Teachers need strong unions

Like many people, I’m sure, Washington Post writer Matt Miller is confused about, “where to come down on the question of who should ‘win”” in the struggle of public employees against attempts to strip them of collective bargaining rights and otherwise weaken them.

I know which side I’m on – the public employees and their unions.  But though highly sympathetic to the public employees cause, Matt Miller is not against the employees and their unions losing some of their powers and benefits – with one major exception: teachers.

Again, I make no exceptions. I think we should rally around the cause of all public employees. But though Miller doesn’t necessarily agree, he does make a strong argument for making special efforts in behalf of teachers. For “the future of the country depends on the public-sector workers known as teachers.”

I guess I should make a full disclosure here: I was formerly a member of the American Federation of Teachers and my wife Gerry is a current member. So I’m probably prejudiced. And should be.

Anyway, Miller makes a very strong case for paying close attention to the needs and demands of teachers. As he says, “We’ll never attract the kind of talented young people we need to the teaching profession unless it pays more than it does today.” With starting teachers pay averaging  $39,000 a year nationally and rising to a maximum of merely  $67,000, it’s no surprise to Miller that “we draw teachers from the bottom two-thirds of the college class. For schools in poor neighborhoods, teachers come largely from the bottom third.”

Adds Miller: “We’re the only leading nation that thinks it can stay a leading nation with a ‘strategy’ of recruiting mediocre students and praying that they’ll prove to be excellent teachers.”

Miller may not be an outright supporter of teacher unions, but he does point out that the highest performing school systems in the world all have strong teacher ones. He means the systems in countries such as Finland, Singapore and South Korea, where school administrators work closely with unions to continually improve their schools’ performances.

Stanford University’s Linda Darling-Hammond, a leading expert on the subject, says the highest performing countries have educational systems that are built around attracting, rigorously training and retraining top talent for teaching. The stress is on supporting good teachers – not on getting bad teachers out. That’s partly because there just aren’t that many bad teachers in those countries.

I agree with Matt Miller that what’s clearly needed is a national strategy to make teaching the career of choice for talented young people. Wisconsin’s math scores, for instance, put its students not only behind Korea, Finland and Taiwan, but behind Slovenia, Estonia and Lithuania. But, hey, they still outpace students in Latvia and Bulgaria . . . though barely.

As Miller notes, the only people who can change that, the only ones who can provide decent educations to Wisconsin’s children, are public employees, teachers – teachers, furthermore, who must be given a strong voice, a unionized voice in setting their pay, benefits and working conditions.

Teachers need the firm right to collective bargaining no less than Wisconsin’s other public employees, no less than the public employees of every other state.

Image from National Education Association-New Hampshire.


Dick Meister
Dick Meister

Dick Meister is a San Francisco-based writer who has covered labor and politics for a half-century as a reporter, editor, author and commentator. Contact him through his website, www.dickmeister.com.