Tag Archives: labor unions

Two Views of Unions

Last week’s reading included books with two very different views of labor unions, and Labor Day seems the perfect time to pull together the blog post I’ve been drafting.

Two books–For the Win by Cory Doctorow and Class Warfare by Steven Brill–deal with labor unions from two very different perspectives.  

As with much of his fiction, Doctorow’s story is set in a not-too-distant future where young people work in virtual sweat shops gold farming in games for businessmen. They love playing the games and the money they bring in makes a real difference for families where the only other jobs are in real sweat shops that offer little money and imminent dangers from both people and machines. But much of the story could have been set in America’s not-so-distant past as the virtual and real workers begin the painful process of unionizing. It also draws from current events such as the collapse of the Rana Plaza factory building earlier this year. For The Win is not always an easy book to read as the characters we come to know and love suffer violence and death as they seek justice. This book would make great reading for an American history class, opening up the conversation about the functions of unions in a free market economy.

Brill’s book shows what happens when unions become part of both the economic and political landscape, receiving benefits that go far beyond those original desires to be paid a living wage and not to be fired without due cause. While I believe he does so in a biased way, clearly a huge fan of Teach for America and the passionate reformers and policy makers it spawned, his message is not to be ignored. Negotiating contracts that include 8.5% guaranteed rates of return on retirement plans can only lead to financial disaster as municipalities try to balance already out of balance budgets. Harboring teachers in rubber rooms where they sit idle while their arbitration cases make their way slowly through the process is a ridiculous waste of time and money.

I think it was that last example that bothered me the most. I was reading the book as I did summer workshops for teachers who are exploring how to leverage new technologies to create more challenging learning environments for their students. I don’t think there was any reason that the leaders in New York couldn’t work with the teachers in the rubber rooms to help them become better teachers. And Brill doesn’t give any details about what kind of interventions were provided when a teacher received her first unsatisfactory review. Perhaps at least part of the problem lay in principals who, while they seemed to be able to recognize bad teachers, were unable to help them become better teachers. Instead, we hear only the most egregious stories of the drunken educator who managed to beat the system. Principals who are trying to improve their schools by getting rid of teachers instead of developing them are heralded as heroes.

I’ve already written a bit about my summer work. One theme has emerged as I talk, plan and explore with the teachers: how to make sure we didn’t lose sight of the content that would be tested at the end of the year even as we try to incorporate critical thinking and collaboration into the classrooms. Nowhere in the book does Brill suggest that the relentless testing espoused by the reformers he loves might have a chilling effect on innovation.  Rather than engage with someone like Diane Ravitch, Brill dismisses her in a few pages by suggesting that she doesn’t have any new ideas, just complaints. And the book conveniently ends before the cheating scandal that emerged in the DC public schools that may have accounted for the amazing gains touted by Rhee, certainly Brill’s golden girl.

I think the biggest take away from Brill’s book for me was the unreasonable demands we make on teachers. The mantra of the reformers was that a good teacher never sat down. Really? Not to plan? Not to reflect on practice with other teachers or principals? The old comparisons were trotted out: how badly America is doing behind countries like Finland. Brill chose to ignore the organization of Finnish schools where teachers not only sit down, they do so often:

Teachers in Finland spend fewer hours at school each day and spend less time in classrooms than American teachers. Teachers use the extra time to build curriculums and assess their students. Children spend far more time playing outside, even in the depths of winter. Homework is minimal. Compulsory schooling does not begin until age 7. “We have no hurry,” said Louhivuori. “Children learn better when they are ready. Why stress them out?”
Brill’s message was that good teachers can’t have personal lives: one of his main characters ends up leaving the classroom as her commitment to her job is interfering with her marriage. There’s something wrong with that message, and even Brill starts to recognize that by the end of the book.

Spoiler alert! Throughout the book, Randi Weingarten, the leader of the United Federation of Teachers, is painted as the bad guy, standing in the way of reforms, supporting bad teachers, and just generally keeping well-intentioned people like New York Schools’ Chancellor Joel Klein from doing the best he could for kids. Brill does give her a little credit as he describes her efforts to walk the tightrope between her union members and reformers. She endures being told that she is only concerned with the adults even as she opens her own charter school. But, by the end, Brill is recommending her for the new chancellor of the New York schools because she does have the wide view. When asked about his change in tone, Brill says that he learned that school reform was “complicated.” Joe Nocera, in an Op-Ed column in the New York Times written after Weingarten held a book party for Brill, sums it up nicely:

When I asked Brill what caused his change of heart, he responded gruffly: “It’s called reporting.” The two years he spent researching school reform had given him a far richer understanding of the complexities involved in reforming the nation’s schools — and that understanding was sobering.

I would argue that most issues, whether related to labor unions or school reform, do not offer easy answers, and anyone who claims otherwise has snake oil to sell. I’m wondering if Brill is working on his more balanced look at the complexities of school reform?