Unions: The good, the bad, and the ugly

With all the news regarding police abuse of power, police assaulting and killing innocent people (like Breonna Taylor and George Floyd), and the fact that police unions support their officers no matter how heinous the crime, unions are going to come out of this as the bad guys. And you know what? Some unions deserve that bad rap. However, I was president of my local teacher’s union, the NSEA, for eight years. I think I can share what unions should and should not be about with a clear and unbiased voice.

I’m not going to share a history of unions and why they were (and are) necessary. Suffice to say that unions are often the only power that workers have to ensure safe working conditions and to prevent abuse of power by superiors. And that’s a huge step in the right direction — and has been for decades — in a country that is controlled by the ultra-wealthy and where productivity is valued above all else, including worker safety.

A recent example of productivity trumping worker safety is the meat packing industry. People in the plants are exposed to COVID-19 and too often are forced to continue to work in spite of exposure and even, sometimes, in spite of being ill.

Teacher Unions

Teachers’ unions protect teachers against unfounded complaints. They protect teachers who might vociferously advocate for students even against the wishes of administration. They protect good teachers who might otherwise be fired from their jobs by administrators who just don’t like them.

Many decry tenure as something that protects bad teachers. Tenure laws do make it more difficult to fire teachers who have been rehired by the school district for five years (in Illinois). But make no mistake, poor teachers CAN be fired. Do administrators have to work to fire tenured teachers for poor performance? Yes, they do. But it rarely happens. What is supposed to happen is that administrators are supposed to not give teachers tenure (rehire them for five years in a row) unless they are good, professional teachers. Yet all too often districts let barely adequate, or even inadequate teachers attain tenure. And the rest of us see that.

One example is a teacher who was up for tenure shortly after I was hired. We knew that instead of working with students, she would put them on a computer so she could use the time to balance her checkbook. Or do other things. A tenured teacher went to the district supervisor for personnel and begged — begged — that this teacher not be given tenure. But the principal wanted to rehire the incompetent teacher, so she was given tenure. Another teacher might give students a packet to work on while she checks her Facebook page. This is not okay and it gives all teachers everywhere — those who work hard, spend evenings thinking up creative lessons and grading papers, and dedicate time and money to helping their students — a black eye.

Do unions protect those teachers? To an extent. Our job is to make sure that the contract is followed. If the administration wants to fire a teacher, they must first support that teacher and give the teacher a chance to improve performance. If the teacher is able to improve and do the job correctly, great. If not, then the dismissal process continues.

If the teacher is accused of misconduct, it’s a different situation. The union merely makes sure that the teacher’s rights are protected, but if the investigation finds misconduct or wrongdoing, there isn’t anything the union can do. And while the state union will pay for legal fees for a teacher accused of wrongdoing, that’s only if the teacher (or staff member) is acquitted of charges. Legal fees are not paid if the staff member is found guilty.

Do we defend to the death any teacher who might lose her/his job? No. We make sure that the contract is followed. We refer them to the union representative if we feel we need more guidance and support. We make sure that teachers receive due process and feel that they are supported. And if misconduct is alleged (versus poor performance), we provide teachers with information as to how they need to proceed. Union contracts for educators are to protect educators from hostile administrators who just don’t like them or the way they teach. It’s to protect freedom of expression. It’s not to protect abusive teachers or dishonest teachers. It’s certainly not to protect incompetent teachers. Too often, incompetent administrators are to blame for incompetent teachers. In at least one case, a teacher claimed that a poor evaluation was invalid because it was not timely. The administrator had completed the evaluation after the contractual time frame. In that case, the union had no choice but to make sure the terms of the contract held, and the evaluation was not used to put the teacher on remediation. If subsequent administrators had given that teacher a poor evaluation, it might have resulted in that teacher’s dismissal. We will never know because it didn’t happen.

From this former union president’s viewpoint, the most important job an administrator has is to make sure that all teachers who are given tenure are of top quality. They must be teachers whom the district wants to have for decades. If there are any doubts, any questions, that teacher should not be rehired.

