A Moment of Silence for Michael Brown

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Michael Brown has been dead for more than 100 days.

Yet he was in my classroom this morning.

He stared up at me from 22 sets of eyes, out of 22 faces with 22 pairs of mostly Black and Brown childish cheeks.

The day after it was announced Missouri police Officer Darren Wilson would not be indicted in the shooting death of the unarmed Black teen my class was eerily quiet.

There was no yelling.

No singing or humming or tapping either.

No one played keep away with anyone else’s pencil or laughed about something someone had said or done the night before.

No conversation about what so-and-so was wearing or arguments about the football game.

My first period class filed into the room and collapsed into their seats like they’d been up all night.

Perhaps they had been.

By the time the morning announcements ended and I had finished taking the 8th graders attendance, I had come to a decision.

I had to address it.

There was simply no way to ignore what we were all thinking and feeling. No way to ignore the ghost haunting our hearts and minds.

“May I ask you something?” I said turning to the class.

They just stared.

“Would you mind if we had a moment of silence for Michael Brown?”

I’ve never seen relief on so many faces all at once.

It was like I had pulled a splinter from out of 22 pairs of hands with a single tug.

The White teacher was going to acknowledge Black pain. In here, they wouldn’t have to hide it. They could be themselves.

Some mumbled affirmatives but most had already begun memorializing. There had been silence in their hearts since last night. Silence after the rage.

How else to deal with a reality like ours? Young men of color can be gunned down in the street and our justice system rules it isn’t even worth investigating in a formal trial. The police are free to use deadly force with impunity so long as they tell a grand jury they felt threatened by their unarmed alleged assailant. And if a community can’t control its anger and frustration, it’s the oppressed people’s fault.

These are bitter pills to swallow for adults. How much harder for the young ones just starting out?

So we bowed our heads in silence.

I’ve never heard a sound quit like this emptiness. Footsteps pattered in the hall, an adult’s voice could be heard far away giving directions. But in our room you could almost hear your own heart beating. What a lonely sound, more like a rhythm than any particular note of the scale.

But as we stood there together it was somehow less lonely. All those solitary hearts beating with a single purpose.

I made sure to do this in all of my classes today.

The first thing I did was make this same request: “Do you mind if we have a moment of silence for Michael Brown?”

They all agreed.

In most classes this became a springboard for discussion. No grades, no lesson plans, just talk.

We talked about who Brown was and what had happened to him. We talked about the grand jury and the evidence it had considered. We talked about what their parents had told them.

And as you might expect, speaking about Brown was like a séance inviting a long line of specters into our classroom – Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Emmett Till, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. – fathers, brothers, classmates.

Some groups talked more than others. Some students spoke softly and with an eloquence beyond their years. Many only shook their heads.

One boy asked me, “Why does this keep happening, Mr. Singer?”

It was the question of which I had been most afraid. As a teacher, it’s always uncomfortable to admit the limits of your knowledge. But I tried to be completely honest with him.

“I really don’t know,” I said, “But let’s not forget that question. It’s a really good one.”

Every class was different. In some we spent a long time on it. In others, we moved on more quickly.

But in each one, I made sure to look into their eyes – each and every one – before the moment ended.

I didn’t say it aloud, but I wanted them to know something.

We live in an uncertain world. There are people out there who will hate you just because of the color of your skin. They will hate you because of your religion or your parents or whom you love.

But in this room, I want you to know you are safe, you are cherished and you are loved.

I hope they understand.

For me this is not just an academic concern. It’s personal.

I have devoted my life to those children.

Some of my colleagues say that I’ve gone too far. That what happened to Michael Brown and issues of racism aren’t education issues, they aren’t things that should concern teachers.

If not, I don’t know what is.

Our society segregates public schools into Black and White. It defunds the Black schools, closes them and funnels the wastrels into privatized for-profit charters while leaving the best facilities and Cadillac funding for the elite and privileged.

And we allow it. Our deformed society leads to deformed citizens and a deformed parody of justice.

My room may be haunted. I teach among the ghosts of oppression. But that’s the thing about phantoms. They demand their due – honesty.

It’s all I have to give.


This article has also been published in the Washington Post, Diane Ravich’s blog, Yinzercation blog and the Badass Teachers Association blog.

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Our Martyred Brothers: What 43 Missing Mexican Student Teachers Share with US Educators Fighting Factory School Reform

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Death is the ultimate exclamation point.

We walk through life blissfully unaware until someone dies.

Such is the case for 43 someones in Mexico. These rural first-year teaching students were kidnapped on Sept. 26 by police and allegedly handed over to a drug cartel who tortured and killed them.

Why such violence against a group of young men from one of the poorest states in the country who had dedicated their lives to care for the needs of Mexican children?

They opposed the country’s education reform policy.

That’s right. They were just like us.

Just like the 53,000 members of the Badass Teachers Association or the 99,000 people who follow Diane Ravich on Twitter or all the parents who stand in the back of a school board meeting holding a sign against toxic testing.

