As a former teacher union member and ardent supporter of educators, I am watching the events in Wisconsin with great interest. I can’t claim great union support when I started my career; I really only joined the union because I was required to pay 80% of the fees anyway since I benefited from the contract negotiated by the union. I figured I’d chip in the extra 20% and get some of the perks like insurance and legal representation.
I saw the power of the union when, in my second year, my district went out on a six-week strike. Collective bargaining helped boost our salaries but also made sure that we were paid for all the extra work we did in support of the kids outside of our teaching responsibilities: coaching teams, advising clubs, and organizing community events. When I moved to a non-union state, I saw how the lack of the ability to negotiate meant that pay was low, extra work was uncompensated (and yet teachers still did it), and administrators made decisions without ever feeling the need to consult professional staff. Association membership was low as well, with some veterans afraid to join because of potential retaliation. I couldn’t help but wonder why anyone would retaliate against an organization that had no power anyway.
With that perspective as well as recent frustration with the National Education Association who seems unwilling to stand up for the professionalism of and personal sacrifice made by public educators in this country, I find myself in a quandary. I could dive into the debate: that the Wisconsin governor is using fiscal crisis to break the back of the unions, something he said he was going to do when he ran. I could cheer on my fellow teachers who are trying to remind their neighbors that they are not some elite group that has gotten rich on the backs of their fellow tax payers, who struggled with the decision to abandon their classrooms to protest and yet in doing so provide a powerful example of citizenship to their students, and who will return to those classrooms to again spend their days with the next generation, doing a sometimes thankless job with the spirit and dedication that we have come to expect and yet take for granted.
But, there is another part of me that wonders if we are watching an old battle, based on foundations that are crumbling. More and more teachers can be found outside the usual systems. As schools discover money savings related to online learning, they may choose to do an end run around more traditional educators and create more adjunct-like relationships with their professional staff. Unionists will shake their heads since adjuncting is often seen as the sweat shop of the higher ed world, but adjuncts also have a great level of freedom in terms of their schedules and their responsibilities. I love adjuncting because it means I get to teach, putting my energy into developing courses and working with my students, rather than worrying about getting published or attending faculty meetings.
Do I miss the security of a full time job with its benefits? Not really…I’m willing to make the trade off of less security for more freedom. And, as I look across the landscape, I don’t see the same kind of ongoing security that drove my father’s generation to leave home each day in order to toil for another. Teachers are getting laid off, something that was unthinkable in the past; collective bargaining is under attack; and benefits are no longer a given when you get a job. And in the worst slap in the face of all, workers who devoted their lives to a company are losing their retirement and looking at the potential of a second career as a Wal Mart greeter.
Indeed, foundations are crumbling and the protesters on both sides in Wisconsin don’t seem to understand that they are arguing over the past rather than looking towards the future. If the educators do manage to save collective bargaining, it will be something of a Pyrrhic victory as states and localities find that they simply can’t meet the agreements that they have made.