What’s the Future of Unions?

The recent ruling in the Vergara v. California lawsuit, in which Judge Rolf Treu struck a body blow against the power of teachers’ unions by declaring that five of California’s laws protecting teacher tenure, firing and seniority were in violation of the state constitution’s guarantee of equal education to all children, has implications so broad I don’t think we can even fully comprehend them yet.

I’ve written in earlier posts that though I absolutely think that bad teachers should be fired—and that last in, first out policies should be re-thought—they are not the core problem in the fight for equal education. I’m troubled by the witch-hunt zeal, the purge mentality, of this lawsuit, which implies that the layoffs that caused so many eager young teachers to be fired in the first place were some kind of natural disaster inflicted upon us by the gods that we should have diverted onto the heads of bad teachers.

But let’s be honest, California: those layoffs occurred because of budget cuts—and those budget cuts were our collective decision. And they were so radical that even if we had first fired the small percentage of bad teachers, we would still have been laying off a large number of excellent teachers.

We, as a state, were willing to accept that though we are home to the largest number of wealthy citizens in America, as well as the largest number of children in poverty, we would continue to slash education funding until students in low-income communities were packed 50 to a classroom while we turned a blind eye, fingers in our ears, humming and pretending to be shocked, shocked that experienced teachers often did not choose to teach in those conditions. Yes, it’s a disgrace that good young teachers were laid off. They were laid off because we decided that we’d rather slash education funding than raise taxes. I agree that last-in, first-out policies should be revisited and bad teachers should go out first. But to claim that union policies caused those layoffs is completely disingenuous. The cause of teacher layoffs is inadequate funding for education.

If StudentsMatter and other organizations pushing for the eradication of bad teachers will fight with equal zeal for adequate education funding, real care for families in poverty and working conditions for teachers in which they can do their jobs—as Roxanna Elden so eloquently put it, “teacher working conditions are student learning conditions—then maybe I’ll start to take them seriously. The real question is not how we get rid of bad teachers. The real question is how we attract and retain good teachers. That fight will inevitably cost time and money. It won’t be swift, cathartic and simple. But it is actually the only fight that matters. It is the real fight for our students’ futures.

And where is the place of unions in this fight? The Vergara verdict is widely seen as profoundly harmful to unions, but though I do think it’s a body blow, I believe that in the long run this challenge can also be beneficial if the unions rise to the challenge. As Lisa Alva points out in a comment on David Cohen’s insightful recent post on the InterACT blog, though she is deeply grateful for the UTLA’s protection, “unless UTLA finally puts personalities and internal politics aside long enough to do some real member outreach that brings junior and senior teachers together, values their visions and actually offers value for dues dollars, we’re screwed. Educators 4 Excellence and Teach Plus have financed UTLA members in researching and writing up valid recommendations that go nowhere because these groups are financed by millionaires and UTLA rejects them. Okay, true. But at the same time, UTLA offers no inroad, NONE, for these same people to do this same high-quality work to make the same high-need and high-priority recommendations. Who loses? We’re all losing.”

Over the last few months, I’ve spoken with several teachers in their early thirties at district schools, deeply engaged and innovative teachers who believe passionately in their work and support the union in theory but seem to feel no connection to it. In a recent UTLA election, only 23% of members voted for union president. Active UTLA members can wring their hands or judge these younger teachers, but the reality is that these young, dedicated teachers are the future of education in Los Angeles. How is the union going to include their voices? How is the union going to adapt to a 21st century economy in which the notion of a career for life, or even for more than a few years, is a rarity? This is not a millennial question. It’s a reality question. I’m 54 years old. I’ve had four careers already, and I’m likely to change careers again. The reality of our world, whether we like it or not, is that you adapt and innovate or you become irrelevant. I hope the unions can see this crisis–and it is a crisis– as a chance to adapt and innovate.

The young teachers I’ve talked to aren’t interested in lifetime employment. They care about professional working conditions that allow them to learn and grow and make a meaningful contribution to the next generation. They chose teaching in low-income communities because they believe in the fight for educational equality—and they want to learn everything they can to serve their students best. They don’t want to close their doors and be left alone to teach. They want to open them, collaborate and learn. Many of them have told me that they want more accountability. The biggest divide I see in education right now is not charter vs. district or TFA vs. union. It’s generational.

