It’s easy to get caught up in the debate happening across the country between teachers unions and education reformers when it comes to enacting changes to our education system. But while these often contentious conversations might suggest to some that one cannot be a strong supporter of collective bargaining while also being an education reformer, that is simply untrue. I am living proof that you can be both!
During my years as a union representative for over 900 teachers in five school districts, and later a staff attorney for the Michigan Education Association (MEA), the state’s largest teachers union, I advocated strongly for teachers’ collective bargaining rights. I negotiated contracts, represented teachers in front of school boards, and even organized strikes. Individual teachers needed a voice loud enough to be heard by those who had power over their work lives. I was that voice.
The essence of collective bargaining is that teachers can choose a representative to negotiate “wages, hours and other terms and conditions of employment” with their employer. During my stint at the MEA, we focused on the professional development of our teacher members, treatment of minority students, and the overall quality of education in the state. But at the end of the day, my job was to represent the teachers, not the students and not the parents. Which is one of the reasons why I eventually left.
Now, as state director of DFER Michigan, I advocate for every child’s right to a quality education. But that doesn’t mean I no longer believe in the right of teachers to unionize. If I’ve learned anything from working in both the union and reform camps, it’s that they’re not mutually exclusive, despite the often heated rhetoric on both sides.
The reality is that there is no real war between teachers unions and Democratic education reformers. At least there shouldn’t be. Many Democratic reformers will tell you they support unions in the traditional sense of the word: teachers should be able to elect representatives that look out for their best interests in the workplace, and they should be able to use collective bargaining to ensure fair treatment. And, many teachers will tell you they want to do what’s best for their kids and that they believe in education reform. Problems arise when unions chip away at management rights, build school boards that operate in the interests of the unions themselves, and use their resources to elect policymakers who are required to listen only to them when it comes to education policy. That’s not good for educational quality, and that means it’s not good for kids. Unions are disingenuous when they claim to represent the interests of the students. That’s not what they were created to do and is not what they are paid by their members to do.
As a former union staffer, I understand the importance of protecting the rights of employees, whether teachers or factory workers. I also believe that so-called “right to work” laws are a thinly veiled attempt to destroy unions and collective bargaining. Unions are required to represent every employee in the bargaining unit, whether they pay dues or fees or not. “Right to work” laws mean some workers are receiving union protection and benefits without paying for them. But when unions overreach to stretch their powers and erode efforts to maintain accountability for what’s happening in classrooms, it’s time to take a second look at what’s working and what’s crossing a line—at what’s good for America’s students and what’s good for teachers unions. Believe me, what’s good for one is not always perceived as good for the other.
For more than 35 years, Harrison Blackmond has dedicated his life towards helping children achieve the education they deserve. Harrison has served a multitude of roles within Michigan’s education system, including Chair of the Marygrove College Board of Trustees, President of the Business/Education Training Alliance, Vice Chairman and member of the Executive Committee of the Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce, and President of the Detroit Black Alliance for Education Options. Read more about Harrison here.