I grew up in the 1950s and 1960s, when Labor Unions not only had power in this country but also, generally, had respect . Times change, history changes things. In 2020 “organized labor” is almost extinct --- with the exception of several still-powerful unions: the United Auto Workers, AFSCME (Federal, State, County, Municipal workers), the Teachers Union (NEA/UFT) and police unions/”benevolent associations.” These groups have retained political power because they have a national network that can not only muster financial $upport for candidates but can also mobilize hundreds and thousands of “boots on the ground” volunteers to help elect people. What I want to examine here are the similarities between the Teachers Union (which I am intimately familiar with) and the Police Union (writ large, as Police are locally or regionally organized and there isn’t one overarching hierarchy calling the shots). In particular, both organizations tend to place protecting their members above the public interest.
Let’s first look at the NEA/UFT, the AFL-CIO affiliates who count over 3 million teachers in their membership (about 76% of teachers, nationally). In my 42 years as an educator, about half of that time was as a member of the New York State/City United Teachers union (the United Federation of Teachers/UFT). Organized by Albert Shanker in 1960, the UFT’s stated goals were: Dignity and respect. Professionalism and due process. Competitive wages and benefits. (UFT website – uft.org) By the time I became a professional teacher in 1973, the UFT had gained significant political power in New York City & State, “protecting” members from unfair labor practices and ensuring them of fair wages and benefits! That’s great, of course, particularly if you’re a 24 year old starting out but there’s a downside to being organized as a labor union and that became more apparent to me as my career progressed.
Unlike doctors and lawyers, who organized professionally as “associations” and certified their members by creating a national board examination, thereby regulating and controlling their profession, teachers organized as a labor union, meaning its members would be certified by the State and, thereby were no different than any other labor union: carpenters, plumbers, electricians, et al. Labor unions, as we know, are focused on wages, hours, working conditions, and benefits --- a natural result of having worked for predatory capitalist owners/management, particularly starting in the late 19th century. The problem for teachers, though, is not that they do not deserve to be treated fairly and with respect (as professionals)but by not organizing professionally, like doctors and lawyers, they are not seen or treated as professionals but as laborers. The larger problem this introduces --- and I saw this more than once --- is that clearly deficient or blatantly incompetent people are protected by the Teachers Union. And this is where the comparison to police unions/associations intersects with teachers. The protection of union members supersedes the public good --- period.
When I worked as a Teacher-educator at Brown (and Yale) University for 13 years I actively counseled people out of the profession because it was clear they should not be certified to teach children. Similarly, when the Lovely Carol Marie worked as a school administrator (Vice-Principal), she would do whatever she could to, at the very least, minimize the interactions poor or incompetent teachers had with students. Early in my career I watched David Schein, my first principal, do the same thing at Blind Brook Jr./Sr. High School --- setting up situations where poor or incompetent teachers would do minimal damage to the growth and progress of young people. The point here is that the public good has been entrusted to teachers and, professionally, we, as teachers, need to ensure that those who are not competent, those who might damage the educational growth or progress of students, need to be removed from the profession. However, because there is a need for thousands and thousands of teachers, and because “the State” certifies teachers the same way it certifies plumbers and electricians, the quality control needed to ensure the legitimacy of the profession (what the Law Boards and Med Boards provide for lawyers and doctors) is not in the hands of professional teachers. This leads to the larger problem of the Teacher Union operating like a labor union and only protecting its members (rather than protecting the professionalism of teaching) and policing itself so that those members who are deficient receive assistance and those who are incompetent are “encouraged” to move on to another line of work.
And that’s where Teacher Unions and Police Organizations intersect. If you have seen or heard Patrick Lynch, the President of the 25,000 member Police Benevolent Association of New York City, you know that his only purpose is to protect his members --- even at the cost of public safety, social justice, and equity. Lynch’s defense of the officers in the Eric Garner murder, his attack on Teacher Union President Michael Mulgrew for supporting the end of stop-and-frisk, and his current stand against the repeal of “50a,” the New York law that keeps police personnel records sealed, not allowing the public to know if there have been (repeated/numerous) incidents of violence against civilians, illustrates how the police union refuses to police itself --- just like the Teachers Union.
Until the organizations that protect their members over the good of the public, we will not be able to work with these groups in productive ways. As much as I was a committed member of NYSUT (New York State United Teachers) during my years as a classroom teachers, I actively worked at trying to reform my profession, raising questions about how we were monitoring our profession. Needless to say, this often fell on deaf ears --- just as it does with Police Unions/Associations/Organizations. The we/they, us/them mentality that exists between these organizations and not only their “management” (School Boards, City Councils, et al) but also, and most importantly, their constituents, is damaging to all of us and needs reform. That does not mean “defunding” but re-allocation of resources. Teachers and Police have been asked to assume too many roles in our complex society. Issues regarding mental & physical health, housing and welfare, and a raft of other social issues have fallen into the lap of teachers and police. It is incumbent upon political leaders to not only provide adequate preparation of teachers and police but to also create more equitable work responsibilities for these professions That is the conversation we needed to have over the past 50 years and it is certainly the conversation we need to have right now.
Stay home, Wash your hands. Stay safe.