Part 1: What is a Union?
You’d think by the rhetoric from the right that Labor Unions dominate the landscape as they ravage and bring ruin to the nation’s economy. Here is the fact: according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2014 “the percent of wage and salary workers who were members of unions—was 11.1 percent, down 0.2 percentage point from 2013” The truth is that unionized workers are at their lowest point since 1912. If it’s labor unions destroying the American Economy, it must be pretty weak for 11% of the workforce to be doing so much damage. Blaming the unions is just another one of those myths that the right has concocted to further weaken unions. I’m always surprised why the question isn’t “How can I get what you guys have?”
What is a labor union?
labor union: n. an organization of workers formed for the purpose of advancing its members' interests in respect to wages, benefits, and working conditions. (Merriam-Webster)
The piece that isn’t captured by the definition is the impact that labor unions have on non-unionized labor. In other words, the fight of unionized labor is a fight for improving the middle class. When the Sweetwater Education Association was fighting for the School District to honor it’s commitment to our health benefits I would occasionally hear from non-unionized workers say “why do you deserve health benefits? You should be grateful you get what you get!” With the implementation of Obamacare, we have yet another example of an idea that grew out of what labor unions do for their members into the mainstream. Labor unions have worked hard to develop the American Dream and now are attempting to protect it.
Some historic union victories that have improved the lives of all Americans include:
- Collective Bargaining
- The Weekend
- Child Labor Laws
- Family Medical Leave Act
- Paid Leave
- Minimum Wage
- Overtime Pay
- Work Injury Protection
- Secure Retirement
Many of these victories came during the “Progressive Era” of the late and early 1900s. Other victories came during the 1930s, most notably the National Labor Relations Act or Wagner Act.
Protecting the Promise of Public Education
Furthermore, teachers unions such as ours carry an additional burden. Not only are teachers unions tasked with the same responsibilities of all labor unions: advancing member interests in respect to wages, benefits, and working conditions; they also are charged with protecting the promise of a quality public education for all. Historically, public education has paved the way to the middle class, it has been he vehicle for social mobility. In sum, it has had a democratizing effect in our society. Teachers unions are the only institution that have stood in the way of so-called reformers who seek only to privatize public education and gain access to tax payer dollars. (I’ll discuss this corporate education agenda more deeply in a future post.)
We need look no further than the mission statement of the California Teachers Association to realize the role of teachers unions today.
“The California Teachers Association exists to protect and promote the well-being of its members; to improve the conditions of teaching and learning; to advance the cause of free, universal and quality public education; to ensure that the human dignity and civil rights of all children and youth are protected; and to secure a more just, equitable, and democratic society.”
So while we look to improve salary and health benefits, we also seek things like smaller class sizes, professional development teacher evaluation, use of technology, the use of resources for Special Education and English Language Learners.
Clearly, what we do as teachers for the individual students that cross the threshold of our classroom is very important to each and every one of those students. What we do collectively as part of our professional union is equally important to our community, our state and our nation.
Up next: Labor Union Myths