Tuesday, September 7, 2010

My Love/Hate Relationship with the Union

Unions are as American an organization as any. I still remember learning in eighth grade that Samuel Gompers founded the first union, that unions have done much to improve the working conditions for those in the labor force, and that the union functions as a democratic organization representing the voices of many. Yet for many years I've felt conflicted about my NEA (National Education Association) membership.

Although my undergrad education program emphasized the importance of teachers joining professional organizations--with special emphasis placed on union membership--the NEA I discovered in the early 1980's resembled an organization whose positions conflicted with many of my own. In those days, NEA articulated stances far removed from the teaching I was doing in my classroom. I joined anyway, and except for a couple of years, have maintained my membership. I've even attended delegate assembly several times in one state where I worked, feebly served as the association president in another, and am a building rep in my current district.

It's what I learned at my first building rep meeting of the year that raise my ire today. My union dues have increased, this despite my five percent pay cut. I find this increase in fees unconscionable in the current economic environment. How do I ask the seventeen new members to fork over $695.00 in union dues?

Negotiating salaries and securing due process for teachers have been the two most important functions I admire of my union, but I wish the union advocated for stronger academic preparedness among teachers. I wish the union insisted that all secondary teachers have at least a BS in their subject areas rather than endorsements that can require no more than a dozen credits. I wish the union would insist that teachers earn grad credits that count toward advanced degrees for recertification rather than in-service and workshop credits so many rely on these days.

Without unions female teachers might still be required to quit when pregnant, might still be expected to wear dresses to work. Without unions we probably wouldn't have a prep period, would still be serving lunch and bus duty. Without unions our working conditions would probably be very different than they are now.

I don't foresee myself giving up my union membership, but I do wish union leadership at the national level would take a good long look in the proverbial mirror and see the reflection of an organization that has done much good but has also strayed down paths that diminish our profession by encouraging the mediocre when it should be the leader in rigorous academic teacher preparation.

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