Recently we had the Labor Roundtable and much interesting discussion on the nature and necessity of organized labor in America ensued. I’ve cooled on the idea of unions lately, at least in their current form, and have had a number of really good conversations in the past couple of days after writing this post, about unions and particularly teachers unions.
Certainly teachers unions represent a major obstacle to reform of our education system. In that sense, I both approve and disapprove of their influence. I approve of any efforts to curtail high-stakes testing, and unions certainly are avid opponents of such testing. But it’s also true that at least part of the reason we’ve come to this point in the first place is that unions have consistently opposed reforms across the board – not just high-stakes testing. Using tests as a metric for teachers is one way reformers are attempting to break the inertia created by unions. I think it’s an unfortunate way to go about it, but it’s not surprising that this – along with school choice efforts – have focused on curbing union power.
At some point, everything needs to be seen through the lens of special interests. Boiling things down to corporate reformers who want to end public education vs. teachers who only care about themselves is silly. The truth is more complicated, just like the truth about Medicare reforms is more complicated and involves special interests looking out for self-interest in ways that are not conspiratorial so much as pragmatic.
I find myself, lately, looking at both reformers and the unions/education-establishment and thinking everyone is wrong. We need a third way.
So let’s assume for a moment that teacher unions as they currently exist were to become extinct. This would open many reform doors not now available. The question I have is this: what replaces unions to give workers voice? Broadening the scope somewhat, what replaces unions in the economy as a whole in giving workers voice and agency?