Why do so many liberals hate teachers’ unions?

A lot of otherwise liberal people really hate teachers’ unions. I’ve been wondering why they’re so singled out for contempt. It struck me last night that perhaps the thinking is that it’s ok for autoworkers or janitors to unionize because they’re pretty much interchangeable from an educated upper-middle-class perspective. Teachers, though, are supposed to be “professionals,” and any kind of solidarity among them offends an individualistic, meritocratic sensibility that believes in (often “objective”) measures of evaluation.

But even “professionals” can be pushed around by bosses and need solidarity to prevent being exploited and insulted. Most of us are workers, even those with advanced degrees. Downward mobility is moving up the income ladder, and some antiquated notions of a professional exemption need to be revised – though vanity and self-deception might slow the process of revision.

28 Comments on “Why do so many liberals hate teachers’ unions?

  1. If your salary or wages are paid by the owner or manager of an enterprise, and if that worthy asserts the right to dictate your hours and conditions of employment, you are in the working class. When a politician or a television anchor refers to you as part of the great middle class, make sure that your wallet is in place because you are being deceived by flattery. Members of the working class have broadly shared interests, and the decades-long campaign to persuade working stiffs that making $125,000 a year means that they have nothing in common with workers making a third of that is an effort to divide and rule.

  2. I don’t think it’s just teachers.

    Many of my liberal friends have bought the right’s message that all unions are bad, for business and the economy overall. I’m guessing that they’re operating from somewhat privileged positions in their careers and have made peace with the reality that they are on their own in terms of bargaining power in the workplace.

    They know unions are losing power. The benefits of unions will never reach them personally. While unions may help some, the rest have been convinced that unions only increase prices consumers and lower profits for industry.

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  4. I think there is a long-standing tendency to see “worker” as a blue-collar laborer. But most workers wear white collars and work in an office nowadays — and workers they are as the surplus they create is confiscated by the top executives and the financiers who work with them just the same as the assembly-line worker.

    I have always been puzzled by the notion so many who aspire to (who, more accurately, believe they will) climb the corporate ladder into the middle ranks believe that unions and solidarity are for blue-collar people but not for themselves, folks with a college degree. But such notions are of course inculcated by a sophisticated ideology that is propagated across the mass media and, hey, it is flattering to hear that you are better then others.

    Alas, vanity and self-deception is slowing down the process of revision, to the delight of one percenters everywhere.

  5. The hostility towards teacher’s unions has complicated roots. There is always that general stupid notion that teachers don’t work hard, what with there three months off, which is the other side of the coin that says teachers should not be unionized because they are professionals. Add to that the coverage and criticisms of large urban school systems, where teachers fought to protect seniority as the school systems declined, which meant protecting those few who make the headlines for their incompetence or corruption. Liberals find the bureaucratic nature of teachers’ unions as frustrating as the school systems themselves.

    Unions are built on principles of seniority and job security first, and that inevitably means that some lesser qualified teachers slip through the cracks. That was especially true of a generation of teachers hired during the rapid growth period in the seventies. Those teachers are now nearing retirement and some have been bought out, but that generation likely had more under performers.

    As for work conditions, in some schools, administrations are becoming more involved in structuring curriculum and teaching strategies to the point where teacher autonomy is compromised. (I wouldn’t want to teach social studies in Texas). That in turn means that conditions of work are more factory-like, even while teachers are encouraged to improve and be innovative. There will always be a tension between the principles of job security, and the need for teachers to continuously improve their skills. But teachers need to have the power to collectively negotiate for their conditions of work. Right now we are seeing a strange system in which teachers are encouraged to professionalize and get advanced degrees, while local governments, states, and other stakeholders have inserted themselves into the education process in ways that undermine that professional autonomy.

    In the end, if the school district is underfunded and mismanaged, teacher and teaching quality suffers. But it is always easier to blame the unions.

    Of course, having a corrupt Teachers Union, like the one in Washington DC several years ago doesn’t help

  6. I’ll also believe that those ‘liberals’ who have a problem with a teachers’ union actually support other unions when the proof is in front of me. Until then, they’re just more people who are fair weather liberals.

  7. I agree with Doug’s musings at an explanation. There may be a vulgar materialist cause as well. Some liberals, who are wage-laborers, have bosses who are listening to what they say. Teachers unionizing is too close for the boss’ comfort to said liberals unionizing their own shop .

  8. “The bourgeoisie has stripped of its halo every occupation hitherto honoured and looked up to with reverent awe. It has converted the physician, the lawyer, the priest, the poet, the man of science, into its paid wage labourers. “

  9. Many professionals also have the option of striking out on their own. As long as this is a realistic alternative to exploitation, I imagine that professional labor-solidarity will remain poor.

