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Viable Unions Depend on You

Voice of ExperienceWhen Max Fischer was a new teacher he shied away from the teacher union. Today, he is vice president of his local. It is with good reason -- a handful of good reasons, as a matter of fact -- that he says he will always be an active member.

Max W. Fischer

On a cold Monday morning in March some decades ago, the news spread rapidly through my building. The school board had held a clandestine weekend meeting -- minus its most outspoken member, who also happened to be the biggest supporter of teachers -- at which it eliminated 25 teaching positions from the next year's budget. As building rep for my teachers' association as well as one of those 25 affected teachers, the association leadership informed me early Monday morning about what to expect.

I was still surprised by the method the superintendent used to deliver the news: As I stood in front of my fifth grade class, he entered the room and announced he had some vital information for me. Since I knew what he was about to say, I politely excused myself and retrieved another teacher to serve as a witness. With every hair of his crew cut standing at attention -- not to mention 34 pairs of ears attached to my students -- he announced my position would be cut. Then he excused himself and slid out to continue his Monday morning greetings.


Ironically, during my first three years of teaching in another district, I had never joined a teacher association or union. As a beginning teacher in a conservative, rural area, I felt that I could save the dues money and that there wasn't any real advantage or need to join.

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In my first year in a more urban setting, I decided to ante up the requisite dues; I was promptly appointed building representative by my new colleagues.

In light of the March fiasco, my timing could not have been better. Not only did association officials prepare me for the hatchet the superintendent was wielding at the board's behest, they promptly convened a plan of action to help deal with the board's secretive plot. At a special Sunday board meeting the following week, the outcry from the public and teachers in attendance sent the board into retreat. The covert reduction in force (RIF) was rescinded and negotiations eventually were undertaken to construct contractual language that would dictate the conditions under which future RIFs would be legitimately commenced by the board.

After that brush with a capricious board action, I was spurred to be part of the negotiation team that ironed out the next contract, including the RIF language. Subsequently, over the past quarter century, I've been a building rep, contract negotiator and, currently, vice president of my association. I view my association membership as part and parcel of my professionalism.


I've noticed over the past decade or so that many of my younger colleagues seem to shy away from union membership, just as I did during my first three years in the profession. While younger members are often reticent when union issues arise, I urge them to become active in the affairs of their association. While some feel teaching is the ultimate profession of self-sacrifice, experience has taught me that all teachers need to give some regard to protecting their backsides. I believe there are a handful of reasons all teachers should be active participants in their local associations or unions:

  • Membership gives you the right to become involved in matters regarding your working conditions.
  • The gains of any association, including salary and insurance benefits, are equitably distributed among all teachers within the district -- so it is a responsibility of each member to be invested in the workings of the association. Just attending local assemblies and being informed about ongoing concerns of the association is fundamental to the overall welfare of the union. Like any form of diminished democracy, the more limited the participation of the rank and file, the less likely the entire body will retain its strength and vitality. In that situation, the personality of the union can be easily swayed by a few dominant personalities.
  • While labor concerns are the primary issue of teacher unions, those locals aligned with the large national unions are part of a strong organization that has branch offices dedicated to promoting the professional growth of its members. A wide variety of workshops and seminars are regularly held on a statewide or regional basis.
  • Public education has the broadest base of any civic institution, in part because the public funds it. By default, we are part of a political process. Vouchers, proficiency testing, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), and the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act are a few of the myriad of state and federal legislative actions that impact every educator on a daily basis. Many teachers put on the blinders when it comes to being involved in political action of any kind. They fail to realize that this political turbulence is steering their own professional course. Teacher associations have for the past four decades helped advance the voices of the educator in the trenches. If we do not articulate our positions, we can only blame ourselves for the plight in which we might find ourselves later.
  • Closely aligned to the fact that our profession is subject to the prevailing political winds, unions help challenge injustices against individuals and groups within the profession. Often, that turmoil centers on local personalities and their suspect use of power. Arbitrary and impulsive actions by school boards, such as the one I experienced, would be extremely difficult for individual teachers to challenge on their own. In our litigious society, union-appointed attorneys are the sentinels who ensure due process and protect the rights of falsely accused educators.

Are teacher unions perfect? Certainly not. I am not in blanket agreement with my national union, whose perspective on various social issues doesn't agree with my own. There are also times when my views run counter to those of other teachers within my local association. Democracy is not a homogeneous endeavor. However, I always will remain active in my local association. I will work to help determine its course and assist other teachers. And I will communicate concerns to state and national leaders through my designated liaisons to those positions. I will actively participate in the one organization that promotes and uplifts the causes of active teachers. When, as individuals, we divest ourselves from our respective unions, the entire organization atrophies and the welfare of our profession suffers. It is the collective strength of the association that fights these battles and maintains the course for us so we can do what we do best -- teach.

A teacher for nearly three decades, Max Fischer currently teaches seventh graders the marvels of ancient and medieval history. A National Board certified teacher in the area of early adolescence social studies/history, Max has authored nine resource books for teachers in the fields of social studies, health, and math. You can read a previously published article about Fischer: Simulations Engage Students in Active Learning.

Article by Max Fischer
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