I started teaching in the fall of 1977, and by the winter of 1978 I had become a union organizer. A law authorizing public employees to participate in collective bargaining had passed a few years earlier in the Florida legislature, and public educators were actively organizing themselves into unions.
Management was hostile toward our efforts. They asserted that unions would pit teacher against teacher, and teachers against management. They said collaboration was the key to improving our working conditions – not the adversarial relationships that are inherent in unions. They set up teacher advisory councils and said we didn’t need unions. They said we had input through the councils.
Management always uses these arguments to fight union organizers, which is why I wasn’t surprised they surfaced during the recent parent trigger debate in Florida. The parent trigger legislation is part of an effort by progressive Democrats to begin unionizing parents in school districts, and management is opposing their efforts. But it’s ironic that teachers unions are also opposing parent unions and using the same arguments management used against them in the 1970s.
In a statement opposing the parent trigger legislation on their website, the Florida teachers union said the measure would lead to “confrontation” and not “collaboration,” and concluded that, “Our community needs a call to collaborate, not a call to arms.”
Teachers union leaders also argued that most major parent groups in Florida, such as the Florida PTA, Fund Education Now, Save Duval Schools and 50th No More, opposed this measure. But they neglected to mention that some of these groups have strong ties to school boards and teachers unions. W.C. Gentry, for example, is on the Save Duval Schools board of directors. He’s also a Duval County school board member.
The middle class and upper middle class parents who lead the organizations listed above have the power and money to ensure their children’s education needs are being met. They don’t need a union. It’s the low-income parents who need more influence, and they are who parent union organizers are targeting.
Collaboration is a necessary component of school improvement, but collaboration works best when it occurs among equals. Teachers unionized so we’d have the power to ensure collaboration wasn’t capitulation. Now low-income parents need this same power. Parent unions will require teachers unions and school boards to share some of their organizational influence with parents, but ultimately this will make decision-making in public education more democratic.
That’s always a good thing.