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.
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