At the NEA Convention this year in D.C., I had a discussion with a teacher from another district about teacher perceptions of unions, especially the differences in perspective between new teachers and those of more experience. I definitely see a difference in my school and district.
When younger teachers ask about the union, they tend to ask how the union will get them more independent collaboration time and how the union will protect them against students and parents. The elder teachers seem to see more of an “us versus them” situation wanting to protect themselves from the administration.
My sense is that the more experienced teachers were entrenched for a long time fighting for better working conditions, higher pay, and job protections. The new, young crop of teachers have not had to experience this since most of what was fought for years ago are now the mainstays and basics of current teaching contracts. Much of the old battling is over, which makes me think this is part of the union’s problems.
I mentioned my concerns over some of the issues and stances discussed at the NEA Convention this year, and I’m starting to believe the union is a victim of its own success. Because so many of the major fights over basics are over, I got the sense that the union (primarily its assembly members) are searching for something to do. The NEA is a powerful organization with quite a bit of clout, but I don’t necessarily want the union to become a group searching for issues to defend or to fight. I still maintain that the union should be concerned fundamentally with working conditions, due process, and salaries rather than the Iraq War, disaster relief, and other such items.
I think the NEA should focus its efforts on medical benefits, retirement options (80/50 plans and the like), higher salaries, social programs for students and families, certification requirements, and the costs of education. These are issues directly related to teaching as a profession. Other issues do have an indirect effect (the cost of the Iraq War is an easy example) but also tend to help union opponents label the union as a Democrat’s haven or anti-American and other such names.
One of the teachers overhearing our discussion of unions and their members asked me why I thought unions supported more Democrats than Republicans. I think the answer is simple: Democratic candidates tend to agree with the union positions, the teachers’ needs more often, and less likely to support privitization. As an example, in my state the Republican candidate for governor balanced the budget on the backs of teachers (froze our cost of living adjustments for two years) and will not respond to education position questionnaires, so he is obviously not going to get the state union’s endorsement.
I also think local unions have an easier time escaping labeling simply because they are working directly with their constituencies and the results are immediately seen. Plus, the teachers involved in the union business are colleagues, the people teaching next door, the people in the neighboring office desk, and the people eating next to one another in the staff lounge.
What do you think?