by J.C. Bowman
We are witnessing history unfold in Chicago. It is ironic that the first large scale teachers strike in the United States in over two decades takes place in Chicago, the home of the Father of Community Organizers, Saul Alinsky, and the current Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, not to mention President Barack Obama. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, a former chief of staff of President Obama, faces a tough challenge and now that he is on the other side of a militant union he must confront the same issues Governor Scott Walker faced in Wisconsin.
Clearly unions are still revered in Chicago. However, a protracted strike and/or labor battle will rigorously test the support of teachers and the teachers’ union. Conversely, the damage and the harm to the teaching profession and students cannot be denied or easily reversed. This strike, like any work stoppage at a public school, has not only halted schools from functioning normally; it is keeping students from learning. In addition, it causes emotional stress by disrupting the routines of many families—no doubt impacting many poor and single-parent families.
Our organization, Professional Educators of Tennessee, vehemently opposes strikes, which ultimately deprive children of their right to an education. Our priority is to support students by supporting educators. We understand intimately the difficult challenges teachers face daily, and against all odds most educators succeed because they refuse to fail. But we reject the premise that minority and low-income students cannot succeed, which somehow has been one of the messages conveyed by the union in this “unnecessary strike” as Mr. Emanuel called it. Even the liberal New York Times ran a scathing editorial calling this the “Chicago Teachers’ Folly.”
Since 1979, striking has been illegal for public school employees in Tennessee. This prohibition has enjoyed bipartisan support for many years in our state legislature. As a penalty for breaking this law, employees may be subject to dismissal and, further, shall forfeit their claim to tenure status, if they have attained tenure. Any professional employee who engaged in, or participated in, a strike and who is not a tenured teacher may also be subject to dismissal. Strikes, work stoppages and the threat thereof are detrimental to educators and the students we serve.
Where labor union leaders continue to cling to outdated labor laws in order to expand their power, militancy and radicalism soon follows. Unions are not well known for their ability to foster innovation, opportunity, and flexibility in the workplace. The battle is not so much a fight between ideas or differing points of view, but rather a clash for power and control. It is Labor Union versus Education, or what is in the best interest of the union versus what is in the best interest of education. The longer this or any strike goes on, the more damage will occur to the education profession and public support is further eroded for public education.
Does that mean there are not legitimate complaints or that management is always right? Of course not. Our organization has been critical of the overuse of test scores in evaluating teachers. In 2010, it was the teachers union in Tennessee that readily jumped on the Race to the Top bandwagon. Throughout the strike in Chicago, some grievances about pay, extending work days, strengthening the union and keeping a seniority system in place have been presented. However, very little has been heard from the union about how to improve the quality of education.
Unions wield incredible power, especially in states that are not “right to work” and force compulsory unionism and mandatory dues on workers. In fact their union power strong-arms elected officials into spending tax dollars in salary and benefits for people who are performing union work. By seemingly always underscoring the labor aspect and neglecting the educational aspect of the debate unions miss the bigger picture. The greatest obstacle in education may not be some of the obvious challenges, but rather government mandates and bureaucracy.
Keep in mind that labor union officials enjoy countless powers and protections that were created by legislatures and the courts. Union officials maintain that they have the confidence and support of rank-and-file teachers. Yet, they exert tremendous political effort in the government arena to acquire and increase their power and control. Recently, the Wall Street Journal reported that Big Labor spends about four times more on politics and lobbying than what was previously thought. This enables union officials to exercise enormous political clout, even though public sector union membership continues to steadily decline and dues continue to increase.
Why is the union not using such vast influence to fight for teachers against the impediments that have stifled educators’ ability to teach children such as updated textbooks, more supplies and materials? Instead of being focused on such items as divisive collective bargaining or binding arbitration, they should fight for increased collaboration, improved parental involvement and more reasonable evaluations. And by fighting for benefits for teachers they should never interrupt the education of public school children in the process. Striking may be the “Chicago way,” but in public education it should not be the “American way.”
J. C. Bowman is the Executive Director of Professional Educators of Tennessee.