and services,
    (iv) influence the market for their products, services and inputs (materials and labor) … For example, by increasing demand via marketing, by reducing the supply, by increasing demand via reducing the supply of alternative products and services, by changing the legal framework or rules of the market, by using alternative inputs, …

    In free enterprise and capitalism, an individual or group of individuals can purchase technology from a competitor, they can outright purchase a competitor, they can choose to cooperate with a competitor on any or all projects, they can advertise to highlight their competitive advantages over competitors. They can also approach the competitors’ clients and/or suppliers directly as a means of competition. Similarly, it is NECESSARILY logical that groups of individuals, who seek to sell their expertise and services, can cooperate and effectively change the market for THEIR services by forming a union. Just as an individual entrepreneur, or a partnership, or a corporation can seek to increase the prices and perceived values of their products, so too can a union of individuals seek to increase the wages and perceived values of their labor and services. This is fundamental to free enterprise and capitalism.

    Unions can be formed by individuals from any profession … Unions for doctors, airline pilots, parking attendants, lawyers, etc. are all equally “valid.” Unions are a natural response to egregious behavior on the part of corporate America. They are also a completely natural response to groups of individuals who understand the concepts of free enterprise and capitalism.

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