Unions are good for education.

This is an op-ed piece I sent to the Miami Herald; it probably will not be published, but it’s always worth a try!


On Fox News, all over the Internet, in the emotional but reality-challenged film Waiting for Superman, in letters to the editor of the Miami Herald, the complaints are all pretty much the same: Teachers’ unions exist to protect bad teachers. Without teachers’ unions, our children (regardless of the child poverty rate of over 20% in the US) would all be outpacing Finland, Korea, and Singapore. (Never mind the fact that Finland, for example, has an entirely unionized teaching force.)

This is by far the most widely espoused fallacy about our unions. Our unions protect due process. Incompetent, ineffective, or negligent teacher can be fired, and that was already true before SB 736. It only means that administrators must have just cause to fire a teacher. Those who say that there is no reason administrators would ever want to fire a good teacher have almost undoubtedly never worked in a school. There are principals (just as there are managers in other fields) who would gladly fire someone for any number of reasons not related to her job performance: political beliefs, sexual orientation, race, religious affiliation (or lack thereof), willingness to speak out when she disagrees with administrators’ policies—or simply in order to open up a position for a friend or relative. Such baseless dismissals are the grounds for many lawsuits every year in the private sector. Due process, a 90-day procedure in Miami-Dade County Public Schools, simply ensures that nobody is fired without just cause. This is quite different from ensuring nobody is fired at all.

While the number of incompetent teachers is actually very low, the ones still in the classroom are there not because of union protection, but because the administration at their schools did not bother to make the case to get them out. If unions were really to blame for incompetent teachers in the classroom, we would see far higher rates of teachers being fired in non-union states—yet this is not the case. Statistics show that teachers are fired at the same rates nationwide, regardless of union participation.

Principals may choose not to fire a teacher for any number of reasons. Said teacher may be a friend, or the spouse or relative of a friend. Sometimes administrators have never been teachers themselves, and do not know how to identify good teaching. Until the economic downturn there was a teacher shortage. A principal might fear firing an underperforming teacher, only to find no replacement. As often as not, administrators simply do not want to take the time to do the observations required by due process—thus their complaints that it is “too hard” to fire a teacher. Yet if you were going to be fired from your job, would you not expect the superior firing you to at least observe your work—and preferably more than just a few minutes on one single day? Many teachers go for years without being observed by their principal. Is this “union protection” or administrative incompetence?

The other main objection to teachers’ unions is that they serve the interest of the adults rather than the children. How often is a doctor accused of not caring about his patients because he earns a lot of money? I have yet to meet the teacher who went into this field in hopes of getting rich. We love what we do, and we care greatly about the education and well-being of the children we work with every day. This does not mean we want (or deserve) to work for substandard wages. The low salary, and nowadays the lack of respect, accorded to teachers make it an unappealing career to most top-level graduates. According to the Education Policy Analysis Archives, only 4.7% of college juniors would consider teaching at the current starting salary. It defies logic to argue that high salaries are necessary to attract and retain talent in some professions, but not in education.

Our unions advocate for sound education policies that will benefit children. More often than not, the causes we lobby for are one and the same as those parents are fighting for: fair tests (in reasonable amounts), smaller class sizes, a well-rounded curriculum, and adequate and equitable funding for public schools. Such policies are good for teachers, but they are equally good for children.


About Jennifer I. Smith-Camejo

I am a writer with a passion for politics and organized labor. View all posts by Jennifer I. Smith-Camejo

5 responses to “Unions are good for education.

  • Daniel Jenkins

    Well stated, jenny. Unfortunately for all of us, this message falls on deaf ears. We are to blame for all the ills of education, regardless of overcrowding, lack of support from the district, the state, the parents, and too many of the students who are apathetic.

  • Kat

    I agree Danny. When you pay attention to the media today we are just bashed and practically blamed for all the problems of the country. I never remember teachers getting such a bad rap. And the testing factory we have become is ensuring that all students will dislike school (and I can’t blame them). This also was not the case in the past. We should definitely stick together to protect our livelihoods, but I sense as the economy improves, some of the best and brightest in our field will start a mass exodus.

    By the way, have you guys heard about all the teachers fired in that school that had the predatory teacher? They sacked all of the teachers but none of the administrators (who had fielded complaints about the sicko). I am outraged on their behalf. Guilty by association I guess. Is that legal?

  • Jennifer I. Smith

    Thank you for the support, and for reading…! And Kat I agree 100%. I am all the more frustrated right now that the usual suspects are spreading rumors and misinformation concerning our contract, as if there were pots of money just waiting for us to take and we gave them away. Our budget has been cut by about $2 billion over the past 4 years. Meanwhile health care costs have increased by 13-16% each year, to the tune of millions of dollars. And yet instead of turning their eyes to Tallahassee and blaming those who continue to cut and give away what little we have to charter schools, they encourage us to turn against each other, in the form of our union, and blame the union, which neither collects taxes nor makes the budget nor cuts the paychecks, for a lack of raises. What raises? Where do people think the raises are going to come from, if not layoffs? I think some people need to go back and rethink their math, then rethink their priorities, before badmouthing their union. I know several people on the negotiating team, members like the rest of us, and they have worked so hard, and our health care subcommittee found $28 million in savings, which is really what allowed us NOT to make concessions–as if a raise were ever really expected by anyone. Those blaming the union, I have a big question for them…Without their union, what kind of contract do they really believe they have? Would they have a raise? Would they still have 100% employer-covered insurance? NO. But it’s easier to blame those working for them than those working against them, apparently…

  • Shawnda Kay ELizando

    For some reason people believe that education is charity work. Teacher’s do not need to eat, buy houses, or want to have a nice lifestyle. This is what the media has protrayed the teaching field. This is the only country that treats teacher’s like charity cases. Even my own relatives buy into FOX’s new pieces about how teacher’s make too much money and have it too good. Buy the way these relatives of mine are also the ones who work at GM and are in Unions that have given them a wonderful lifestyle. It is clear that a war has been waged on teachers. I am just afraid when the war is over what will be the damage.

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