Could I have been a great teacher without a union? No, never.
by Lynne Winderbaum
So you ask me, “Why did you need a union? You had a good reputation as a teacher, good reports from your supervisors, loved your job, and thanks to social networking, have students who keep in touch with you from a career that spanned nearly forty years. Couldn’t this have happened without your union?” No, never.
What we want from our existence is very simple really. We want to be able to support our families. We want to be able to take care of their health needs. We want to be able to protect them if we die or are too disabled to work. We want respect in the workplace. We want to be able to provide our children with an education that will give them a life better than the one we led. Women want the right to raise their children and return to their jobs. We want to be able to live out our old age with independence and dignity. Couldn’t this happen without my union? No, never.
It’s been a generation since organized labor has been losing strength. And with that loss came a stagnation of annual salary, loss of jobs, loss of pensions, loss of health coverage, loss of middle class America, and a growing inequality between the rich and poor that has never been larger. So the loss of clout has not benefited the American worker but it has unfortunately fanned resentment on the part of the labor force that no longer has this security against those who do. And meanwhile, the real beneficiaries of this internecine conflict are far off in a boardroom rubbing their hands, licking their lips, and bursting with glee as they deflect blame for Americans’ deteriorating standard of living to organized labor while they feast on government bailouts, obscenely large bonuses, and decreasing regulation and scrutiny.
Businesses exist to make a profit. In my view, there is nothing wrong with that. Nor is there anything wrong with acknowledging that the object of baseball is to score runs. It’s only if a team strives to win by cheating, bribery, and intimidation that there is dishonor in the path taken toward the goal. In today’s America, corporations send jobs overseas where labor is cheap and workers can be exploited, keep tax-evading offshore addresses, and fund without limit political organizations of their own creation that have patriotic names but serve as fronts to reward politicians whose cooperation they have bought.
Then they use part of that political clout and great wealth to stoke the flames of jealousy to turn workers against workers. When unions were strong, everybody shared in increased salaries and benefits. When unions are weak those who do not enjoy the benefits they truly deserve demand that nobody should have them. A race to the bottom is unleashed in which all workers are losing, and the corporate controllers of the levers of government gain richly.
That’s why my labor union is important to me. It is the only force that has stood in the way of the process of corporate enrichment at all cost, and the worsening standard of living of the worker. It has allowed us to have the basic benefits of job security and providing for our families that we all deserve. Collective bargaining has given each and every individual worker a voice in the workplace amplified many times over. This has forced businesses to agree to a level of fairness, safety, increased wages, benefits, and security for its employees.
When I began teaching in 1970, I received an annual salary of $7,950 with a bachelor’s degree. But despite the low salary, I was promised by the city that in return for giving them twenty or thirty years of my life, they would take care of me forever. After a very satisfying and rewarding career and after teaching thousands of junior high and high school students, I retired 39 years later. In 1976, earning just over $12,000 a year, I gave birth to my first child. Although my salary would not impress my private sector peers with similar graduate degrees, the fact that I could take a leave of absence for eight years to raise my children and return to my job at Junior High School 109Q seemed like a right that should be there for every woman who wants it. My union negotiated that for me. I returned to teaching in 1984 at my same school. By that time, I was earning only $24,000 despite now having two master’s degrees. But money wasn’t the issue—it was the compensation of never having to worry about paying for the health care and dental needs of my family that made the lower salary seem fair. It was the guarantee of equitable treatment in the workplace, due process, and a rulebook that governed how everyone played that allowed me to concentrate on my job without fear. It allowed us to fight for true reform in the workplace: safety and security for our students, class size limits, mandated services for special education students and English language learners, proper textbooks and materials, and a broad curriculum.
For over thirty years I spent every Sunday writing my lesson plans for the week. That left my weekday evenings for marking tests and correcting papers. Prep periods were for creating or duplicating material for my classes. But thanks to our solidarity, I was reassured to know that in return for an honest day’s work teaching as many as 170 students, my union promised me that I could not be fired without cause, that I would work in a safe environment, that I could apply fairly for an overtime job that could not be given under the table to the principal’s friend’s son, that I could not be harassed by my supervisors, that I could take time off with pay when my parents died or when my children graduated from college.
We were a force! When we went on strike in 1975, 100% of my school’s staff walked a picket line—no questions asked! We were solid. We were united. The mailmen would not cross our line to deliver the mail. The coal man (yes, coal heat) would not cross our line to deliver the coal. Workers of all unions stood together to protect the rights we had won for ourselves and our families.
This Friday I will be in Union Square to pay respects to the memory of the 146 workers who burned to death one hundred years ago in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. There were no regulations to provide safety standards that would have spared their lives. Unions were formed to protect us. The stories of abuse of workers in the early twentieth century are historical fact. Later in the day, I will be at a rally at Tweed to fight back against the false reforms that are threatening public education. I worry that the swing of the balance of power back to the corporate bosses has ushered in a new era where they can tell workers to toil in unsafe conditions, keep silent on illegal practices, give up salary and benefits, and work extra hours to compensate for layoffs–or be fired. The atrocities of the past and the abuses of the present are part of our heritage. If we allow them to be forgotten or ignored, we devalue the sacrifice that made the American workers respected, powerful, able to provide for their families, and able to control their destiny in their professional lives. We devalue the sacrifice made to create unions.
Do not be jealous of teachers. Do not resent us. Everyone should have what we have. And there is no budget crisis that would justify taking from the American worker while CEO’s and their corporations enjoy tax breaks and pillage public money for privately run, unproven school “reform”. Do not let public education, the bedrock of American success, be destroyed by corporate interests. If workers support each other, we can embark again on a path that will improve all of our lives.
That’s why I joined my union.