Conflict-Loving Unions Now Want Collaboration?

Kyle Olson

2/16/2011 12:01:00 AM - Kyle Olson

After years of obstructing efforts to reform public education, the nation's teacher unions are using this week’s national education conference in Denver to push for a spirit of “collaboration” among education reformers and teacher unions.

It’s too bad that the unions’ new-found interest in “working together” has not been reflected in very recent teacher union behavior.

In a recent radio interview, American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten said, “Let’s solve problems for kids rather than making them pawns in an economic austerity budget.”

In a recent press release, Weingarten said, “When collaboration trumps conflict, it helps create the conditions for teachers to teach and students to learn.”

Such happy talk makes for a good press release, but it does not match reality. Across the nation, teachers unions are attacking reformers and have not resisted the temptation of using children as political pawns.

• Last summer, Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis told union members, “When we join forces together with our parents, our students and our communities and fight smart – well, they haven’t seen a fight like this. Not in a long time.”

•Lewis ramped up the rhetoric at a rally last fall, telling union members, “I’m not wearing earrings because we’re in a fight, a real fight.”

•United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew attacked New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, saying "It's apparent the mayor shares his definition of democracy with Hosni Mubarak."

•Mulgrew’s UFT continues to attack Bloomberg in a new television ad that pits school children against millionaires who need to pay “their fair share.” The ad concludes by saying, “This about protecting our kids’ future, Mayor Bloomberg.”

•This past weekend, members of the Wisconsin Education Association Council picketed outside the home of a state lawmaker who sponsored an education reform bill.

•Last December, Weingarten herself made a public display of solidarity with Central Falls, Rhode Island teachers who were suspected of staging a “sickout” in order to score cheap political points against the local school board. In fact, things are so bad in Central Falls that many high students did not receive a grade during a marking period last fall because the students had not received adequate classroom instruction time.

•In the Rochester City School District, the teacher union passed a “no confidence” vote in the district’s superintendent, in hopes of wearing down the superintendent and school board during contentious contract negotiations.

•In a recent letter to union members, Indiana Federation of Teachers President Rick Muir repeatedly refers to the state's education reform efforts as a "war." "Make no mistake about it," Muir writes, "we will lose the war if we sit back and do nothing."

So Weingarten's appeal for “collaboration” with reformers in order to solve problems instead of to win arguments does not match very recent teacher union behavior. It seems more like a clever strategy to hijack the momentum of the reform movement and prevent real change from occurring.

Unions feed off conflict, often pitting teachers against administrators and school board members. Weingarten's poll-tested buzz words don't paper over that fact.

The unions’ desire to work with reformers is just a last-ditch attempt to obstruct meaningful education reform. Lawmakers in Idaho, Tennessee, Indiana, New Jersey, Florida, Wisconsin and Ohio, are on the brink of historic education reforms. The teacher unions are fighting for their very survival. That’s why they suddenly want to work together.

For decades, the unions defended the status quo in public education. They were wrong then, and they are wrong now.