Dick Meister: Teachers Need Strong Unions


Like many people, I'm sure, Washington Post writer Matt Miller is confused about, "where to come down on the question of who should 'win''" in the struggle of public employees against attempts to strip them of collective bargaining rights and otherwise weaken them.

I know which side I'm on - the public employees and their unions.  But though highly sympathetic to the public employees cause, Matt Miller is not against the employees and their unions losing some of their powers and benefits – with one major exception: Teachers.

Again, I make no exceptions. I think we should rally around the cause of all public employees. But though Miller doesn't necessarily agree, he does make a strong argument for making special efforts in behalf of teachers. For "the  future of the country depends on the public-sector workers known as teachers."

I guess I should make a full disclosure here:  I was formerly a member of the AFL-CIO's American Federation of Teachers and my wife Gerry is a current member. So I'm probably prejudiced. And should be.

Anyway, Miller makes a very strong case for paying close attention to the needs and demands of teachers. As he says, "We'll never attract the kind of talented young people we need to the teaching profession unless it pays more than it does today."  With starting teachers pay averaging  $39,000 a year nationally and rising to a maximum of merely  $67,000, it's no surprise to Miller that "we  draw teachers from the bottom two-thirds of the college class. For schools in poor neighborhoods, teachers come largely from the bottom third."

Adds Miller: " We're the only leading nation that thinks it can stay a leading nation with a 'strategy' of recruiting mediocre students and praying that they'll prove to be excellent teachers."

Miller may not be an outright supporter of teacher unions, but he does point out that the highest performing school systems in the world all have strong teacher unions. He means the systems in countries such as Finland, Singapore and South Korea, where school administrators work closely with unions to continually improve their schools' performances.

Stanford University's Linda Darling-Hammond, a leading expert on the subject, says the highest performing countries have educational systems that are built around attracting, rigorously training and retraining top talent for teaching. The stress is on supporting good teachers - not on getting bad teachers out. That's partly because there just aren't that many bad teachers in those countries.

I agree with Matt Miller that what's clearly needed is a national strategy to make teaching the career of choice for talented young people. Wisconsin's math scores, for instance, put its students not only behind Korea, Finland and Taiwan, but behind Slovenia, Estonia and Lithuania. But, hey, they still outpace students in Latvia and Bulgaria . . . though barely.

As Miller notes, the only people who can change that, the only ones who can provide decent educations to Wisconsin's children, are public employees , teachers  - teachers, furthermore, who must be given a strong voice, a unionized voice in setting their pay, benefits and working conditions.

Teachers need the firm right to collective bargaining no less than Wisconsin's other public employees, no less than the public employees of every other state.

Dick Meister, former editor of the SF Chronicle and KQED-TV Newsroom, has covered labor and politics for a half-century. Contact him through his website, www.dickmeister.com, which includes more than 250 of his columns.


teachers' pay has to be viewed in the context of them only working 8 months a year. So you should multiply their salaries by 50% to get a number comparable with the private sector. One teacher I know took a 3 month trip to Asia last summer - not bad.

It's up to the voters how much they want to pay teachers and other public sector workers. Voters are the employers, just like company shareholders are the employers of private sector workers. Got a problem with voters deciding pay and benefit levels?

Posted by Harry on Mar. 11, 2011 @ 7:47 pm

I'm pretty sure they spent hours doing lesson plans and grading papers at home, so it evens out or something.

Also, shouldn't you be comparing public sector teachers to private sector teachers? I don't know what you getting out of comparing them to baristas or whatever. Or if you expect them to take summer jobs every year to make ends meet?

Posted by Guest on Mar. 12, 2011 @ 11:10 am

I've been teaching at a public high school for nearly 10 years that is fortunate enough to face major financial cuts only on the 2-3 year frequency. With rare exception, I work from 7am to 5pm on the weekdays (50 hours), with another 10 hours during the evenings or weekends. So usually 60+ hours a week, and there are still several students in each of my 30-35 student classes that I am unable to reach, mostly because I need to avoid burnout and keep myself in the profession. My winter and spring breaks are my only time to catch up on work outside of the weekends. I usually try to "treat myself" to one full week off around Christmas, though my family would probably disagree when they catch me grading or planning. My summer is the only time I have to try to improve or keep up with my content knowledge, attend professional development, take classes, plan units for the following year, or attend to my personal relationships that suffer during the school year. And I don't have children--I don't have the slightest clue how teachers with children stay in the profession. My union (and voters cognizant of the realities of the profession) are the only ones keeping my working conditions as "comfortable" as they are.

Posted by Mike on Mar. 13, 2011 @ 11:03 am

I completely agree that teachers need strong unions, but then so did employees of the SF Bay Guardian in the 1970s when Brugmann, hired scabs to break the unionization efforts taking place at the time. As Wikipedia reports it,

"The day after Thanksgiving, [Brugmann] fired five senior staffers who had helped organize the union effort. Newspaper staffers voted to join the Newspaper Guild and, on June 15, 1976, they called a strike to force Brugmann to offer a labor contract. Brugmann retained a few management staff and hired scab replacements. In August, Cesar Chavez offered to mediate the strike, but Brugmann refused. Finally, in 1977, another election was called, but this time votes by replacement workers carried the day and the new staff voted not to join a union."

I think that solidarity with working people is important, which is why I bring this up.

Posted by Mikesoul on Mar. 18, 2011 @ 6:13 am

with union operatives like Brugman has, you wouldn't want a union either. He probably knows better than anyone what a bunch of pathological liars they are.

Posted by matlock on Mar. 18, 2011 @ 1:15 pm