I want to believe

I would like to have a reasonable discussion with people who can explain to me why they are convinced that organized labor is a scourge to progress, growth, and prosperity. Peter Elbow holds that we would understand our world better and make better decisions if we could play the believing game as well as the doubting game: if we could become as good at seeing where those we disagree with are right as we are at seeing where they are wrong. I really want to understand how many whose intellects and hearts I respect and honor can hold such opposing views on this topic.  Many who disagree with me are my deepest and oldest friends. Please consider helping me see the world through your eyes.

Consider exhibit A: teachers. I live in a state that ranks 46th in the nation in teacher pay (p. 21 here) and is at the national vanguard of a wave of legislative efforts that are driving highly qualified and self-respecting people who also want a livable life away from the work. North Carolina is a right-to-work state, where organization of government employees has been illegal since 1959. How there can be anything other than disagreement with our legislature’s continued willingness to strip out basic protections for teachers of due process and transparency in hiring, retention, and promotion decisions? At teachers’ inability to have any voice in the matter other than the amicus briefs the NCAE is permitted before these efforts proceed mostly unimpeded?

I teach future teachers every day, and am at a loss to explain this situation to them. Why should they stay? Other than their deep commitment to the twin values of the intrinsic value of every student and the public right to education: what compels them to do this work? They will do it while risking their ability to raise and provide for a family, because of the outsized demands on their time and bank accounts and emotional soundness that are “baked in” to what the profession is becoming. I work to help them think about their relation to the work in ways that are sustainable and self-caring and sane. Which holds, on an individual level. But what can I tell them when it’s time to talk policy?

So I want to believe, because I have reached the end of the productivity of my doubting. I want to make sense of this, for me and for my students. What am I not getting? And I don’t think dueling anecdotes of atrocity really move the ball here. This issue’s urgency demands sound reasoning and data, not stories to anger the base.

So let’s do it in the comments section, below. Please be civil; I’ll moderate. Many of my former and current students read this blog too, and I invite them to join the discussion as well. Anyone? Thank you.

2 responses to “I want to believe”

  1. Because I have spent the last 20 years working in the Labor Movement, I am probably not the person you are looking for to offer an opposing view. I will nevertheless offer the following thoughts.

    The success of our economy as well as our nation’s wealth and prosperity is partially linked to productivity – our abilility to make things and deliver services. A quick Google search will produce competing studies arguing the effects of a union presence on the overall productivity of an employer or an industry. There is no disputing the notion that union workers are better paid and more highly benefitted than non-union workers. Certainly there is a strong argument for the belief that the higher wages and benefits of union shops attract the most qualified work force and therefore a more productive workforce. Additionally, an employer is likely to experience increased productivity when employees have a voice, not just in their compensation, but in the overall work environment where productivity occurs. However, productivity is not and should not be the sole measuring stick of “progress, growth and prosperity.”

    The United States has experienced a dramatic increase in worker productivity over the last 30 to 40 years. We are generating more weath than ever. At the same time, wages have flatlined, health insurance has become more costly or unavailable and pensions are no longer a reality. As a result, American families are working longer hours and spending less time with their families while failing to achieve economic security. Meanwhile, we have seen an astonishing growth in income disparity. In other words, we are creating wealth, but most of us are not bringing wealth home. This is not prosperity and it sure aint progress. These economic trends, which have had a profoundly negative effect on the prosperity of our families, are directly related to the decline in union numbers and power during the same time frame.

    I have spent much of my career organizing workers in the social services industry. I now primarily work with unions representing law enforcement and public safety workers. Social services and public safety share a few common traits with the teaching industry. First, attempts to shoehorn measurements of productivity in these fields inevitably leads to negative outcomes on both the workforce and the recipients of the services. Second, the workforce in these industries is populated by individuals who bring a high level of passion and committment to their jobs. FInally, these industries, while valued by the public, nevertheless struggle to obtain the necessary resources to allow for the effective delivery of the service.

    Without a union voice, the dedicated employees in these fields have little hope of advoating for themselves or, perhaps more importantly, for their services. Education is a perfect example. Despite the fact that Americans overwhelmingly support quality education for our kids, school districts across the country continue to find reasonable funding. There is simply not an effective advocate for quality education outside of the voice of teachers speaking through their unions. Students and parents do not have an effective voice. It is no mystery why states who allow their public employees to collectively bargain have the best funded education systems and the highest student achievement rates.

    A stong and vibrant Labor Movement leads to increased worker productivity. More importantly, unions serve an important function in assuring the wealth generated by our nation’s workforce is shared by those who produced the wealth. Finally, the political power of organized labor is necessary to ensure we commit resources to match our priorities in education, social services and public safety.

    • Thanks for this astute consideration, Lane. Not much interest in my request, otherwise – strange; usually my libertarian friends, at least, are up for some prose. Well, we can just agree with each other energetically!

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