The good, the bad & the ugly of unions

I’ve been watching what’s going on in Wisconsin (and is now spreading to other places) and have finally decided to weigh in. My policy positions are often considered anti-union, and in some circumstances, that generalization is correct.

Historically, most of the fair labor laws we currently have were established because of unions (work day, overtime, maternity leave, etc). I recognize the value, and impact on my life, of these policies. But, I believe that many of today’s unions misrepresent themselves and negatively impact society.

In the education field, especially in chronically low-performing schools, teachers’ unions work against the strongest teachers and the students. Policies such as last hired, first fired; seniority; forced bumping; (non-value added) teacher evaluation systems; mandatory dues contributions; an extensive (and prolonged) removal process; work day limitations; and other working condition constraints place disadvantaged students further behind. While students are my primary concern, these policies also negatively impact strong teachers. Teachers’ unions (principals’ and superintendents’ unions as well) too often maintain the status quo and fight for the low-performers, as opposed to advancing the profession as a whole.

New advocacy organizations are launching across the country to fight against the traditional teachers unions, and to better represent those teachers who don’t agree with their current representation. Organizations such as Teach Plus, Stand for Children and Democrats for Education Reform are gaining momentum and beginning to have a strong impact in politics and on policy. These organizations are not necessarily anti-union, but are instead pro-education.

Wisconsin’s Governor is not going about it the right way; it does feel (and look) like he’s using the budget crisis as a way to bust the unions. Only some unions are being impacted and it is clear that dirty politics are in play.

This all said, a sad truth remains, the majority of cities and states (and the federal government for that matter) are in dire financial circumstances, and funding pensions and increasing the salaries to government employees is not feasible, nor is it sustainable. Everyone must chip in, and that may require salaries to stagnate for another year, or the elimination of pensions. Eliminating all collective bargaining rights is not the right way to pull together as a community and problem solve.

Yes, today’s teachers unions (and many other labor unions) have too much power in the political system, but eliminating collective bargaining rights as a whole causes more harm than good.

Side note: there’s a decent research base that shows teacher rules in states without collective bargaining are just as restrictive as states with bargaining (Invisible Ink, National Center for Teacher Quality). Teachers’ unions are still involved in policy making and lobbying in states that don’t have collective bargaining. Eliminating collective bargaining will not eliminate the role that unions play in the political world.

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