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  11. Definitely there’s the “professional” aspect of the suspicion and dread regarding teachers unions. But I also wouldn’t underestimate the gender aspect of it. 85% of K-12 teachers are women. I’ve been teasing out the strands of paternalism in all the ed “reform” debates and there is definitely a discomfort with the idea of women getting all uppity and standing up for themselves in a union context which is so often associated with masculinity. As a Vice President in my own American Federation of Teachers local and a professor of English at an urban community college, I definitely see how conflicted even our own members are about being in a union and the associations union membership has for them with the so-called laboring classes. I can’t help but think of the ways unions are linked with certain images of masculinity. At any rate, I personally feel besieged in a profession I love. It’s hard enough trying to teach folks who don’t necessarily want to be in your classroom without all the chatter going on around us!

  12. Teachers are obliged to sell their labour power/skills over time for a wage/aka salary to either State entities or a private employer of an educational enterprise so they can make a living. These teachers are working class. Teachers who sell their abilities to educate directly to student consumers in order to make a living (i.e. tutors) are not members of the working class anymore than an individual tailor selling his skills directly to a customer wanting her dress hemmed is.

    The ideology of professionalism is sold to some workers the way the ideology of racism used to be sold to them–as a kind of psychic benefit, full of high sounding rhetoric, signifying nothing but delusional vanity.

  13. Two observations:

    As parents, many liberals experience teachers as a beloved member of the domestic staff. There’s both familiarity and competitiveness in that relationship. Professional-managerial class parents are not the boss of teachers but they want to preserve the illusion that they can interact with them as half-friends, half-bosses.

    Outside of their own children, many liberals see poor schools as good avenues for charity and service, but overstate their effectiveness in providing those in a bureaucratic institution. Any individual teacher would presumably love their generous offer of intellectual resources, but unions appear to them as bureaucracies preventing them from helping.

  14. With the state of professionalism these days, I would take efforts by professionals to unionize as a sign that they are indeed ‘professionals’.

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  17. The serious villagers have now spoken: the editorial boards of many of the country’s major newspapers including the New York Times and the Chicago Tribune, Mitt Romney, Rahm Emmanuel’s new friend Paul Ryan, Illinois’ “progressive” Senator Dick Durbin, Jesse Jackson… They all agree that the Chicago teachers need to get back to work and accept whatever the Mayor of Chicago thinks is in their best interest.
    Why the consensus from the “Left” and the Right of the US political system about the action taken by the Chicago Teachers? Because strikes, and union organizing, are the last bastion of serious struggle in the US today and their tactics challenge the charade that is our political system.
    With minor exceptions, the two major parties in the US today have a consensus when it comes to most matters of substance: free trade and globalization, the drug war, the prison industrial complex, a view that the entire world (including the US) is an endless battleground against “terrorism”, and the idea that the US tax payer is an ATM for any large industry that nears bankruptcy. Unfortunately for the people of Chicago and other poor and minority parts of the US, the consensus extends even to the idea that public schools, and democratic control of those schools, are a luxury only for the well-healed neighborhoods of America – certainly not the “ghetto.”
    Education “reform” has been a major focus of most right-wing foundations (including the Heritage, Bradley and Gates Foundations) for over 25 years. Vouchers, charters, the replacement of school boards with Mayors or managers, test driven decision making and the destruction of collective bargaining are core goals of the “reform” agenda. With remarkable speed, it has profoundly altered public education, particularly in lower income and minority neighborhoods. The Obama administration and most of the Democratic Party’s movers and shakers have wholeheartedly embraced this agenda.
    The Chicago strike is the most important political struggle today challenging the consensus politics of our moribund two party system.
    Following on the heels of the defeat in Wisconsin, the Chicago teachers, and now those in Lake Forest, Illinois, are showing us that there is an alternative terrain on which to fight for progressive change in the US and that it is not the fixed, money-soaked ground of electoral politics where we are almost certain to lose. Although we hear populist rhetoric from both parties during election time, they rally around the corporate agenda when it counts. Think of the billions that the labor movement has spent over the years on the Democratic Party. What has been the outcome? Aside from the almost total destruction of private sector unions, we now see a new onslaught against public sector unions as well. Across the country almost any harebrained “reform” advocated by some John Birch Society-like Think Tank is actually taken seriously at Democratic Party fund raising events. In Milwaukee, Cleveland, Florida and elsewhere, public money now flows to all kinds of sectarian and private schools with almost no accountability and with no discernible improvement in instruction compared to public institutions. Yet, the Democrats and Republicans continue to expand them.
    The Right Wing Think Tanks and their Democrat and Republican allies want to destroy public education because it is one of the few institutions that maintain some autonomy, through democratic school boards and workers democracy (unions), from private corporate control.
    Public schools potentially will be auctioned off, for the purpose of public to private wealth transfer, to educational corporations, the testing industry, food vendors, maintenance, transportation, software and hardware companies of over 100 years of public infrastructure.
    Public educational institutions are also the most widespread link that people in the United States have with a democratic workplace because of their high levels of unionization. And they are widely popular.
    Public schools then, although not perfect, are a demonstration effect of a public space that works. They function as the backbone of our society, educating 85% of the population while at the same time involving workers and the community in democratic decision making. This and the potential goldmine for private companies as a result of privatization are the reasons the paymasters for the two corporate parties want to destroy public schools.

