What are the right roles and responsibilities of teacher's unions?

There are two parts to this question. First, what are the general roles and responsibilities of all unions? Second, are there specific responsibilities related to teachers’ unions in particular?

To answer the first part of the question, unions represent diverse groups such as teachers, policemen, firefighters, hospital workers, and many others who provide vital services. Examples of this representation include collective bargaining, health and safety measures, and political activity. Unions, therefore, exist for and are primarily responsible to their members.

Members must have the ability to participate in the union, or to not participate, as they see fit. Because unions are involved in matters of law and because they take political action, they have additional responsibilities. Unions whose members include state employees (including most teachers) have an even greater level of public responsibility because their actions can either help or hinder the state’s pursuit of justice for all people.

As a result, when we consider the right role and responsibilities of teachers’ unions, we need to think about both their responsibilities to their members and their more general responsibilities to the public. We also need to consider how teachers have responsibilities to the unions and to the wider political community.

Teachers’ unions exist to make sure that schools treat teachers justly. They provide a variety of services to their members, including setting wages and work conditions, representing workers in employment disputes, and protecting pensions. All of these activities work towards an environment where educators can thrive both personally and professionally.

The largest function of a teachers’ union is to ensure that employees have the best possible work conditions.  Union dues are used for this purpose, as well as for political advocacy, lobbying, and campaigning for political candidates.

Traditionally, unions have been classified as “voluntary organizations.” In voluntary organizations, workers can freely choose whether or not to participate, and only those who desire representation are required to pay dues. However the designation of teachers’ unions as voluntary associations is controversial.  In some states, unions have successfully argued that all teachers benefit from the efforts of the union and should be required to pay dues whether or not they want to. This is the case in about half of the states in the U.S. 

Beyond their responsibilities to their members, teachers’ unions must also cooperate with parents, schools, and the wider public in school reform efforts. Administrators, political leaders, teachers, and parents should all have a voice in vital conversations about securing quality education for young people. Each one of these groups is a participant, or “stakeholder” in our education system. Unions play a critical role in representing the common interests of teachers, but union interests must be considered along with those of other stakeholders in order to reach just outcomes for all involved. 

When viewed correctly, unions’ responsibility to pursue justice for teachers does not threaten parents’ responsibility to secure quality education for their children or schools’ responsibility to foster students’ learning. In fact, these missions work hand in hand. Meaningful cooperation between parents, school administrators, and teachers’ unions can increase teachers’ effectiveness and improve students’ learning outcomes. On the other hand, when teachers’ unions protect poor instruction or complacency in the classroom, they do children and the greater community a disservice. 

In all of their operations, teachers unions should respect the diversity of opinion held by their own members, as well as by other groups on the difficult education reform questions of the day.  However, cooperation between unions, parents, schools, and the general public is rare. In cities across the nation, the climate surrounding public school reform is full of vitriol, where fights over a host of issues including teacher accountability, school funding, and school closings are regularly front-page news. Interest groups often stake their territory and dig in to unmovable ideological positions.

What we need is a new vision for educational diversity, one that recognizes all stakeholders while embracing a spirit of collaboration and compromise. Such a vision may be the only path to true reform. 

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