Collective Bargaining vs. Collective Obstructivism

protest: don't criticize me
We teachers in K-12 public education have a press problem.

Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin has unleashed his attack on some public employee unions in his state, an act that many identify as a political act in the guise of fiscal reform.  Those of us whose jobs rest in the bosom of a collectively bargained contract take these events quite personally, as it is an attack on how we see our very work lives.  Many if not most of us see our place in the labor movement as quite separate from our professional duties, our paychecks a somewhat separate reality from our duties as teachers.  Our representatives negotiate on our behalf with those who represent the public whose children we teach.  It is a very delicate dance we perform, as the interests of all stakeholders are inextricably interwoven.  In contentious times, such as now, an attack by one “side” inevitably comes back around to damage the interests of the attacker.  It is a brutal and unavoidable consequence, usually the result of one set of stakeholders misrepresenting of the motives and intentions of another.

When one party becomes entrenched in perceiving another stakeholder in this dance as essentially dishonest or strictly self-interested, it leads to some pretty paranoid if-then conclusions:  “If you want to protect your salaries, then you must not care about the children you teach,” or “If you want to pay attention to district infrastructure, then you must want to undermine the financial security of district teachers.”  This seems to be especially fierce when it comes to technology infrastructure, new enough to education to still feel expendable.  We hear statements from a few teachers such as “We didn’t need computers twenty years ago, so we can do without them now in these hard times.”  Meanwhile, the community wonders why their entire world is networked except for the one their children occupy for 7 hours per day, 180 days per year.  It becomes tempting for parents to conclude that nothing is happening in classrooms that benefits students when something so fundamental to the twenty-first century social and work world is often absent in many educators’ practice.  These disconnects in communication become even harder to resolve when parties decide someone else is evil.

It’s from this ever-hardening of hearts that we find ourselves in the midst of an assault on collective bargaining in general.  After nearly a century of workplace tradition, what is happening to create this fertile moment for those who would see collective bargaining disappear?

I contend that some groups of educators – and I speak from the perspective of a teacher and proud union member for thirty-three of my years – have confused the role of collective bargaining in their professional lives.  Rather than the collective bargaining process serving as a means for securing a collective voice in the larger educational discussion, for a few teachers collective bargaining has become their weapon for collectively obstructing necessary change in education.  This single-minded fundamentalism provides ammunition to the likes of Gov. Walker who can use examples of obstructive rhetoric by a few in leadership to loudly and unjustly proclaim that teacher unions are destroying our schools.

In the same spirit of auto workers and assembly plant managers who have opened plant practice to accept constructive criticism and the flattening of communication structures in the effective manufacturing of cars, teachers need to embrace a culture of community criticism and open discourse to become more effective at what they are charged to do every day.  For teachers to hear criticism of their practice and immediately seek refuge in the collective bargaining process is to invite the friends of Gov. Walker to question its very existence.  Collective Obstructionism is destructive not only to education but to the entire notion of collective bargaining, and we need to take a good hard look in the mirror at just why we respond to criticism as we do rather than become our own worst enemies.

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