The Importance of Teachers Supporting their Unions

Why it’s becoming more critical for teachers to support their unions.

From winning the fight against gender inequality to spearheading negotiations to avoid strikes, teachers unions have a long history of gaining power and achieving varying levels of success for their members. With national and state unions also supporting local affiliates throughout the United States, teachers unions are needed more than ever. The educational climate in the U.S. is drastically changing, as legislative powers and the public seek someone to blame for increasing failures occurring throughout the nation’s education systems.

The importance of teachers joining and supporting their union is seen in the need to continue strengthening the organizations which possess the ability and influence to improve the workplace conditions, pay, benefits and job security of those employed in today’s public school system.

What Does a Teachers Union Do?

The primary objectives and benefits associated with teachers unions have shifted since the inception of the first organization in 1857.  However, the goals and agendas associated with today’s education-related unions generally include the following obligations:

Protect the Rights and Jobs of Teachers: In the past, it was not uncommon for the First Amendment rights of teachers to be grossly denied. Because of unionization – educators are now able to voice their opinions and champion causes without fear of retaliation. Unions have fought against restrictive school district requirements (such as teachers in the 1930s expected to take an anti-communist loyalty oath), and represented members treated differently when they disagree with new policies or the viewpoints of their administrators.

At one time, teachers in New York City could be punished for the arrangement of classroom furniture, the exact duration of lesson units and the format of bulletin boards, until the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) successfully pushed for adding language to contracts that granted leniency and increased protection for educators.

Collective Bargaining: Teachers unions are behind the differences in pay between private school- and public school educators. Private school teachers (such as those who work in Catholic schools) are not unionized, and according to a piece titled 3 Important Functions of Teachers Unions, the author remarked that when school funding comes “from collection plates,” teachers tend to make 80 percent of what public school teachers earn.

Indirectly Aid in Student Achievement: Several studies have been conducted, including highly-regarded findings from Arizona State University, which suggest that schools with unionized teachers often lead to higher achieving students. The former head of the National Education Association (NEA), John Wilson, noted a difference in the test scores and graduation rates of unionized schools versus non-unionized schools. He credits unions with creating better working conditions and higher pay for teachers, for having a positive effect on student performance.

Additionally, a correlation has been made between countries leading in student performance and having some of the strongest teachers unions in the world.

Provide Career and Professional Development Resources: Teachers unions offer several state-specific and nationwide opportunities for educators to develop as a professional. The NEA provides support staff assistance, mentorship training, leadership training, and hosts national conferences. The American Federation of Teachers (AFT) has an Educational Research and Development Program which connects teachers and researchers together to promote better education and teaching approaches using research, studies and other analysis. Teachers unions also offer workshops, online sessions, teaching strategy tools and resources, as well as scholarship opportunities for teachers seeking an advanced degree or national board certification.

Keep Teachers and Students Safe: When failure to meet the minimal requirements for cleanliness and sanitation practices occurs within the public school system, unions work on behalf of teachers and students to uphold their safety. This may include addressing asbestos problems, advocating for improved indoor air quality, and supporting local and state campaigns for healthier and environmentally safer schools.

Promote and Influence Education Reform: Teachers unions become involved in politics and support candidates which can positively affect educators and the quality of education. Issues that both the AFT and NEA have taken interest in include merit pay, charter schools, and teacher evaluations. As demonstrated in Chicago, teachers unions continue to make an impact on education reform in some of the largest cities in the U.S.

Provide Liability Insurance and Legal Advice: Teachers are not exempt from being sued by a parent or needing legal representation for a school employment issue, and as a member of a union, they receive advice and counsel, when necessary. Teachers unions, such as the AFT and NEA, also provide liability insurance to members as a safeguard against unforeseen accidents, injury, and/or other incidents that can occur in a classroom. Without this assistance, teachers would have to pay out-of-pocket for lawyers and legal counsel.

Aid Advocacy Efforts: Teachers often serve as advocates for individual students, their place of employment, and their school district. Unions encourage and assist in a teacher’s desire to improve the quality of education for their students. For example, the NEA’s Priority Schools Campaign and their grievance process are set up to help disadvantaged schools obtain an adequate supply of books and course materials. In the past, AFT affiliates in Ohio and Michigan have organized book drives to gather tens of thousands of books for low-income families with children.

Educate and Inform: In addition to providing reading materials and online references, teachers unions also educate members in other ways. For example, although school board meetings are open to teachers, scheduling conflicts can prevent their attendance and participation. Some union leaders proactively keep teachers in the loop by providing an outline of the board’s topics of discussion, decisions made, and current issues affecting the school district.

Fight Against Privatization of Public Schools: Teachers unions play a significant role in preventing legislation which essentially places corporations in the control of public school education. These entities are typically viewed as being more concerned with turning a profit rather than operating in the best interest of education and the children.