I’m heartened by a recent conversation I had with Arielle Zurzolo, who is currently Executive Director of Strategic Partnerships for TeachPlusbut who was a teacher for three years and then for three years was the head of Green Dot’s union, the Association de Maestros Unidos, or AMU. People love to bash on charters and I’ve written about my own reservations, but my experience of the Green Dot union was overwhelmingly positive. We had collective bargaining, we had a negotiated contract, we had enough job protection that I personally never heard of a vendetta being pursued successfully at any school and we had a voice in the evaluation pilot.

Over coffee with Arielle recently, we talked about the future of unions. She is astonishingly young herself, having just turned thirty, and though strongly pro-union, believes that unions need to work to engage younger teachers. “In the early days of unions there was a boss-worker mindset that saw teachers as the workers and administration as the upper classes. The unions were designed to protect the workers from being taken advantage of by their bosses. Younger teachers don’t see themselves that way. They don’t see a class divide between themselves and administrators. They want fair pay but they also want a space to talk about professionalism. They want accountability and they want to set standards.”

She feels that some current UTLA policies, like an insistence on a paper ballot, may seem alienating and obsolete to younger teachers (since our conversation and after the low turnout of its last election, the UTLA has changed its paper-only policy.) With regard to Lisa Alva’s comment, she wants to clarify for the record that TeachPlus is funded by foundations, not millionaires—but that this perception may be common at the UTLA. She also reminds me that the NEA also helps fund Teach Plus, and that some unions do include Teach Plus in their discussions.

Though she believes strongly in unions, she does not believe that the charter movement is inherently destructive to union power. “Teachers at charters should start unions,” she says. “There’s no reason they can’t.” She points to Chicago, where recently 12 charter schools created a joint program with the Chicago Teachers Union, the Illinois Federation of Teachers and the American Federation of Teachers. And she is excited about new evaluation pilots that use teacher-created standards for professionalism.

So yes, the Vergara decision is a setback for unions. And there is tremendous money behind anti-union forces in this country. But this decision is not a defeat unless we collectively decide to accept it as one. In the fight for educational equality, we all know the real work has only just begun. How can we bring in the voices of younger generation of teachers? How can we work together to create a vision for the battles that 21st century unions will need to fight in order to guarantee all children their right to an equal education?


7 thoughts on “What’s the Future of Unions?”

  1. Hi Ellie. I’m not sure I agree with your basic premise.

    Its entirely appropriate to ask, what caused the teacher layoffs? And to answer, budget cuts. But then you don’t go to the next logical – and I think, essential — step, and ask, what caused the budget cuts?

    I humbly submit, the answer is, at least in part, really huge spending on education that somehow yields piss poor results. And why should taxpayers shovel more and more and more funding at an education system that fails over and over again to produce the students and outcomes we want?

    Also, one should ask: in a world of education budget cuts, why layoff teachers? Why not cut elsewhere? And I would guess the answer is, because teacher costs are an outrageous piece of education spending, and if schools are failing, and we need to cut budgets, simple math suggests we should cut teachers. But then we ask: but how can we educate without teachers? And thats where we get into union rules and tenure and the like — because we are already educating without teachers. Or at least, without consistently high quality teachers, who are not answerable to any standards of outcomes or performance reviews, and all owing to outrageous rules about seniority and tenure, rules that force school systems to pay and pay up big for low quality teachers that in any other professional environment would be fired.

    Ergo, if you’re a budget administrator being compelled to cut budgets you think: well to heck with it, lets give the heave ho to teachers, because we have to reduce spending somewhere and we are stuck with crummy teachers no matter what we do, cut or dont cut.

    we all know the problem isn’t budget cuts or too little spending – versus their peers, USA school systems are amongst the most lavish spenders in the world.



    honestly i have never understood why public school teachers ever got tenure in the first place. i kind of sort of understand why university professors got tenure, to liberate their thinking and research etc from the shifting politics and social movements of any particular moment. (though i think thats become an expensive dumb anachronism too). but public school teachers? we desperately need normal workplace professional merit reviews — and terminations of poor performers – for public school teachers, and the elimination of tenure and seniority. i applaud the court. thank you, your honor, for seeing thru the hyperbolic hyperventilating that passes for discourse when it comes to teachers unions special priveleges…

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