My union story is pretty typical. My mom worked her way through school and a special education license. My dad sold glue from his car, then novelty items, then drove a shuttle van for many years. I was raised on a steady diet of the righteousness of the working class.
When I started teaching, I took union involvement as a professional responsibility and nearly sacred act. I ran for building rep my first year and lost. I ran again the next year and won, then acted in the role until becoming my local union’s secretary. I did contract negotiations and advocated to our school board on behalf of teachers. I got extra sick days to two colleagues who needed them. During contentious times, I sat on leadership councils with the district office and told hard truths I collected anonymously about the poor treatment of teachers in our building. During union votes, I worked until turnout was above 90 percent and kept working until we hit 100.
My local and state unions were often places where I met involved teachers, teachers who cared about the world outside of their room, who cared about how things were going in my room. They were where I debated and discussed things with teachers I disagreed with, and where I learned we were stronger if we set a place for everyone at the table and went and got those who didn’t show up. In many ways, again and again, union work was an expression of my affection for teachers.
But there is another side to the story.
During one of my very first local meetings, a new teacher spoke up, asking for help from his union. He felt like he had to take on everything, say yes to everything, or he would be fired. He asked if more veteran teachers could help lighten the load of those still developing as teachers. He was told, by an executive council member, “That’s what tenure is for. Get through three years, then you never have to do that stuff again.” I don’t think that guy ever came back to a meeting. I don’t know why he would.
When I was secretary, I got a long, angry letter from another member of our executive council. He was upset that I was spending so much time making sure every member of our union voted in elections. It was his opinion that if they didn’t come to meetings, didn’t read union emails, and didn’t know where to vote, then we shouldn’t work to have their voices heard. He was a fan of a small group of people making large decisions on behalf of an unengaged many. He wasn’t alone.
The more involved I got in union work on local, state, and national levels, the more I ran into people who seemed quite happy with low levels of engagement from members. More concerning, there was still a standard philosophy you had to adhere to if you wanted to really belong. The union presented itself as a sort of family of educators, but its “brother” and “sister” status too often came with a litmus test.
This side of my union story is also common enough, or at least indicative of a larger issue. There is a culture, and if it is not intentional it feels intentional, but there is a culture that actively discomforts and devalues members who disagree with any part of the established union narrative.
Though details may vary on how, teacher after teacher I have met has felt unwelcome in union spaces. There are teachers who don’t see the union taking action on issues that are most important to them, not supporting district leaders who speak up with concerns about kids of color, who don’t see a place where they can advocate for those issues without being treated like they just don’t get it yet or like they don’t belong. Young teachers are talked down to. Teachers with new ideas are treated like they just don’t understand the old ones. If they keep talking, they are shouted down and pushed aside. If they take their voices elsewhere then their integrity, honesty, motives, and histories are questioned.
Of course, not all union members engage in attacking or dismissive behavior, but those who do often do so unchecked, or at least without the pushback other members feel for simply having differing opinions.
That side of the story isn’t just true of teachers I’ve met. I started feeling unwelcome in the union the day after I was named Minnesota’s Teacher of the Year and found that people had already begun to attack or demean me in some union circles. In fact, no person this year has spoken negatively about me in public that was not active in union work in Minnesota as a member or staff. Not once has any of the people I’ve worked with in the union stepped to my public defense.
If I sound hurt, it’s because it really did hurt. During that whole year, every time I wrote something, said something, worked on something, I got either scorn or silence from those in the union I trusted and respected. Every time I tried to defend my right to be in the room, I was doing so alone. If this was just my problem, just my self-obsession, martyr complex, and hurt feelings, then it wouldn’t be a big problem. Unfortunately, I don’t think that’s it.
There is a dangerously singular perspective that is accepted, promoted, and retold by the most powerful storytelling entity of teachers. That perspective is not necessarily wrong, but is dangerous in its desire and ability to silence other stories.
It may not be apparent to those whose beliefs line up perfectly with the union narrative of teacher experience, but for those who don’t it is striking how often conversations, meetings and events assume opinions as known truth and move on (after taking a few potshots for cheap laughs at anyone who may think otherwise). When a person or organization holds their truth so firmly as the truth, they are going to lose people, which is just not acceptable from an organization that is supposed to represent everyone.
These are teachers who are leaders, teachers who are talented and well-respected, connected in areas that the union could use some allies. Those teachers feel resistance when they do work elsewhere, and resistance when they speak up within their union. These are teachers who should have everyone in the union asking, “How do we include them?”
For many or most, the problem is not so direct. They’ve never been shouted down at a local meeting or demeaned publicly or privately. They just never showed up. It may be true that the Union represents a tremendous number of teachers, but it does not involve them. They pay their dues, but they don’t pay attention. Many I have talked to have an idea of what a “union” teacher is, and don’t see themselves as one. Their absence, their ambivalence, should have everyone who cares about the union asking, “What are we doing wrong?”
I’m worried. Worried for the union and for the potential it may not reach. There are good teachers doing good work in unions, but their numbers are a tiny percentage of total teachers. Union involvement, especially among new teachers and teachers of color, is at a critical low. I don’t think those groups are anti-union or afraid of the extra work, but are told to listen more than they’ve been asked to speak. The work I see in unions is more “how do we convince everyone we are right,” and less, “what are we doing wrong that so many teachers aren’t here?”
If we wait until “Right to Work” is passed before we attract, welcome and engage all of our members, it will be too late. I dearly believe the union needs more teachers involved, more teachers who will push it to be different, better, more teachers who will be there to keep the union strong decades from now. I believe our strongest possible union is an inclusive one, one that embraces its democratic foundations by encouraging and modeling a healthy discussion about education.
For now, I need a break, a step away for my own sanity and health. I will remain a proud union member and a believer, always, that we can do better.