In our district, it is often the case that the union and the administration work hand in hand. During the COVID-19 pandemic, this became especially apparent (perhaps not so much during negotiations!). The administration met weekly (via zoom) to discuss what they proposed, and when the NSEA had an objection, the district listened and amended their plans — every single time. Several years ago, under a different superintendent, the union leadership went to New York with the superintendent and a couple of other administrators to attend a workshop on communication. Those running the workshop were stunned that administrators and union came together. But that’s how it should be.

When you think about it, in a perfect world, union and management would work together to achieve what should be the goal of both parties: an entity that is successful (in educating students or producing widgets) and treats its employees fairly and with dignity. Employees want their employer to be successful. Working for a company that isn’t financially stable isn’t good for anyone. And when employees are treated fairly and with dignity, they appreciate their jobs more and are more productive.

Police Unions

Police unions, on the other hand, are a different matter. A problem with police unions was clearly stated in an article in the Chicago Tribune on June 8, 2020. The article states that the Chicago Police Department union contract has several provisions that only serve to protect the police, not the public, including some that “virtually codify the so-called police code of silence.”

  • People who make complaints against Chicago PD must sign their names, which are then turned over to the officers. Obviously, that’s a huge disincentive to file a complaint.
  • Police can wait up to 24 hours after a shooting to make a statement. Is this to give them time to talk to their fellow officers and compare stories? There is no need for this kind of time frame. They can also amend their statements after seeing evidence. So in other words, they can lie but then retract their lie if there is evidence to the contrary.
  • There are no rewards for whistleblowers for police.
  • After five years, records of police misconduct are destroyed. That makes it almost impossible to keep track of officers who have faced multiple complaints over decades.
  • Interrogators have limited authority as to what questions they can ask during an investigation into police misconduct.

While there are many honest and hardworking Chicago Police officers, there are also those who bully, beat, and shoot citizens who don’t deserve it. Read the recent CBSChicago’s article, City Council Finance Committee Signs Off On $10.7 Million In Settlements For Lawsuits Against Police Officers. There is also the Chicago Reporter  article, Chicago spent more than $113 million on police misconduct lawsuits in 2018. Officer misconduct is both pervasive and expensive. It’s also well documented that officers in pursuit of another vehicle often ignore orders to stop the chase, often with deadly results to bystanders and drivers in their way. In a recent case, officers were told at least four times to stop pursuit and continued on in violation of orders. A woman in another car, the mother of six children, was killed because of their disregard for orders.

Mayor Lightfoot wants to license police officers. As a former attorney, I know that makes sense. If attorneys commit malpractice, their license can be revoked. How wonderful would it be for the public to be able to file complaints against police officers that would trigger an investigation. And if that investigation resulted in the complaint being verified, that police officer could then lose his or her license. That’s why the FOP (Fraternal Order of Police) will fight tooth and nail to not let that happen. It would mean that police officers would be held accountable for their actions to a greater degree than they are currently.

And I think that is why in Minneapolis, they decided to get rid of the police department and start from scratch. It doesn’t mean they won’t have a police force, or something very like it. What it does mean is that they can end the current police contract and start over. The good cops will be rehired, but the bad cops, those men and women with multiple complaints against them, may not be rehired. The police department in its new iteration, and those public officers (or perhaps call them peace officers) can start with a clean slate — and that’s a wonderful thing.

Those kinds of actions, licensing officers or starting all over, are what need to happen in police departments all over the country. That’s the only way to ensure that some of the old guard, who may have multiple complaints against them that were valid but ignored, can choose a profession that is more suited to their needs. And to be sure, there are many, many police officers who have served effectively, honorably, and courageously. Those officers will find a place in whatever iteration of a police department is created.

What I want to stress is that all unions should not be tarred with the same brush. Some unions really protect those in need of protection, but do not do it at the expense of others. Police unions should have been protecting the police officers when needed, but not at the expense of the taxpaying citizens who pay their salaries yet have been ill-treated by those officers sworn to uphold the law. Those officers who lie when they are involved in police shootings because they know their fellow officers will back them up by lying to protect them? All of them should be gone. Every officer who has covered up the wrongdoing of another should be gone. We need officers whom the public can trust.

(Please note: These are my thoughts and opinions. These are not necessarily the thoughts and opinions of the NSEA or the IEA nor have they endorsed this article.)