55 Strong: Lessons from the West Virginia Teachers Strike

In our latest episode, Have You Heard talks to teachers in West Virginia (lots of them!) about the nine-day walkout that shuttered schools across the state – and what they think teachers in other states can learn from their powerful example. And a special thanks to all of the Mountain State teachers who helped out with this episode, sharing your stories and your insights. We learned a lot and think that listeners will too. Complete transcript available here.

Labor Pains

I talk to veteran union critic Mike Antonucci about what’s next for unions, whether charter school teacher organizing is *a thing,* and whether he has any advice for teacher union heads Randi Weingarten and Lily Eskelsen Garcia…

Image result for janusJennifer Berkshire: You’ve been predicting that it’s only a matter of time until the Supreme Court delivers a crushing blow vs. public sector unions. This interview has barely started and your powers of prediction are already being borne out. What happens next?

Mike Antonucci: Essentially agency fees [which require public employees who choose not to join a union to instead pay a fee to the union] will be banned regardless of what state you’re in. There’s no question it will be momentous change, but as long as there is collective bargaining it won’t be *the end of unions,* as some have claimed. I’ve used Florida or Nevada as the model for what public sector unions will all look like post-agency fee. Heck, before their recent problems, the Alabama Education Association was the dominant force in that state’s politics. So I don’t want to downplay it, but I think both sides are somewhat overstating the effect it will have externally. Internally there will have to be belt-tightening. That’s where we’ll see the real fireworks.

Berkshire: I want to dwell for a moment on the name of the gentleman at the heart of the case that now appears to be headed to the Supreme Court. It’s Janus, which is also the Roman god whose two faces look to the past and the future. This strikes me as a perfect metaphor for the state of unions right now: both stuck in the past, unable to adjust to the changing nature of work and workplaces, yet in many ways more necessary than ever.

Antonucci: The unions that we have now haven’t changed in any significant way since the late 70’s, and this is especially true of the public sector unions. They’re working in a world that no longer exists. I’ve written a lot about the lack of input from younger teachers and millennials in the teachers unions. The union is sincere about wanting to get more of those members into the leadership, and yet the paradox that I always see is that those teachers have different priorities, different ways of looking at things and different things that they want from the union. Some people are going to want to set up their own conditions of employment. They feel comfortable setting a value on their own labor and going to an employer and saying: *this is what I’m worth and this is what I want.* A lot of the economy works that way now. Other people are going to need representation of some sort, whether it’s a union or some other kind of agent. Some of them will bond together to make a larger group with unified interests so that they can negotiate as one to get what they want. All of those things will continue to be true into the future. Continue reading →

What If Everything You Thought You Knew About Teachers Unions Turned Out to be Wrong?

Iowa just became the latest state to limit collective bargaining rights for teachers. In other states, that’s meant big salary cuts for teachers…

Jennifer Berkshire: It’s a well-known true fact that teachers unions make it much harder to get rid of bad teachers. But you conducted a study that purports to find the opposite. In fact, you titled your study The Myth of Unions’ Overprotection of Bad Teachers. Tell us about what you found.

Eunice Han: What I found is that the facts are the opposite of what people think: that highly unionized districts actually fire more bad teachers.

Berkshire: That sound you just heard was of jaws collectively dropping. While we give readers a chance to re-combombulate themselves (and arm themselves anew with anecdotes), can you walk us through your argument? And feel free to use a formula. 

Han: It’s pretty simple, really. By demanding higher salaries for teachers, unions give school districts a strong incentive to dismiss ineffective teachers before they get tenure. Highly unionized districts dismiss more bad teachers because it costs more to keep them. Using three different kinds of survey data from the National Center for Education Statistics, I confirmed that unionized districts dismiss more low-quality teachers than those with weak unions formula2or no unions. Unionized districts also retain more high-quality teachers relative to district with weak unionism. No matter how and when I measured unionism I found that unions lowered teacher attrition. This is important because many studies have found that higher quality teachers have a greater chance of leaving the profession. Since unionized districts dismiss more bad teachers while keeping more good teachers, we should expect to observe higher teacher quality in highly unionized districts than less unionized districts – and this is exactly what I found. Highly unionized districts have more qualified teachers compared to districts with weak unionism. Continue reading →

Teachers at a Cleveland Charter School Organize a Union – for Some Really Big Reasons


Teacher Jacqueline Lehane with her first grade students.

*These kids deserve amazing teachers and teachers who want to be here and who have the support and resources they need—like we had when we were kids.*

For Jacqueline Lehane, it was the teacher demerit system at her Cleveland charter school that was the last straw. Teachers who’d been heard talking in the hallway, or whose students had been spotted with an untucked shirt, would be called out via an official email entitled *Quick Hits,* on which teachers, school and network administrators were copied. *It’s just public humiliation,* says Lehane, whose *hits* included having a messy classroom after her first graders completed an art project. To Lehane, this top-down shaming was a symbol of everything that was wrong with the school. *Once I even asked a dean, ‘do people who are higher up than you treat you the way you treat us?’*

If all you know about unions is that they are protectors of the status quo, responsible for everything that’s wrong with public education, I’m guessing you have no idea how hard it is to actually organize one. By the time Lehane and her colleagues at the University of Cleveland Preparatory School, part of the I CAN network, voted 18-4 to join the Ohio Federation of Teachers, the teachers had spent two years trying to form a union. Administrators responded, first by attempting to intimidate teachers into changing their minds, then firing the teachers who they’d identified as leading the effort. Seven teachers at the school were fired as punishment—such a clear and blatant act of retaliation that the National Labor Relations Board ordered I CAN to reinstate the teachers and give them full back pay. (I first wrote about their story here.)
Continue reading →

The Future of Teachers Unions?

Education reform advocate Eric Lerum and I talk about the future of teacher unions. In a bar. 

Well that went well… Oral arguments in the Supreme Court room drama of the year, Friedrichs vs. California Teachers Association, are a wrap. And with the justices widely expected to hand down a decision that will [insert devastating verb here] public sector unions, I invited education reform advocate Eric Lerum, formerly of Students First, to join me in a different kind of oral argument. We recently sat down at a NYC bar to chew (and sip) over some big questions: do teacher unions have any future? How have teachers fared in the four states that have restricted collective bargaining since 2011? (Spoiler alert: not well.) What about the growing number of charter school teachers who are organizing unions? And do we really want a country where the ultra-rich exert unchecked influence over everything? OK – that last one was my question. More beer please!