The pro's and con's of being in a teacher's union
Ira Schildkraut is chairman of the social studies department at Freeport High School in Freeport, N.Y., an advisor to the school newspaper, as well as a journalism instructor.
He was membership chairman of the Freeport Teachers Association (FTA), an affiliate of the New York State American Federation of Teachers. In 1977, after nine years in the FTA and NYTA he resigned. It was a difficult decision, but one he felt he had to make. He explains why:
''I used to be membership chairman of the FTA and saw how it was run and what the concerns were, and it turned me off.
''For example, in the blizzard of '77 Freeport lost three school days. The days were to be made up over Easter and Passover. The president of the union wrote a letter and asked the days not be made up - in effect the days were not made up. How professional can we be if the organization that represents us says that days of education are not important? This was the breaking point for me, and I tendered my resignation.''
He has strong reservations about blurring the distincitions between the function of a union and that of a professional organization.
''Teachers today keep insisting they are professional. I don't see how professionals fit into a labor-union movement. Maybe I'm being snobbish, but if we say we are professional, it is incongruous to belong to a union.
''A labor union has in mind, if it is going to do its job, only what's good for its members, and I feel for this profession (teaching) that would be and is a disaster.
''I am not opposed to a real teacher association like the AMA or the ADA.'' (He is a member of the Columbia Scholastic Press Advisors Association.) ''This association benefits both me and my journalism students, as well as the students who run the high school newspaper which I advise.''
Mr. Schildkraut feels teacher unionization may have happened too fast. ''In New York we have made efforts over the years to be classified as professionals. When I first came to Freeport no one dared say the word union, the word was an anathema.
''Freeport, like many other districts in New York, just got swept up at the state level and became aligned to the AFL-CIO, the AFT, and the New York State Teacher Association. Freeport just went along. I became concerned with what suddenly the union was interested in - for me it was no longer a professional organization. . . .''
One question Mr. Schildkraut wants unions to address is: ''What is it that they have done for the education of students?'' In his opinion, not nearly enough.
''A union may get involved in class size, but almost always from the point of view of the teachers, not necessarily students.
''A professional organization will look both ways. Certain clauses in the contract about student discipline and certain provisions about voluntary and involuntary transfer of teachers which in the long term may benefit studies.
''But for the most part I feel the contract interpretations are picayune. A union really only looks one way, and it seems that teachers want it both ways by being in a union.
"I would like a teachers' association to be more concerned with the needs of students. A teaching assocation should be concerned about students, about special needs and document those needs. Now it's cafeteria duty, salaries - and not with how many psychologists should the district have, how many reading teachers.
''As long as the union says we're interested in job security rather than education count me out. . . . And I'm opposed to permanent tenure. I would rather have renewable five-year tenure. A profession needs to set its own standards. Most people I've encountered don't care, or are satisfied. Just ask: 'What teaching standards do unions set?' ''
It is clear that in Mr. Schildkraut's opinion the net loss in respect for the teaching profession outweighs the gains of unionization.
Judy Kell is a fourth- and fifth-grade teacher of the gifted in the San Francisco public schools. She has been teaching for 19 years and has taught on every grade level in elementary school but kindergarten.
San Francisco teachers recently changed union representation. A majority of teachers in the district voted out one union and chose another. Ms. Kell was active in supporting the union voted in.
''Teaching as a profession is not a branch of private industry. Public schools depend on monies from different government sources, and we need leverage to secure monies for education. We need lobbying power at the state level through political action. This is why I belong to a union.''
The principle reason Ms. Kell feels teacher's should unionize is: ''We can't raise our prices like private industry can - and let's face it, everybody wants to tell us how to teach.
''But we are the professionals, and a union creates the attitude that we can sit down like equals with the school board, the administration, even the state legislature when necessary.''
As to the issue of unions being self-serving for teachers, she says: ''I believe what is good for teachers is ultimately good for students. A union can serve to bring the community together on kid's issues. A union is closer to teacher input as it exists in the classroom. Teachers are the ones who know what they need.
''I believe teaching salaries are higher as a result of unions. True collective bargaining is only about five years old and this has occured at a time of declining enrollments, so it is difficult to determine what impact unions have had over entry of teachers into the profession. Tenure is nothing more than due process. The union just wants to make sure of due process in the case of a dismissal of a teacher. It should be seen as protection from arbitrary administrative interpretations and actions not spelled out in the contract.''
Specific examples of how unions help education would include the following for Ms. Kell: ''Unions have sought lower class sizes, and this has to help instruction. The recent contract in San Francisco has resulted in less antagonism with the administration, I believe. A better sense of understanding exists on both sides.
''People must look to the reasons why they take their kids out of the public schools. Our union produces a letter that goes out regularly to the community supporting the schools.
''A strong union is a highly organized institutional way to protect the best interests of schools, students, and teachers in a time of budget cuts. The experience and skills to do so, especially in bigger cities, are all right there in the membership. They just have to be organized and communicated to the community.''
Judy Steigerwald has been a business teacher at Glen Cove High School in Glen Cove, New York, for 14 years. She is the union's grievance representative and has a job-oriented perspective on unions rather than a professional one.
''Practically speaking a union negotiates the best possible salary, conditions, and benefits for its members.
''How else are the 262 teachers in our district going to come to an agreement with the school board and the administration. Have 262 separate contracts? One negotiating team can represent many teachers.
''What must be kept in mind is that in most of our hassles most of the problems don't ever get written down. A phone call takes care of them.
''I'll be a happier teacher if I'm paid better, paid what my education and experience are worth. And if I'm happier, I'll be more effective.''
Ms. Steigerwald points out a key distinction that often gets blurred when people think of teacher unions.
''There is a big difference between the local and state level in a teacher union. I also think confusion occurs when unions are viewed as trying to do too much.
''Teachers all have the opportunity to belong to professional organizations in their teaching specialties (e.g., the National Council of Teachers of English or the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.) These organizations will help teachers' classroom performance.''