If our public educators suffer from significant misrepresentation in public forums and are often misunderstood by the general public, their unions are even more maligned. Sayings like "I like my teacher, but hate their union" and "If you can read thank a teacher. If you can't thank a teacher's union" appear on bumper stickers. At the same time the message delivered by education "reformers" and anti-educator advocates clearly attempt to pin the blame for problems like the Achievement Gaps and school district budget woes on the shoulders of educator unions.
What anti-educator union activists and school "reformers" have done is confuse the public and create the idea that educators and their unions are completely separate entities. The fact is that educator unions are made up of educators and to attack the labor organizations that represent educators is equivalent to attacking the educators themselves. The anti-union forces have been somewhat reluctant to directly attack educators, but have not shied away from attacking the unions that educators belong to.
The image of unions as standing in the way of progress, protecting incompetent educators and crippling school district budgets while intimidating and dominating local politicians is one that doesn't match the reality of present day Wisconsin. A present where unions have seen their ability to negotiate and represent membership decimated. It doesn't even come close to the reality of Wisconsin in pre-Act 10 days. Times when the QEO was passed, school budgets were slashed and the effects of NCLB and RttT were beginning to be felt.
Even though the reality doesn't match the fictional imagery of the anti-union movement, the public has had a hard time discerning the difference between the two. This is in part due to the masterful rhetoric of the Right as it works to undermine Worker's Rights in all sectors and industries. It is also a result of the economic struggles and the ability of conservative politicians to "divide and conquer" the working and middle classes. These efforts have put unions on the defensive and set the tone for debates in public forums.
At the same time, unions haven't done a good job of representing themselves and challenging the rhetoric of the conservatives with a positive and aggressive message of their own. Public employee unions, and public educator unions specifically, have done great things in representing their members. When it comes to communicating with the public they have been much less effective. In some ways they have relied on the good will and general support of the public based on the belief that there is support for the efforts of public employees. As the recent conservative political leadership has demonstrated, this assumption is a false one. There are many powerful conservatives who don't value public services, and who seek to dismantle and privatize them. We clearly can't assume the support of those in power when it comes to public education.
Even among those who support our public schools, there is some question as to whether collective bargaining is necessary and whether public educator unions are a positive feature in the landscape of public education. As educators we need to be ready to articulate our reasons for continuing to belong to, and support our unions. The reasons that public educators need unions are many, but our message isn't reaching the majority of citizens. In fact, the importance of unions is sometimes lost on the members themselves.
What is it that makes a union so valuable to our public educators (and to society as a whole)?
The most obvious reason is the continuing decline in worker's wages and benefits, workplace safety and ever increasing workloads and workdays that is occurring in workplaces around the nation. Without public educator unions we will see this decline accelerate exponentially under new rules that put all decision making power in the hands of administrators and school boards. We've already seen this begin as school districts move to handbooks instead of contracts across Wisconsin. Here in Madison we are fortunate to still be under contract, and need to use this to our advantage and press the issues that educators value.
A union's primary purpose is to promote the "general welfare" of its membership. However, by doing so, unions also raise the conditions of all workers. This has been demonstrated clearly through our history. As union membership and activism rises we see noticeable gains for all workers.
Unions provide an organizational structure for educators to access in order to defend their profession and promote public education. The massive protests and subsequent recall process couldn't have happened without the organizing efforts of unions. These political actions brought many issues to light here in Wisconsin that wouldn't have been noticed by the general public otherwise. In a democracy, accurate information is vital, and unions have been actively filling an informational void on important issues.
Union representation and collectively bargained contracts give educators a voice in the decision making processes around not only contractual issues, but also policy and other topics. We are facing "reforms" that are being forced on educators from outside our profession and that frequently have questionable educational merit. As public educators we have an obligation to speak against injustice and unethical actions promoted by these "reformers". We know the reality of our schools and our students on a personal and professional level. Too often we see "reform" efforts that impact our poorest and most disenfranchised students. Unions have become a voice for members of the community as well.
With all of the recent turmoil in Wisconsin and the constant attacks on unions, we have seen many of the responses be defensive in nature. These responses also tend to emphasize the potential, or actual negatives that come from losing union representation. In short, we are operating out of fear and clinging to what remains of our collective bargaining rights. While the present situation clearly is dire when it comes to issues around worker's rights and social justice, the message of impending doom isn't one that promotes optimism, or activism among supporters of public education and public educators.
By responding to the attacks and attempting to defend our values we allow the debate to be shaped by those who assail us. Our arguments have less credibility with the general public when we are defensive. Instead of touting the positives of public schools, people see headlines like this one. Casual readers don't see much more than a headline that reinforces their beliefs that schools are failing.
Many of the articles in this post feature actions from Chicago or Milwaukee. Two communities that have significant differences from Madison. One could argue that we aren't closing schools in Madison. We don't currently have voucher schools here either. Yet, there are common themes and clear connections between what is happening in larger cities around us and what we see beginning to happen in Madison. Education debates and education "reform" are based on similar issues no matter what community they occur in.
In the end "community" becomes a key component in our efforts to preserve public education. No matter what your political persuasion, philosophy or beliefs every citizen is part of a larger whole. In order for individuals to succeed, they must have a strong community around them. The current conservative movement is based on individual rights and self interests. Unions represent a different view of what society can, and should, be. A collective effort that raises all members of society to greater heights. That is a message that union members need to share. We are all in this together. Public educator unions are one voice, a voice that is necessary and that should never be silenced.