Teacher unions are still needed

Teacher unions are scapegoated for all the ills afflicting public schools today.  Critics say their existence makes trying to fire incompetent teachers a Sisyphean task.  I understand their anger and frustration.  But there’s another side of the story that needs retelling (“A School Strike That Never Quite Ended,” The New York Times, Nov. 17).  It’s a history lesson that is relevant today.

In 1968, black leaders urged the creation of a local school district in the low-income Ocean Hill-Brownsville section of Brooklyn, N.Y.  They demanded hiring more black teachers who would serve as role models for the largely black schools in that district.  The local school board sent telegrams to 19 unionized teachers informing them that they were terminated.  (One black teacher mistakenly was included but was immediately rehired.)

Only the intervention of Albert Shanker, the union president, prevented their dismissal.  But he was unable to prevent their involuntary transfer, despite filing a grievance and submitting to arbitration.  Contrary to widespread belief, the union did not call a strike at that point.

What finally led to a protracted strike was the lack of due process for the teachers, which he correctly knew would set a precedent for future dismissals.  What is forgotten is the long record of politically- and personally-based transfers that non-unionized teachers had to endure.

Which brings me to today.  If teacher unions were abolished, it would subject even the best teachers to retaliation by abusive principals.  Critics assert that only the worst teachers would be affected.  But that is not so.

I’ve written often before about what happened in 2004 and 2005 at Brooklyn Technical High School, which is one of a handful of elite high schools in the New York system.  The principal bullied so many teachers during his tenure, including some with exemplary records, that several requested transfers.  If it were not for the existence of the union, I venture that they would have been terminated or so hounded that they would have quit.

Some teachers believe that they possess immunity because they are well liked by their students.  They are naïve.  Principals still possess enormous power because of the state education code and school board decisions.  Without the protection of unions, they all are vulnerable.

(To post a comment, click on the title of this blog.)

2 Replies to “Teacher unions are still needed”

  1. The critics are wrong — it’s not unions that prevent principals from discharging screw-up teachers but rather it’s incompetent and/or understaffed management that prevent principals from discharging screw-up teachers.

    For many years, I represented management for an employer that employed hundreds of union-represented white-collar and professional employees. Management, using progressive discipline, discharged many screw-up employees. The union usually walked away — that is, filed a grievance but did not invoke arbitration.

    The key is for management to consistently document the poor performance and to follow ordinary due-process/progressive-discipline steps. This is not particularly difficult if management is competent and adequately-staffed. It becomes virtually impossible if management is incompetent and/or inadequately staffed. Teachers have no first-line supervisors so, as a practical matter, school management is inadequately staffed for purposes of monitoring teacher performance and it will therefore usually be impossible for school management to document poor performance and to follow the ordinary due-process/progressive-discipline steps.

    Also, even if there are no unions, in most states, teachers — as govt employees — have civil-service due-process rights to some kind of hearing before they can be discharged. In many cases, a teacher will not have the $ required to pursue a civil-service appeal, but a principal usually will not know for sure whether a particular teacher will pursue a civil-service appeal, so principals for that reason may be gun-shy re discharging a poorly-performing teacher unless — as is unlikely — the principal has had the managerial resources to document the poor performance.

    Another consideration — my impression, from talking to teachers and following the school-reform debate, is that principals rarely discipline/discharge teachers for misconduct (as opposed to overall ineffective teaching). It’s difficult to demonstrate that a professional employee is performing the professional work ineffective and it’s virtually impossible to do so absent a first-line supervisor. However, most ineffective professional employees engage in misconduct (their ineffective performance is usually due to some personal problem/burnout/substance abuse rather than an inability to do the professional work). This misconduct is relatively easy to observe/document, but — again — only if there is a first-line supervisor. If management observes/documents the misconduct and imposes progressive discipline, management can usually build a solid discharge case in a few weeks (or, the employee will improve or quit). For a teacher, misconduct might include failing to have a lesson plan, failing to promptly return graded work, failing to take attendance, failing to timely submit attendance or other reports to the front office, filling class time with movies, videos or just yakking with the students, doing personal work on the phone/computer during class time, reporting late/leaving early, missing mandatory meetings, failing to return parent calls/emails, failing to post assignments on the school website, etc..

    Completely agree that teachers need union protection. Unlike private employers, principals do not have a profit-motive to deter them from discharging outstanding teachers. Unlike most govt employers, there is no second or third managerial official with first-hand knowledge of a teacher’s performance who can act as a check on an irrational, incompetent, or hostile principal’s inclination to discharge an outstanding teacher.

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  2. Labor Lawyer: Your experience puts into perspective the need for teacher unions. Few districts have teacher consultants who can act as mentors to help new or struggling veterans. Teacher unions are the only way that teachers can protect themselves from harassment and unfair dismissal. Critics charge that teacher unions make it almost impossible to remove bad teachers from the classroom. All they can do is to demand due process. But teacher unions make for easy scapegoating.

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