For Schoolteachers, Collective Bargaining Protects Free Speech

by Christopher Paslay


Quinnipiac University recently polled 1,800 registered voters and found that 63 percent believed that public-sector workers should pay more for their health benefits and contribute more to their retirement programs.  The same poll also revealed that 42 percent felt that public-sector workers are paid “too much,” as opposed to 35 percent who said they are paid “about right.”


Interestingly, when it came to the issue of collective bargaining, Americans were split: forty-five percent said they supported limits on employees’ negotiating rights while 42 percent said they were against bargaining restrictions.     


On Friday, Philadelphia Daily News columnist Christine M. Flowers (who is for the record one of my favorite local writers) weighed-in on the issue of unions by commemorating the 100 year anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire that killed 146 immigrant seamstresses.  Flowers went on to write that these women died because they had no bargaining power or workplace protections.  In essence, there was no one to tell their bosses that it was illegal to lock the exit doors during the work day.


Of course, Flowers went on to write that although unions started out as a shield, they ultimately turned into a sword:     


“. . . While unions did good things for their members and improved working conditions in blue-collar industries (the ones that built, fed and clothed the nation), the tactics used to obtain fair deals for the seamstresses and steel workers have now been manipulated by others with a more partisan agenda.


In many cases, those ‘others’ work in the public sector, and their ‘collective bargaining’ has been turned into a form of public bribery. By taking their members’ dues and contributing big sums to the political campaigns of officials who – when elected – can sweeten their contracts, public-sector unions have gone from puppet to puppet master.


‘A decent living’ became a euphemism for bloated salaries and way-better-than-average perks at taxpayer expense. And tenure all of sorts has turned into immunity for the mediocre. . . .”


Flowers’ quip about tenure is clearly a jab at schoolteachers, but I won’t hold this against her.  Her views are normally right on point, and I have the utmost respect for her as a writer and thinker.   


But regardless of Flowers’ sweeping generalization about schoolteachers, there is another issue at the root of unions and collective bargaining that is rarely analyzed or discussed.  Buried beneath health benefits, pensions and salary is the issue of free speech, a right that has been denied schoolteachers by the courts in recent years.          


Jonathan Zimmerman, professor of history at New York University, wrote about the importance of collective bargaining in terms of its impact on the free speech of teachers in a March 1st article in the Philadelphia Inquirer headlined, “In fight for workers, free speech is at stake.” (To read the article in its entirety, which I strongly suggest, click here.)


Zimmerman opened his article by stating the following:    


“In 2001, high school English teacher Shirley Evans-Marshall gave her class a copy of the American Library Association’s ‘100 Most Frequently Challenged Books.’ She asked her students to choose a book on the list and explain why it was controversial.


But the assignment itself was too controversial for Evans-Marshall’s Ohio school district, which declined to renew her contract.


Evans-Marshall sued, claiming a violation of her First Amendment rights. And last year, a federal appeals court ruled that she didn’t have any – at least not in her own classroom.


‘The right to free speech … does not extend to the in-class curricular speech of teachers in primary and secondary schools,’ the court declared.


That’s why teachers still need collective bargaining, which lies at the heart of this winter’s bitter battles over public-employee unions. . . .


. . . Historically, these agreements have protected teachers’ salaries, benefits, and pensions. Now that the courts have gutted teachers’ academic freedom, however, the only way they can retain it will be via collective bargaining. . . .”


Zimmerman’s point is well taken.  For those who think teachers’ unions and their collective bargaining power is simply a tool to win underserved benefits and cushy pensions, think again. 


Collective bargaining is at the heart of a teacher’s right to shape curriculum—or put another way, their right to use their expertise as an educator to determine how they will deliver instruction.  It is also at the heart of their right to make their voices and opinions heard, as was the case (at least in part) with Philadelphia School District teacher Hope Moffett; without the collective power of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, Hope would have been terminated for protesting the reconstitution of Audenried High School where she currently teaches English. 


As a public servant and a dues-paying member of a union, I don’t think it’s unreasonable for workers to contribute more for their health insurance and pensions in light of the current economy.  However, America’s recession and the financial woes of many states should not be used as an excuse to cripple unions and take away the First Amendment rights of public workers.      


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