Teacher Strikes–How unions can keep the students’ families on their side

A Fruit of Knowledge

I had a post prepared today for how advertising is a meaningful method of communications that has potential to work towards what’s good, but that’ll have to wait. What I’m going to write about instead is a little irrelevant but a useful communications problem nonetheless and one that is very pertinent not just to ad students but students of all sorts and may come in handy in future employee-employer problems.

According to the student paper, Humber’s teacher union and administration may be in a logjam that could lead to a strike. A strike that could potentially derail whatever plans the innocent tuition-payers caught in the middle may have for their futures.

Having encountered two strikes during my education thus far–once during elementary school with the Ontario Teachers’ Union and again with the TAs at McGill–I’ve found that unions almost always lose the consumers’ sympathy. Whatever legitimate concerns or rights they stake claim to is lost to the majority of paying students/parents. The feeling has always been that the teachers are wasting the consumers’ hard-earned dollars by halting the education process. The question is always ‘Even if you have real problems with your bosses, why do we have to suffer?’

My sympathies are always mixed. The administrations’ line is usually this: by giving the unions what they want, the children of parents who pay for quality of education will be compromised. Followed by: unions just want more money, they obviously don’t care about your child’s education if they’re willing to hold them hostage to get what they want.

It’s hard to argue with a line like that when you’re getting ready to stand in picket lines. Most teachers/TAs I have always explain to classes that they’d really rather not be doing this, and some say they’re obliged by the unions to stop teaching, even if they actually want what the unions want. So everybody blames the unions. Some even secretly tutor students for free out of a sense of guilt.

The administration holds two key resources, without which they lose their purpose:

1. the ability to control what happens to the money

2. the ability to distribute certification (diplomas, degrees, certificates, etc.)

What teachers have is far more valuable–the education itself, without which #2 is useless.

I propose the least imperfect solution possible for the unions, who come under siege from all sides even when their demands are legitimate and fair, and basically it comes down to this: Let your members teach, but don’t let them work for management.

  • Announce that you will be striking instead of teaching next semester, but that your members will complete the current one
  • If possible, encourage students/families to withdraw or refuse to pay tuition for that semester
  • Instead ask them to contribute that tuition towards a transparent union fund on a bi-weekly basis (so as to impress upon families that this will only be temporary), where the money will go towards renting facilities and paying reduced salaries to striking teachers, as well as covering overhead and administrative costs
  • teachers can use the rented spaces to teach courses to the best of their ability, students will be asked to bring for themselves whatever materials they need to learn (lap tops, notebooks, pencils, etc.)
  • teachers with free time can help with administration or join picket lines (although picketing a locked institutional monument really only serves to frustrate members of the general public and janitorial staff since administrators are likely to meet elsewhere, invite journalists to cover your makeshift classrooms for a far more flattering story)

It’s imperfect, I know, because courses will be exceedingly difficult to schedule, extra-curricular activity will be impossible, and resources/space will be extremely limited. But the trade-off is that union members will have higher morale, teachers will be able to continue doing what they profess to love doing, and the real people paying the salaries will see that the staff are making sacrifices because they really do have students’ best interests at heart.

Once you’re off-campus, you will also regain some control on the information front. Parents/students won’t just be getting news from second-hand sources (i.e. the 6 o’clock news). What is more, they won’t be able to claim that they despise unions for taking away what they’re really paying for–quality education for their children.

Some will still be angry because their kids have to wait longer for diplomas, which qualifies them for jobs in the working world. Tell them that what you’re doing is ensuring that that piece of paper retains its value. You’re sorry that their child will have to wait for that grainy page with the principal’s signature on it, but that you’re trying to make up for it by continuing to teach them outside the classroom. Tell them also that the alternative–teachers who are unmotivated and demoralized, who are struggling outside of their jobs due to being overworked/underpaid/unhealthy, are less-equipped to prepare their offspring with the skills they need to demonstrate competence and success in the professional world. And that soon things will lead to a point where the diploma is worthless in employers’ eyes anyway.

Conclusions

I can think of no other industry where labor is so directly responsible for the product. Nor can I think of another profession that is so vital to the functioning of a productive society. Policemen keep law and order, but who would train them if there were no teachers? How could the rest of us obey laws if we cannot learn lawful methods to maintain a living? Teachers have an immense responsibility to their pupils, one which they’d be wise not to neglect while pursuing their own well-being.

While you have a responsibility to teach, you also have the power to choose where you’re going to do it. And yours is the primary reason anybody pays into the school system in the first place. Restrict access to both, and no administrator can hold out for long. By teaching while you’re not working, you remind students/parents of the great value of your service, demonstrate your passion, commitment and commonality with the students, and devalue the smears, arguments and inflated costs of administration. That way, your power and passion will be the most important lesson a strike can impart.

I’m happy, as always, to answer questions, post comments and respond to criticism.

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