Across the country, frustrated and fed-up teachers have staged school walkouts to demand fair pay and adequate resources for public schools. One common denominator of these public actions: They occurred in states with laws that weaken unions and their ability to collectively bargain for better wages, benefits and working conditions — which, when it comes to public education, are teaching and learning conditions.
No student should attend schools with overcrowded classrooms that lack desks for every student, that function with textbooks as old as their parents and where the teachers’ salaries do not cover living expenses, forcing them to take second jobs.
Collective bargaining allows employers and employees to forge agreements on the basis of shared interests that address both parties’ priorities and concerns. Without bargaining rights, educators are left with few options to have their voices heard and are forced to take more public actions, such as protesting to lawmakers, to have their priorities addressed.
Any day now, the Supreme Court is expected to release its decision in Janus v. AFSCME Council 31. That ruling could eliminate requirements that workers represented by and benefiting from a union contribute to it financially through “fair-share fees,” depriving unions of funds they need to advocate on behalf of their members, thus weakening unions’ ability to advocate for better teaching and learning conditions.
Our organizations do not see eye-to-eye on all education issues, but we agree that teachers and students lose when teachers don’t have a collective voice to advocate for their profession and their students. Teacher unions give educators voice and ways to influence important issues and policies that directly benefit students, from protecting education funding to supporting teacher development and improving school climate. Education Week’s 2018 Quality Counts data showed that the top 10 states in educational performance have high union density, whereas the bottom 10 states have low density. Data clearly show that students perform better where teachers are more fairly compensated, because higher salaries attract more-qualified people to the profession and help keep them in the classroom.
And while some groups are dedicating millions of dollars to weakening public employee unions, these efforts are out of step with Americans, particularly teachers. A recent Associated Press poll of Americans found that nearly two-thirds approve of national teacher unions. Educators for Excellence recently released the initial findings of a survey of educators from across the country showing that a vast majority of teachers believe teacher unions are essential. The survey found that 85 percent of teachers regard unions as important, including 74 percent of nonunion teachers.
At a time when teachers are rising up against austerity, including cuts with harmful effects in their classrooms, their union is a critically important vehicle to help them help their students and the profession. According to Educators for Excellence’s recent survey, 86 percent of teachers believe that without collective bargaining or a union, the working conditions and salaries of teachers would be much worse. In fact, union wages are 13.2 percent higher than the pay for non-unionized workers.
Teachers rely on their unions to fight for them, but they are also asking for more from their unions. Frankly, they don’t always feel represented by them, and we must respond to that. Fifty-two percent of teachers say they feel their perspective is only “somewhat” represented, and 20 percent say their perspective is “not very much” or “not at all” represented by their unions. In addition, only half of union members report having voted in a union election.
This is a good moment for educators to come together and make it clear they are sticking with their unions, while at the same time we find ways for unions to better serve teachers, to be more democratic, to listen to and engage the communities they serve, and to be more active advocates for students. These are conversations that help not just engage those who feel disempowered but also transform unions to be the force we all envision. And it has been these conversations that have prompted members to recommit to their unions.
The backers of the efforts to defund and destroy unions hope they can divide and silence teachers. But, as we have seen in the teacher walkouts across the country, even in the absence of strong unions, educators want their voices heard.
Evan Stone is co-founder and co-CEO of the teacher-led Educators for Excellence. Randi Weingarten is president of the American Federation of Teachers.