Privatized schools provide teachers with limited contracts, and according to school teacher Chris Guerrieri’s opinions in ‘The Importance of Teachers Unions in Florida,’ locals will no longer have a say in the education policies implemented since privatized schools could be managed from anywhere in the U.S. or overseas.

Diane Ravitch equates the privatization of public schools as “corporate-style school reform” where teachers unions stand in the way of those who push for the unmonitored power to “assign, reward, punish, or remove their employees.” Therefore, teachers unions are fundamentally fighting for job security when they speak out against the privatization of public education.

Offer Additional Union-Related Perks: Members of a teachers union are also able to benefit from several discount program opportunities that include life insurance benefits, credit cards with special rewards, mortgage assistance, and shopping discounts.

Here is an Overview of the Two Largest Teachers Unions in the U.S.

In the United States, the two major teachers unions are the National Education Association (NEA) and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT). Although the two entities share common ground, such as membership fees (union dues), member benefits, scholarship and grant opportunities and a strong following, there are a few differences to note:

National Education Association (NEA)

Operating as the largest labor union in the United States that represents public school teachers, the National Education Association boasts more than 3.2 million members with affiliate organizations in every state. Established in 1857, the trade union (now headquartered in Washington, D.C.) began as a professional organization initially dedicated to addressing a wide range of education-related concerns, such as raising teaching salaries, fighting child labor laws, and the education of emancipated slaves.

In addition to representing public school teachers, the organization now serves college/university faculty and staff, retired educators, and college students pursuing a career as a teacher.

Options for NEA membership include:

  • Active Professional/Certified: For those public education employees in a certified position within a public school district, including counselors, librarians and school administrators with a teaching certificate.
  • Active Education Support Professional (ESP)/Classified: For those employed in public education as support staff, such as classroom aides, secretaries, and food service workers.
  • Retired: For retirees eligible to collect a pension from an education-related employer, and who are no longer working within the public education system, there are annual and lifetime memberships available. The NEA also offers a Pre-Retired Subscription for those currently working, yet nearing retirement.
  • Student Membership: Available to students enrolled in a post-secondary program with future plans to become a teacher in a public school system.

Members of the NEA receive support at the local, state and national levels – ranging from statewide education policy reform to lobbying federal agencies and the U.S. Congress on behalf of members and public schools. Teachers also receive NEA-specific member benefits, such as:

  • NEA-related savings on various insurances, such as life, health, home, auto, pet, and specialty options for motorcycles, RVs and boats.
  • In addition to NEA’s popular Click & Save discount program, members also enjoy opportunities to save on online shopping, and items for the home, car and classroom.
  • Travel benefits include discounts on car rentals and select hotel stays.
  • Ability to apply for various NEA-branded credit cards, including a Cash Rewards option with bonus offers and opportunities to save with qualifying cash back purchases.
  • Access to lesson plans and activities, grants/awards, discounted online professional development, discussion forums, and reference center.

American Federation of Teachers (AFT)

Originally known as the American Federation of Teachers and Students, the Chicago-based American Federation of Teachers was founded in 1916 when several local unions joined forces to stand united against salary discrepancies and discrimination against female teachers. According to American Teacher magazine, female teachers worked under biased contracts – some of which dictated the length of their skirts, and placed restrictions regarding the number of visits they could receive from “gentleman callers.”

Unlike the NEA which began as a professional organization, the AFT has always operated as a union, and today, represents over 1.6 million members with more than 3,000 local affiliates throughout the U.S. In addition to representing pre-K through 12th-grade public school teachers, the AFT also supports higher education faculty, school-related personnel, healthcare professionals, government employees on the local, state and federal level, as well as professional staffers employed in public education. Approximately 80,000 early childhood educators and nearly 250,000 retiree members are also members of the AFT.

Upon joining the AFT, members gain access to the following union-specific benefits:

  • Exclusive member benefit and services, and access to industry-wide information and resources, such as award-winning publications, like American Teacher, American Educator, AFT on Campus, Public Employee Advocate, and PSRP Reporter
  • Health club discounts and medical screenings
  • Legal and financial services
  • Online shopping savings on goods and services, such as flowers, computers, tires, magazines, wireless carriers, and cosmetics
  • Travel and entertainment discounts, ranging from rental cars and hotel stays to moving trucks and the arts
  • Eligibility to apply for one of a few AFT-branded credit cards with special features

Throughout the United States, individual states can have a handful of geographic-centered teachers unions (often affiliated with one of the two above-mentioned leading unions).

How Do I Join a Teachers Union?

