I sometimes hear people – often very smart and reasonable people – talk about whether “we need teachers’ unions." These statements frequently take the form of, “We wouldn’t need teachers’ unions if…," followed by some counterfactual situation such as “teachers were better-paid." In most cases, these kinds of musings reflect “pro-teacher” sentiments – they point out the things that are wrong with public education, and that without these things unions would be unnecessary.
I’d just like to make a very quick comment about this line of reasoning, one that is intended to be entirely non-hostile. The question of whether or not “we need teachers’ unions," though often well-intentioned, is inappropriate.
It’s not up to “us." The choice belongs to teachers.
Laws pertaining to unions and collective bargaining are of course highly complex, and light years outside the realm of my personal expertise, but the right of workers to organize is grounded in the rights to freedom of speech, freedom of association and freedom of assembly. Americans have a Constitutionally-guaranteed right to get together, pool resources, and advocate for what they believe – whether in the form of a labor organization, a small protest, or a celebrity fan club.
Everyone is entitled to their own opinion about whether collective bargaining should be limited to certain areas, or taken away entirely – it’s a free country – but the freedom to form a union is fundamental and, at least in theory, is protected by law. In the case of teachers, unions exist because teachers want a voice in their workplace. That is why, even in states where collective bargaining is prohibited or restricted, and membership (and dues) is purely voluntary, teachers’ unions can still be influential.
So, I say we should be careful about discussing any unions – for teachers or any workers – in terms of whether or not the rest of us need or want them. Not only does it sort of imply that “we” know what’s best for these workers, but, if you'll permit me a slight overstatement, asking if we need unions is just a step or two away from asking whether we need freedom.
- Matt Di Carlo