When unions are under attack, I think of my 31 years as an elementary school teacher in Perth Amboy and my two sons — a firefighter in Perth Amboy and a Monmouth County corrections officer. Both my sons put their lives on the line every day and depend on union brothers and sisters (mostly brothers) to protect one another. During my career I depended on my union sisters and brother (more sisters than brothers since more women go into teaching) for guidance, camaraderie, and — particularly when times became difficult for educators — support and protection.
This term the U.S. Supreme Court is considering Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, which could weaken unions and make it harder for working people to come together and negotiate for better wages, benefits, and working conditions. States without such provisions lag behind stronger union states such as New Jersey in education attainment for students and health outcomes and higher in family and childhood poverty. Throughout the United States (and in other countries) objective measures show that when unions are weaker working people bring homes less, have fewer benefits, and the balance of power shifts to the rich and privileged with disastrous public health and economic outcomes for the overall society.
During my career, the union functioned as a valuable tool for learning my craft as an educator, receiving professional development from my peers, and subsequently mentoring new teachers. I learned to help new teachers channel their enthusiasm and excitement into developing great lesson plans, mastering the daily routine of reaching out to students as unique individuals, and dealing with observations and evaluations.
Many factors influence success in teaching, but I have seen new teachers thrive when mentored through having the confidential support system unions promote. My union helped create a safe space to have frank discussions with my colleagues about what works for each student and how to best maximize their potential, in a much different way than high stakes testing and state-mandated evaluations can count.
Other than being recognized by former students for making a difference in their lives, one of my greatest joys is seeing the success of the volunteer literacy program I helped start for my students’ parents. We stayed late to open the school so they would feel comfortable assisting their children — a program particularly needed in Perth Amboy where a majority of our students are coming from homes where English is not the primary language. The idea came from my union colleagues in other states and our local now sponsors an annual literacy fair along with many voluntary professional development programs.
While my sons depend on their unions to make sure staffing levels are maintained and safety equipment is available, our union advocates for smaller class sizes, nurses in the schools, and community services for families.
The union helps balance power when people were unfairly harassed and would have lost their jobs if not for due-process protections and a strong union. I have seen good teachers who give back to the district and their students have their careers jeopardized because of heresy and false accusations. Fortunately the union made sure they were kept in place and able to continue working with dignity and respect.
My local union does not coddle poor teachers or those with disciplinary problems that rated termination; instead counseling them out and taking responsibility for maintaining the integrity of our profession. In this way, we earned the respect of management so when we stand up for a teacher they knew we are serious.
Those of us who are public workers in the schools, the hospitals, and the fire stations cannot influence the legal outcome of Friedrichs or any other well-funded legal attacks on unions. If unions lose rights to court decisions, members and the communities we serve will suffer. What we can and will continue to do is to be committed professionals and engage through our unions to improve the individual and collective impact on the lives we touch. That is the nature of our work and it becomes even more necessary the tougher times become.