Monday, February 28, 2011

Why I Stand with Wisconsin Workers


Since Madison, Wisconsin is burning as I blog, I must to take a moment to support teachers unions and unions in general. And I want to explain that support. Despite my own teaching and union/non-union experiences, I don't think I understood and appreciated the role of unions until just recently. These two pieces, one by award-winning Maryland social studies teacher blogger Kenneth Bernstein and the other by California English teacher blogger David Cohen, helped me to understand the importance of unions.

My parents and their parents before them, were not wealthy, but nor were they workers, unionized or otherwise (although my maternal grandfather's father was very active in the railroad telegraphers union in Illinois). My father's parents were the children of Eastern European immigrants and owned a stationary store in Brooklyn, New York. My maternal grandfather worked as a chemist for Montgomery Ward and then as a manager for an automotive parts company in Chicago, Illinois, and my maternal grandmother was a homemaker and worked as at the Hadley School for the Blind.

Besides being born white in America, my parents were lucky to have attended two of the best known public high schools in the country; my mother went to Glenbrook in Northbrook, Illinois, and my father to Stuyvesant in New York City. My mother had college-educated parents and the luck of her zipcode (though not if you ask her as she hated the suburbs) and my father had parents who, though relatively uneducated themselves, greatly valued education. My parents went on to attend outstanding public universities--my mother, the University of Wisconsin and my father, Brooklyn College. They met while they were in graduate school at the University of Michigan.

After finishing, they moved to Washington, DC, where my sister and I grew up and attended public schools, so that my father could take a job as a lawyer with the federal government, where he has spent most of his career--primarily as a civil rights lawyer at the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare and then as a litigator and energy efficiency regulation counsel at the Department of Energy. My mother had been a linguist but couldn't find a job in her field (her specialty was semitic languages--she was a generation early on that one).  After learning about my father's work at HEW and watching him in court, she went to law school and became a labor, civil rights and school finance lawyer. I imagine they could have gone to work for any white shoe law firm they wanted to, but they gladly chose civil and public service. While we weren't rich, we lived a comfortable middle class life.

Among other topics they discussed at the dinner table, I definitely recall my parents grumbling about corruption and obstructionism in unions, but they always believed in their importance. When I went to work for DCPS, I was ambivalent about joining the Washington Teachers' Union--I really didn't know much about unions. Despite some of her negative associations, my mother informed me I should join, that it was the right thing to do. Even then, I never developed union pride; for one, I certainly didn't enjoy funding WTU President Barbara Bullock's collection of fur coats and silver candlesticks.

I found my experiences with "management" much more pleasant and reasonable when I taught in public schools in Albemarle County, Virgina, a right-to-work state, but I don't think that had anything to do with not being unionized or not having collective bargaining power. And I did join the Albemarle Education Association chapter of the Virgina Education Association. I can't say they ever did anything directly for me, but nor did I have the need to ask them to. Many other teachers I've spoken to have described the organization as both toothless. I imagine they feel that way since teachers' salaries in Virginia are approximately five thousand dollars below market, being especially low where I live and have taught in Central Virginia. But at the very least, the VEA serves as a good resource for educators and lobbies to improve the working and learning conditions for teachers and students.

I always took for granted my middle class upbringing, which is becoming less and less possible, as middle class wages decrease and expenses increase. With all that's going on in Wisconsin, I have come to appreciate that my parents and I have been able to live a comfortable middle class life because of what labor unions fought for in the first place: fair compensation, safe working conditions, and a decent standard of living in exchange for a job done. Their fight increased wages and other forms of compensation, such as benefits and pensions, and improved working conditions for all of us.

That's why I attended the Rally to Preserve the American Dream in Richmond, Virginia, this past Saturday (pics thanks to Virginia Organizing  here) and that's why I will continue to fight for the working and middle classes and for the poor to get out of poverty. Does that mean I think that unions are uniformly or inherently "good"? No. Does that mean that I think that people who don't do their jobs should be able to keep them? No. But I don't have blind faith in the free market, either. Unions serve as a check on unfettered capitalism, and capitalism has certainly been recently unfettered. Unions are the only bulwark right now between fascist capitalism and regulated capitalism. Without the unions, we will have no middle or working class at all, only a few powerful rich and many, many poor.

The more progressive Democrats can't don't this alone, however. Traditionally more conservative members of the working and middle classes must stop voting against their own economic self-interest. Instead of asking "why should others get decent wages and healthcare insurance when we don't?" they need to fight for such basic themselves, like yes, Obamacare, and stop allowing themselves to be the lackeys of tax-dodging, overseas-job creating corporate interests who are doing nothing to advance working peoples' quality of life. Furthermore, while I have been heartened to see neo-liberals such as ObamaDuncan, and some DFER types speak out in support of the right to collective bargaining, they are in part culpable for the attacks on America's middle and working classes and their unions. Neo-liberals and centrist Democrats, their rich patrons, and their mouthpieces in the media have been busy embracing disastrous and crude education reform policies such as those of Michelle Rhee and thoughtlessly bashing teachers and their unions in the process. In doing so, they have weakened the Democratic party and middle and working classes as a whole, emboldening Republican leaders such as Scott Walker, Chris Christie, and Rick Scott and their oligarch overlords, with their ruthless free market ideology, to make a well-orchestrated and dangerous grab for power.

It's time for neo-liberals to do what's best for children and their families by changing course on their wrong-headed education policies. To do this, they must end their collaboration with corporate-sponsored union busters. You can't do what's best for our nation's children if you're crushing their parents and teachers in the process. If neo-liberals really want our children's futures to be bright, then they must fight for a quality of work and home life that will make that possible. Unions, for all of their imperfections, do that.

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