Don’t Eliminate Teacher Unions—Improve the Process
Richard W, Clark
PART 1 OF 6
Unions and collective bargaining for teachers are being blamed for many of the problems in education in the United States. Republican Governors and legislators have taken the lead in efforts to “bust” the unions which they claim have been a primary cause of state financial problems and of difficulties in reforming schooling.
Many of these critics point to state laws that expanded public employee bargaining beginning in the 1960’s as the origin of the union movement in education but the two major unions have been around for a long time. The National Education Association (NEA) was founded in 1857 and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) was created in 1916. Over the past fifty years they have flexed their muscles and, while industrial unions have been losing members and influence, teacher unions have been forces to be reckoned with at the bargaining table and in political venues where policies are made and funds are appropriated.
Why are we witnessing such strong attacks on these unions and their right to bargain? A number of questions come to mind and are addressed in the following remarks: Have the problems created by the process outweighed its benefits? Has the collective bargaining process focused on benefits for employees to the detriment of opportunities for students to learn? Is this attack another part of an overall effort to dismantle public education? What alternatives to eliminating the process should be adopted?
Before I comment on these questions, a word about my own experiences with collective bargaining and education. I spent 20 years with direct or indirect responsibility for management’s side of the collective bargaining process with public employee unions – at one point with seven different unions. Prior to that, I was the president and chief negotiator for a public employee union. In the mid-seventies I was part of a small group of school administrators, school board members, union representatives, and legislators who developed the laws and regulations that still provide the foundation for collective bargaining in Washington State. During the most recent twenty years I have had an opportunity to interact with union and management representatives across the country – some in large urban areas, others in smaller systems.
During these forty years I have seen some outstanding examples of constructive union-management relationships and examples of abuses of individual and public interests in other situations.
As has often been the case in labor-capital conflicts, at times both sides have been right and in other instances both have been wrong. I believe it is imperative that states provide for legitimate involvement by school employees and, at the same time, I believe that actions need to be taken to make these processes more uniformly beneficial to the public and the employees than current bargaining processes.
Please give some thoughts to this issue and share your comments as I post the next five parts in the coming weeks.