Governor Cuomo and Michael Mulrew have been waging a war of words in the Daily News, each accusing the other of not caring about the kids of NY. Here's what they've said:
Cuomo referred to the teacher unions and the entrenched education establishment as an “industry” that is more interested in protecting the rights of its members than improving the system for the kids it is supposed to be serving.
Mulgrew: “If he truly believes that, it’s the clearest piece of evidence that he does not understand the people who choose to make their life’s work teaching and educating children."
I believe they are both wrong, and I hope I can articulate why without sounding as if I don't care about kids. I most certainly do care about them. I've spent the vast majority of my adult life working for and with children. And part of the problem is that I felt the need to say that before the rest of what I have to say. Because if you are a teacher, and you say that anything matters to you other than the children you teach, you run the risk of being labeled a monster. Because God forbid if teachers want to make a decent living while serving the community. How dare we?
Perhaps the best way to approach this is to remind myself, and everyone reading, what the purpose of the union is. And this applies to any union, not just teachers.
The purpose of a union is to give individual workers the ability to collectively bargain and to make a better life for themselves.
Cuomo is wrong because he believes that it is the union's responsibility to improve education. It is not. It is the state's responsibility, as part of the constitution, to provide each child with a "sound, basic education". The governor is attempting to shift the burden for this responsibility from the state to the union. If he can make people believe that the union is responsible, then he can blame teachers for all his own failures, especially the failure to address the inequality of school funding.
Mulgrew is equally wrong because he seems to confuse the union with the membership. They are, in fact, separate entities. The union is made up of teachers, of course, and it is our job to educate children, but it does not therefore follow that it is the union's job to educate children, which is what Mulgrew seems to be saying.
Frankly, I wish Mulgrew saw the union's role differently. It is absolutely the union's job to protect the rights of its members. PERIOD.
That doesn't mean that the membership shouldn't advocate for children. We should. In fact, we must, because there are wealthy forces out there looking to destroy public education for their own profit.
The reason that teachers pay union dues is so that the UFT can advocate for teachers--to protect us from abuse, to negotiate fair contracts with adequate compensation and benefits, and to ensure that we have good working conditions.
What Mulgrew needs to make clear is that by protecting teachers, the union is freeing us to do what's right for kids. No one goes into teaching to get rich, or because the job is easy (half of all teachers leave within the first five years, which clearly speaks to the difficulties teachers face). We go into teaching because we are called to it, because it is an honorable profession, and because if we do our jobs, we can make a definite impact on the lives of children and the world we live in.
I think it's high time the Mulgrew owns what the union is. But he needs to make the case that a strong union is a benefit for children. He has allowed the politicians and hedge fundies to hijack the conversation by conflating the role of the union (protecting teachers) with the role of teachers (educating and advocating for children).
He needs to make the case that when the union is strong, education is strong. When teachers feel respected and safe from unjust evaluations, we are free to do the job we were hired to do. Bright and capable college students will be attracted to teaching, and veterans won't be looking to flee as soon as they are able.
Unions working on behalf of their members helped build this country and its middle class. Instead of fleeing from this basic truth, Mulgrew should embrace it.
Unionism helps teachers help kids. That should be the message.