Unions accept teachers affiliated with the public school system as members, while private school educators are not eligible to join. Private schools are independent institutions untouched by the government and state regulations that oversee the educational future and taxpayer’s interests regarding public schools. Unions have no influence over a private school teacher’s employment, and are unable to speak on their behalf.

With that being said, the district in which a teacher works typically dictates the union he or she will ultimately join–generally becoming a member of a local union, which is connected to the state and national affiliate of a larger, more-specific union, such as one of the two largest national unions: NEA or AFT.

To join, individuals often directly contact a local union leader, council of locals, or statewide affiliate. For example, membership requests for the AFT are processed by their affiliates and not at the national level (with the exception of an associate membership).

Not all jurisdictions have a local or state union affiliate. Teachers who are unable to join through their district or place of employment have other options, such as the associate member program offered by the American Federation of Teachers. The AFT offers two types of associate memberships: Basic ($40/year) and Advanced ($70/year), which offers an additional $1 million in occupational liability insurance, and legal defense services up to $10,000.

There is also an opportunity for teachers to form an offshoot of a local union. For example, the AFT lends state and national union support to ‘affiliates,’ often referred to as ‘location unions.’ This may include organization support, research, and bargaining assistance for contract negotiations. The AFT connects interested parties to the appropriate state affiliate/regional staff and local leaders for added guidance.

As a member of a teachers union, fees (or union dues) are paid on an annual basis, which also allows a teacher to take advantage of membership privileges.

For some teachers, supporting a union (at least financially) is not an option. There are eighteen states, including California, New York, Michigan, New Jersey, Illinois and Delaware, which have legalities in place that make it possible to force educators who are not members to pay a fee to a union as a condition of continued employment.

How Can I Support my Teachers Union?

Known as a world leader in student performance, Finland is home to some of the strongest teachers unions in the world. Upon following a strategy that regards teaching as a high-status career and makes the occupation the most desirable job in the country, their efforts have resulted in attracting the leading recruits, fueling first-class training, and employing teachers who thrive off of the trust and respect received. Additionally, the teachers and their unions avoid “confrontational politics”, and have instead worked amicably with lawmakers to bring about reform, when needed.

What seems to differ in the United States is a widespread lack of cooperation on the part of the government, legislature, and the public whose tax dollars are used to fund local education, as well as teacher’s pensions. There is an increasing public outcry in the U.S. for widespread education and school reform, with teachers typically absorbing the brunt of the blame for low test scores, decreasing graduation rates, and failing school programs. Decreased influence or losing teacher unions altogether means that educators will lack the protection needed to prevent state and local officials from cutting teaching jobs, salaries, and benefits.

Some of the ways teachers can support their local unions include:

  • In states that do not require payment of dues from classroom teachers, becoming a member of a local, state or nationwide teachers union is the first step towards showing support.
  • Stay informed on the educational issues concerning the teaching profession. As a member, information is readily available – the NEA offers access to research reports and policy papers related to NEA members, educators, and the public school community.
  • Become an active member and participant by attending education-related conferences, seminars, and training programs hosted by the teachers unions.
  • Be the eyes, ears and voice of a teachers union by attending local school district meetings and town hall discussions.
  • Consider voting for the politicians who are closely aligned with improving the education system, and supports job security and fair pay for teachers.

Teachers unions gaining the support of their members are able to make the strongest impact in the lives of educators and students, as well as the education system as a whole. This is why the low support, unfavorable state policies for teachers, lack of political involvement, and little to no influence on education policy has led to the teacher unions in Arizona being deemed one of the weakest in the nation.

Teachers unions in states with the highest level of support, membership and political involvement are recognized as the strongest; as highlighted by the accomplishments and clout of teachers unions in the following top five states:

  • Rhode Island boasts over 97 percent union membership with a high number of active participants in politics.
  • Pennsylvania’s teachers unions influence state education decisions with 20 percent of delegates belonging to a teachers union.
  • The state of Montana requires collection bargaining from their teachers unions; and members are allowed to strike. Studies show that the state’s education policies tend to stay in line with traditional teacher union interests.
  • Oregon has 95 percent membership with the unions being viewed as highly influential during political elections. In the past, Democratic candidates have needed support from the local teachers unions during state office elections.
  • Hawaii is recognized as having one of the strongest teachers unions with members making up over 20 percent of the delegates attending Hawaii’s Democratic and Republican national conventions.

The past five decades have seen teachers unions successfully lobbying and pushing for the best interests of educators – from seeking pension increases to fighting against tenure reform and merit pay. Nationwide, teachers unions are protecting the rights of their members and continuing to serve as a voice representing the concerns of educators who face mounting education reform.

Teachers unions possess an undeniable power and influence which is fueled by strength in numbers. The more members and support that a union has, the louder their voice becomes to continue making the above-mentioned benefits possible for teachers on the local, state and national level.

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