  18. doug’s analysis is correct, but misses this part: where i am, many, especially minorities, see seriously racist attitudes about their children from many teachers – white suburbanites believing they are coming to the city to herd the hordes of poor kids. i see it myself.

    and the teacher unions , like other unions, have never allied themselves to the families of these poor people [or to a workers movement]. maybe nationally, but on the ground? here, no. no alliances, no support when needed.

    so people cast around for reasons why their kids go nowhere, and lacking a critical left analysis [NOT a liberal one] , go right to charters since they think they can affect outcomes there – and at least it’s not more of the same.

    maybe in chicago it’s different, but that’s the scene here in deindustrialized former city land.

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  21. Pingback: OUPblog » Blog Archive » Why do people hate teachers unions? Because they hate teachers.

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  25. Mr Henwood, I wonder if you had in mind Steve Jobs when you posted this? According to his (2011) biographer, Jobs expressed precisely the view that you describe:

    “Jobs…attacked America’s education system, saying that it was hopelessly antiquated & crippled by union work rules. Until the teachers’ unions were broken, there was almost no hope for education reform. Teachers should be treated as professionals, he said, not as industrial assembly-line workers. Principals should be able to hire and fire them based on how good they were.” http://blogs.edweek.org/teachers/teaching_now/2011/11/book_notes_steve_jobs_blasted_teachers_unions_planned_digital_textbook_feature_for_ipad.html

    I ran across this just today, & it made me recall your post.

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  27. They are paid with tax money. We should be able to pay them little enough so that we can hire a much higher volume and thereby achieve Teacher-Student ratios more appropriate to dissemination of the new heaps of canon knowledge.

    I’m young. I’ve studied at a high school recently. They’re not useful. The teacher’s job, taming 30some kids and teaching them something for which they’re unprepared and about which they’re skeptical, is too hard. No salary is high enough. The best paid people in our country are in finance and they crashed the banks, because they were playing a casino game that was way too difficult. The public schools are the venue of similar games.

    Every 8-12 kid should have his own math tutor and her own foreign language tutor, as a pilot. Every kid in my high school, peopled mostly by kids from the most affluent parts of the district, was required to study a foreign language for 2 full years, during high school. Many studied longer than that. Almost none of them speaks any Spanish or French, the two most popular. This is because we pay a white pro with gobs of benefits and deferred wages, whose lunch at the adjacent greek restaurant is made by a staff of native Spanish speakers for 9.20/hr each.

    The supply of people who can do the basic math that kids struggle with, is huge. The supply of Chinese speakers, Spanish speakers, Russian speakers, guitarists, bike techs and pianists are likewise huge. Often they work for the cheapest wages in the grimiest, most alienated positions. In the midst of general fiscal crisis the public and its instruments (such as the government) should look for bargains, especially dramatically +EV bargains, where they exist, rather than trying to soup up the same failed elite corps of workers.

    If only 40% of kids are passing the standardized tests, well then pay them/their predecessors to teach the 60%. That’s a strong labor supply.

  28. I can answer for myself: it’s mainly because teachers are highly paid relative to normal people, and because bourgeois / NPR liberals love teachers.

    Also: Brookings Institute or someone from approximately that sphere noted that teachers pay into postgraduate programmes in order to score higher wages in their bureaucracy, without improving their teaching. By doing this they drain local public-purses and perpetuate pro-college norms—-the main source of bourgeois values ( http://porpentine.tumblr.com/post/34649415662/college-is-the-impulse-that-makes-us-hate-homeless, McKinsey/HBR, degree inflation, business-school morality, on and on….).

    Sympathy for teachers comes at the expense of sympathy for normal workers.

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