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Unions and the State of Education

The following column is from Lloyd Miller, the AN Contributing Editor for the Society for Anthropology in Community Colleges (SACC). This column appears in the May 2011 AN (p 35-36) and we’re pleased to share it here.

Though Iowa is a right-to-work state and teachers cannot strike, we have collectively bargained at Des Moines Area Community College since the law was enacted in 1974. The question has often been asked, “Why doesn’t the faculty union bargain for improvement in educational quality? Why are teachers only looking out for their own economic well-being?”

Our responses were always that the purposes of unions are just that: to maintain and advance the contract bargained with the administration as it pertains to salaries, benefits and safety issues, and to protect members from their bosses’ arbitrary and capricious behavior when it occurs. I was always surprised at how many faculty colleagues weren’t comfortable with that. Even in hard times, our membership was only about 50% of those eligible.

Somehow, teacher unions never succeeded in convincing some people that we were an honorable organization. Increasingly, our public image became that of obstructionists protecting incompetence and impeding educational improvement. Administrators complained that teacher unions made it impossible to fire incompetents, often to avoid the hassle of providing appropriate evidence. Newspapers ran frequent op-ed essays blaming public school teachers for the decline in student academic performance and lauding charter schools, vouchers and other forms of privatization. Political conservatives lionized former Washington, DC school superintendent Michelle Rhee for criticizing teacher unions while firing 241 teachers and placing another 737 on a year’s notice to improve their proficiency (Washington Post, July 24, 2010).

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