As a retired Minnesota teacher and a former union member, I was astonished and appalled to read a recent article in the Missourian by Mr. Brad Clemons, in which he makes negative, demeaning inferences directed at the protesting teachers in Wisconsin and other states. His comments show a lack of sensitivity, understanding and respect toward his fellow teachers and a basic ignorance about unions and collective bargaining.
First of all, saying that these teachers are making all teachers look like "spoiled brats" in the public eye is simply not confirmed by recent Wisconsin and national polls. Mr. Clemons might be surprised to learn that 67 percent of the Wisconsin public polled sided with the protesting teachers and their main grievance — the desire of Gov. Scott Walker to strip teachers of their collective bargaining rights. In a similar national poll taken by The New York Times, a similar majority of the public sided with the teachers' current grievances.
We are learning something fundamental about the American public. Whether they are pro- or anti-union, the average citizen thinks stripping workers of their fundamental right to collectively bargain with their employer runs counter to what a compassionate democratic government should be about and simply goes too far. That is, indeed, encouraging news. In other words, these Republican governors have overreached, and the public is getting the message.
Since Mr. Clemons and others of his persuasion apparently do not appreciate or understand the importance of unions and collective bargaining and that unions have been good for all workers and not just those that are unionized, perhaps a little history lesson is in order. The fight by teachers for fair and equitable treatment goes back at least 50 years. The more progressive northern states, including Wisconsin, Minnesota, Illinois and Michigan, led the fight along with such eastern states as New York and Massachusetts. The teachers in these states were among the first in the country, some 40 to 50 years ago, to gain collective bargaining rights. All teachers across the country have benefited to some degree by their efforts. To quote an old proverb, "A rising tide lifts all boats."
Teachers like Mr. Clemons should be grateful to these "pioneers." But why is collective bargaining such an important feature of teacher contracts? In the early days before unions and effective teacher organizations, teachers had no protection from vindictive, unscrupulous employers. Teachers could be burdened with impossible teaching loads or not compensated for extra activities. They could be dismissed for petty, arbitrary reasons that had little to do with their classroom performance.
Presently in most states that have unions or effective teacher organizations, such unjustified firings, and unreasonable or unfair treatment of teachers can be addressed through union representatives and collective bargaining. That doesn't mean, for example, that a teacher can't be fired, nor should it, but administrators now must show justification through such procedures as remediation, evaluation and documentation. Arbitrary, vindictive, unwarranted dismissals are now nearly impossible if teachers hold their employers to the letter of the law.
But the real issue here goes much deeper and has profound implications, positive or negative, depending upon who wins out. The teachers in Wisconsin and elsewhere are fighting for an important democratic principle — workers being afforded the human decency of being allowed to work cooperatively with their employer to help establish fair and equitable conditions of employment. A democracy that mistreats or ignores its workers and middle class is headed down a most perilous path. That should frighten all of us.
Herb Panko lives in Columbia.