Interview by Sherry Posnick-Goodwin
We had a chance to sit down with Elaine Bernard, executive director of the Labor and Worklife Program at Harvard University, and discuss some of the exciting changes and challenges facing teachers unions in California and the rest of the country. Here's what she had to say.
CALIFORNIA EDUCATOR: Is this a new era for labor and unions?
BERNARD: Definitely. We have elected a new president. Obama understands the value of labor and unions and comes from a background of community organizing. Community and organizing are what labor and unions are all about.
What about public support?
Over the past 10 years, the percentage of Americans who are not in unions but who support unions has grown to more than 50 percent. Among people who do not belong to unions, a majority now say they would vote to join a union in their workplace if they had the opportunity. That tells us that in spite of a sustained campaign by big business against unions for many decades, workers recognize the need for a voice in the workplace.
Has there been backlash against teachers unions?
Education and the public sector are the most densely organized [highly unionized] sectors within our economy. Unions in education have given teachers a voice not only in their workplace but in shaping the education sector. And specifically, teachers unions have fought to maintain education as a public good and prevented our public schools from becoming simply another business. I think there has been a concerted campaign by business leaders who say things like, "What would teachers know about education? Better leave it to politicians." But what they're really thinking is, "How dare workers organize!"
What's the biggest accomplishment of teacher unionism?
Public education is still strong, even with business pushing for vouchers and privatization. There have been all sorts of attempts to undermine public education, but that hasn't happened because of the power of teachers, united with voices in the community and the voices of parents. Because the education sector is so well organized, teachers have prevailed. By contrast, the health care sector has not been as well organized, which is why the costly, inefficient private sector prevails and health care is a business rather than a public service.
Are unions still relevant?
Unions are especially relevant in times of crisis, because it is in the interest of all Americans to make sure that the next generation is an educated, productive, knowledgeable group who will be looking after us in our old age. Having a thriving economy is based on having an educated, high-quality workforce with an economic strategy of sustainable growth that is green, not wasteful, and which is geared to meeting people's needs. The current economic crisis in America is a testament to the limitations of our private sector management. When workers have a voice, good things happen. Economists talk about "voice versus exit." Nonunion teachers have no voice or influence in the workplace, so they exit when they are unhappy. In schools where teachers have a voice, they roll up their sleeves and work with others to improve things.
Why are newer teachers sometimes unaware of the value of unions and the empowerment that comes from belonging to them?
A union isn't just an organization that you join. A union is "collective action" with others. You need to experience a union to fully appreciate its value. It takes a while for new teachers to get involved. New members think of the union as other people, but only when they start to gain some experience and get involved in the union do they realize that they are the union. The challenge for CTA and local chapters — and it's a very big challenge — is to give new members some experiences and activities to allow them to learn about their union. President Obama learned years ago in Chicago that the best way to build a community is to organize people around issues of concern to them, and take action to change things.
Why are unions good for us?
Democracy has to be something more than electing rulers every two or four years; it needs involvement by citizens every day. In a democracy workers have a right — indeed a responsibility — to make their voices heard and to participate in collective decision-making on a daily basis. So in a sense, unions are the premier democratic institution in our society.