A union member speaks out in the Providence Journal Online.
By Brian Golas
I’m a teacher at Coventry High School and have been teaching for 23 years. As a member of a teachers union, I have lobbied for my union, and have sat on a committee to interview people running for public office to decide if the union should endorse them.
But it is important to note that a teachers union is not about children or education. Teachers, as individuals, are about children and education. But a teachers union is about negotiating the most lucrative contract for its membership. Period.
The union uses its influence to ensure that the largest possible budget is passed so that it has the most leverage in contract negotiations. It does this in several ways.
One is to use its money and organization to help get union-friendly politicians elected to school committees and town councils. A candidate who does not give union-friendly answers does not get a union endorsement, receive a union stipend or obtain free labor and organization to help put out political mailings and signs.
One way of passing an inflated school budget is flooding meetings with as many teachers as possible to “advocate for education.” Teachers who live in the town are called upon because they can actually speak at those meetings as taxpayers. If the union is especially worried, other teachers who live outside the district are “encouraged” to attend just to add numbers and “support.” Non-resident teachers can’t speak at meetings, but they can, in general, make noise and drown out opposition.
Members are told this is done to “support education,” but it’s really an intimidation tactic to pressure local politicians into putting money into the school system.
The message of teachers, at these meetings, is tactically student-based. They speak about the danger of students losing extracurricular activities such as sports, and about large class sizes hurting students. They tell stories of struggling students who have fallen through the cracks because of a lack of resources.
These stories are meant to invoke emotions and present a picture of the noble teacher fighting for his or her students against cruel, unfeeling and cheap individuals who don’t want taxes raised and don’t care about kids. But it’s really about money for contracts.
I have endured a moral conflict for some time now. I make a good living because my union has always negotiated a good contract. I admit I had a hard time making ends meet when I taught in private schools. I have the utmost respect for my union president. She is a good friend. I am friends with, and care about, my colleagues.
But I have a moral problem when negotiations, on my behalf, hurt that student whose family pulls in $48,000 a year, or whose single mom is forced to cut back even more because the town just raised her taxes “for education.”
I have a moral problem when I see my colleagues put their own interests before the best interests of the community that employs them. It is particularly disturbing to see teachers abuse their position as trusted authority figures and coerce children to work for them by filling them with fears of canceled extracurricular programs. Any teacher who does this is acting unethically and should be called out. Working for the community, as a whole, is noble. Working for the union can be selfish.
If a teacher speaks of children being hurt, it is right to question whether that teacher is acting in the best interest of children or the best interest of the union. If a committee member vehemently supports raising the school budget, it is right to ask, “Has this person been endorsed by the union?”
Teaching is a noble and ministerial profession. As a former Army officer and veteran, I learned that serving people is good and right, but I’m saddened when my union infuses my profession with one-sided politics that sometimes hurts people.
Children cannot be separated from their families. When parents feel the anxiety of a tight home budget, that anxiety is passed on to children and they are hurt by it.
Brian Golas is a physics teacher at Coventry High School.