Unions are good for women, especially now

All women should be empowered to respond to sexual harassment without putting their careers at risk, fighting an entrenched bureaucracy alone or wasting time navigating a vague or changing policy in the employee handbook. 

Union-negotiated contracts and state laws give Minnesota teachers that power, although both are under attack. Now that America is finally taking sexual harassment seriously, it’s time to reconsider the decision by the 2017 Legislature to weaken Minnesota teachers' legal protections from on-the-job harassment and discriminatory layoffs. 

The benefits of objective layoff criteria, including those based on seniority, extend to teachers who speak uncomfortable truths and, especially, to educators of color who often look different from their supervisors. The advantages to students of learning from experienced teachers are well known. 

However, in the current moment, let’s consider separately why unions are good for women. 

Education Minnesota comprises more than 55,000 women (and nearly 17,000 men) who work in E-12 schools and, as their president, I read with incredible frustration the news accounts of women who remained silent for years after disgusting incidents of workplace harassment.

We can commend these women for coming forward when they did, but that’s not enough. As a state, we need to face the imbalance of power in the workplace that forces too many women into the choice between quitting their jobs and enduring abuse. The strength that comes with union membership gives women the freedom to speak out.

For example, about 13 years ago, I was teaching second grade in a suburban elementary school in Minnesota. My class of 7- and 8-year-olds were reading stories with a partner when my classroom phone rang. 

I picked up and an administrator in the district office let loose a river of vile, hateful words about my colleagues and me. Looking out at 25 pairs of little eyes while listening to such angry filth shocked me nearly to tears. I hung up. The children saw I was upset and that, in turn, upset them. We didn’t have a productive day.

By the next morning, I had pulled myself together and resolved to fight back. If he had done that to me, he would do it to others.

I had earned tenure, so state law prevented the district from firing me without due process. The school board had already signed off on a contract that set the layoff order, so a tricky administrator couldn’t push me out in a trumped-up budget crisis in my license area.

Within hours of the horrible call, I had spoken with my union representative. Within days, I presented my complaint in person to the superintendent. Within a few months, the bullying administrator was gone. My union family stayed with me the whole time.

I can’t say Education Minnesota and the other unions in Minnesota have handled every case of harassment or bullying perfectly. The labor movement itself isn’t blameless. However, I do believe organized worksites are still far better for women.

Part of the advantage is financial. The Institute for Women’s Policy Research in Washington, D.C., reports women in labor unions are better paid and more likely to have health insurance and pensions than women who negotiate their own compensation. That’s certainly true in public education.

People in unions also command more respect from their employers and have a greater voice in how they do their jobs. We should never take that for granted.

The mix of better compensation and the freedom to stand up for yourself has led 14 new groups of educators to form unions and affiliate with Education Minnesota since January 2016. More are on the way. The educators at one school started unionizing, in part, because they wanted an administrator to stop calling them “fat cows.”

Those are the stories I think of when lawmakers write, as they did in a recent commentary in the Star Tribune of Minneapolis, about their pride in chipping away at objective layoff policies, including those based on seniority. In that commentary, the two lawmakers promised to shatter those protections completely, if given a chance, because of “teacher quality.”

I’ve never understood the argument that making teachers easier to exploit and terminate would lead to improved education outcomes for students. The data backs this up. Five years ago, the state of Louisiana weakened job protections for public school teachers and up to 1,700 of them resigned in the next two years, according to research by the Education Research Alliance for New Orleans at Tulane University. The most experienced teachers, and the teachers in the highest-needs schools, were the most likely to leave.

Teachers, like other professionals, tend to improve with experience. Pushing them out for suspicious reasons lowers the overall quality of teaching in a school and saddles the district with thousands of dollars of expenses for hiring and training new teachers – assuming the district can even find a new teacher during the current shortage.

The common response to concerns about losing contractual and legal protections from discrimination and harassment are assurances that state and federal agencies will enforce the laws already on the books. Harassment scandals in the statehouse, Congress and those surrounding the president do not reassure educators about the future of those laws. The budget deficits facing the state and nation will affect those enforcement agencies. If the choice is between relying on de-funded government departments and compromised politicians, or an enforceable contract and a member rights committee, we’ll take the local control every time.

Finally, I’ll share one more story from my own career in response to some lawmakers’ suggestion that teachers should uncritically accept the evaluations of their principals as the basis for layoffs.

I began teaching in a school district along the Rio Grande Valley in Texas. In my official evaluation after my first year, my principal gave me high marks for everything but professionalism. Why? He wrote that he wished he had seen me in a dress more often.

In this moment when harassment scandals are splashed across the front pages every day, I believe it’s our duty as union members and educators to the push much harder to expand the benefits of our union to more people within education and in the wider economy. We could start with our colleagues in early childhood and adult education. There’s much more to do for education support professionals. And it’s time to find ways to give more due process and layoff protections to educators in their earliest years in the profession.

It won’t be easy. There are technical, legal and, overwhelmingly, political hurdles to overcome. But it’s a fight worth fighting because unions are good for all working people, but especially women, and especially now.


Denise Specht
Twitter: @denisespecht

Note: A shorter version of this column was printed in the Star Tribune of Minneapolis on Dec. 11.