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“Like Duh”: The Top Four Dumb Ideas About Teacher Unions And Charter Schools

It takes something quite extreme to drive Edwize to “valley girl” discourse. We are teachers and we are New Yorkers, and proud of both, so we lean toward the intellectual side of things. Ask us about that good book we just finished reading, the great jazz gig we saw over the weekend or the latest exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum, not who is on the top of the pop music charts.

But we confess that the language of the intellect just seems woefully inadequate when it comes to describing some of the incredibly stupid things that pass for informed commentary on teacher unions and charter schools in the blogosphere. In the wake of the firing of Nichole Byrne Lau, it seems that the only response that some blogging charter school advocates could mount was to fall back on these dumb ideas. Perhaps we could call those moments “sound and fury signifying nothing,” but employing a line of Shakespeare makes them sound far more substantive than they actually are. “Like duh…” seems to be a far more appropriate characterization for the sort of mindlessness that could have come straight out of the mouth of Homer Simpson. [Okay, we do know a few popular culture references.]

Here are the top four dumb ideas about teacher unions and charter schools we have seen, again and again, these last few weeks.


Teacher unions want to impose their issues and their ways of doing things on charter school teachers.

The first rule of successful organizing, the famous community organizer Saul Alinsky never tired of stressing, is that it must be done around the issues and the concerns of the people being organized. A teacher union that does not organize charter school teachers around their issues will be a teacher union that does not organize very many charter school teachers. Perhaps this is what anti-union forces in the charter school world want, but teacher unions are not likely to be so inept as to oblige them on this count.

Charter school teachers tell us that they are concerned that they can be fired, without just cause, when they do nothing more than speak up for themselves and their students. They say that they are worried that the intensity and demands of their work load will lead to burn out, and keep them from making the work they love – teaching – into a life-long career. They fear that the salary, pension and health care benefits provided by their schools, which only rarely match those in the surrounding school district, will make it impossible to raise a family at their current jobs. In all too many charter schools, they complain that their professional knowledge and skills are not respected, and that they have no voice in the important decisions of the school. Those are the issues that will be the foundation of any union organizing drive in charter schools, and those are the issues that will be the focus of collective bargaining in the charter school context.


Teacher unions insist that charter schools adopt the ‘master contract’ with the local school district.

Never mind that the actual 15 page contract we negotiated and signed with Amber Charter School, an independent start up charter school organized by the UFT, does nothing of the sort. Anti-union partisans do not feel themselves bound by such mundane things as facts.

There is more general conceptual problem here, the assumption that existing collective bargaining agreements with school districts have the status of ‘sacred scriptures’ for teacher unions. In reality, contracts are agreements between two parties, and, as such, they must express the interests and the needs of the management side as well as the labor side. They are, by their very nature, compromises. When management attacks the contract, as the Department of Education under Klein has done, what they are saying is that they don’t want to compromise with the men and women who teach New York City’s school children — they want absolute rule.

Moreover, collective bargaining agreements developed in the context of school systems organized along industrial lines, in factory model schools, are going to bear the imprint of that bureaucratic mode of organization. Collective bargaining agreements developed in the charter school context will look quite different.

All in all, there is much in existing collective bargaining agreements with school districts that teachers and teacher unions would willingly excise, reformulate in simpler ways or trade-in for a meaningful teacher voice in important decisions. We do defend the idea of collective bargaining, and the principle that there should be checks and balances on the authority of management, but that is a quite different matter from treating existing contracts as immutable, revealed truth. Far from defending and extending the status quo, we are looking for ways to negotiate better contracts, and to create post-industrial, bureaucracy free schools which work better for students and for teachers.


Teacher unions insist that teachers in charter schools who earn more than they would under the ‘master contract’ with the local school district have their salaries lowered.

We should only have the opportunity to do such a stupid thing. If the salaries of charter schools actually surpassed the terms of the collective bargaining agreement with the school district, it would push the area labor market for all teachers toward a higher salary. When employers compete with better salaries, benefits and working conditions to attract the most skilled and accomplished employees, the employees benefit. Rather than attempting to thwart such a development, we would do our best to encourage it. In the words of that great Republican, “Go ahead, pay teachers more: make our day.”

The little problem here is reality. Eveywhere we look, charter schools pay less than teachers would get under the ‘master contract,’ thus stimulating a ‘race to the bottom’ rather than a healthy labor market. In New York City, we have yet to see a single start-up charter school that pays a better salary than the Department of Education. When one looks past the usual grandstanding spin of Eva Moskowitz on this question, you discover that the additional pay her charter school offers does not even fully compensate the additional time she is demanding of the teachers, much less pay them more, and that the health benefits and pension her school provides do not come close to those provided under the collective bargaining agreement with New York City.

Teacher unions want automatic unionization, forcing charter school teachers into the union without their consent.

A union does not reside in office, or in elected officials; it resides in the collective will, the solidarity, of the members. With that will, a great deal is possible; without it, very little. There are no shortcuts that can avoid the sort of ‘nuts and bolts’ organizing a union needs to build solidarity and collective will.

The irony here is that not only among charter schools, but throughout the United States, the reality is not one of workers being forced, against their will, into unions, but of workers being the subject of harassment, threats, firing and other retaliations for exercising their First Amendment freedom of association right to organize a union. In the United States, almost 23,000 workers are fired or harassed each year for attempting to organize a union. According to a study conducted by the University of Illinois at Chicago ’s Center for Urban Economic Development (CUED), Undermining the Right to Organize,

* 30% of American employers fire pro-union workers.
* 49% of American employers threaten to close a worksite when workers try to form a union.
* 51% of American employers coerce workers into opposing unions with bribery or favoritism.
* 82% of American employers hire union-busting consultants to fight organizing drives.
* 91% of American employers force employees to attend one-on-one anti-union meetings with supervisors.

The denial of the freedom of association for American workers is so widespread that the international human rights organization Human Rights Watch has issued a 300+ page report condemning it, Unfair Advantage: Workers’ Freedom of Association in the United States under International Human Rights Standards.

There are those who think that the Bill of Rights ends at the workplace – and schoolhouse – door. They are adamant that charter schools be a union-free zone. Rather than defend that position, they claim — against all evidence — that teacher unions believe in forcing teachers into unions. There is a name for such behavior: it’s called projection.