They had come from rural Ayotzinapa to the city of Iguala to peacefully protest but were fired on by police. Six died on the scene and 43 more were taken into custody and are presumed dead. Students who survived the attack but escaped capture said army personnel were in the area and aware of what was happening, yet did nothing to stop the massacre.

Mexican school reform is apparently a bloody business. But reading the background of this tragedy is like looking in a mirror.

In February 2013, Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto signed an education reform bill with the support of the three main political parties. The bill reads like it was plagiarized from the United States federal Race To The Top program. In fact, it’s much worse.

It includes hiring and promotion based solely on “merit,” new allegedly more rigorous educational standards, and reappraisal of teachers deserving tenure. Local control of public education is almost completely negated in favor of a new federal National Institute for Education Evaluation.

Like it’s American counterpart, it ignores the realities of poverty in favor of vilifying teachers.

Millions of Mexican school children suffer from a dismal lack of funding and infrastructure. Many schools lack floors, bathrooms, Internet, or even telephone access, and in rural areas roads to schools often are non-existent.

At least a third of schools face severe infrastructure problems, according to an April 2014 census report on pre- through middle schools. A total of 41% lack sewage systems and 31% have no drinkable water. Fixing the problem would cost at least $4 billion.

Just like in the United States, the Mexican reform agenda was created and pushed through by big business. In this case, the right-wing business group “Mexicans First” is hoping to undo much of the liberal reforms associated with the Mexican Revolution. The goal is to subordinate education to the profit needs of big business.

The strategy includes singling out and slandering educators in the mass media for the supposed failures of public education. As in the US, the position of the teachers unions has been not to reject the reactionary plan, but to demand that they be included as partners.

Public outcry against the massacre has been massive. Students have called for a general strike on Nov. 20. On Saturday, Nov. 8, demonstrators set fire to the door of Mexico City’s ceremonial presidential palace. Protestors chanted “it was the state” and called for the resignation of President Nieto and the Attorney General.

The most popular rallying cry seems to be “Ya Me Cansé.” It means: “Enough. I’m tired” or “I’m already tired.”

Would it take similar bloodshed for the American public finally to be fed up with our own factory schools movement?

Our own government pushes these same counter-reforms.

Just like in Mexico, US privatizers drool all over the prospect of de-professionalizing teaching, and raking in education funding as profits. The only difference is we haven’t started murdering protestors yet.

I’ll admit it’s a big difference, and I’m thankful for it. Otherwise, my body would have been tossed on the rubbish heap long ago.

But after investigating this tragedy, I can no longer look at our own self-proclaimed reformers the same way. They look like Mexican gangsters.

There is very little to distinguish them from the corrupt Mexican government and its drug cartels. If you put Bill Gates, Barrack Obama, Arne Duncan, Michelle Rhee and Campbell Brown in a room with their Mexican counterparts, there is much they’d agree on.

Common Core State Standards? YES!

Merit Pay? YES!

Abolishing teacher tenure? YES!

Murdering dissidents?

No?

I hope so.

But before we let them off the hook, it’s best to look at the blood on their hands.

Oh, yes, they are dripping with blood.

Our American government is complicit in this tragedy because of our never wavering faith in the drug war that feeds it – American demand, Mexican supply, American guns, Mexican bloodbath.

As we ponder how far our own politicians and corporate leaders are willing to go to ensure their agenda, let us pause to remember our brothers who died in Mexico.

They were someone’s sons. They had been born, loved, cherished and wanted to make a difference.

They didn’t want to be martyrs. They wanted to be teachers.

Sometimes that means the same thing.

Ya Me Cansé!

Ya Me Cansé!

Ya Me Cansé!

YA ME CANSE!

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This article has also been published on the Badass Teachers Association blog.

American Public Schools Could Defeat Racism by Confronting Our Dark Past

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We’re a country of dreamers.

High ideals of democracy, fair play, and freedom are nothing more than our nighttime reveries forced into the light of day.

We look about us at a world of what could be and believe with our whole hearts that it will be so.

But we’re such good dreamers that we often don’t see the reality in front of us. We walk through the day with half closed eyes and never see the shadow and dirt in which we live. Our bodies lay in the mud while our heads are forever in the clouds.

That’s our problem. If you don’t also recognize what is, your dream will never be more than that – a mirage.

And so our greatest strength is also our greatest weakness. The American dream has become the American delusion.

Nowhere is this more apparent than with race.

So many of us – mostly Caucasians – don’t even think it’s an issue anymore.

“Hate crimes are a thing of the past,” says the police departments blaming Black teens for getting in the way of officers’ bullets.

“Everyone’s treated equally,” says a court system that disproportionately locks away people of color for the same crimes it practices leniency on for Whites.

“Racism is over,” says the US Supreme Court as it strips away much of the teeth of the Voting Rights Act.

“There’s nothing wrong with naming your sports team after a racial epithet,” says the Washington football franchise as it sues Native Americans with the temerity to be offended.

These are not issues of mere prejudice. This is out-and-out institutionalized racism.

Howard Prof. Denisha Jones explains the difference between the two:

“Using derogatory terms about a person’s race, attributing negative behaviors to a person because of their race, and treating someone poorly because of their race, are all examples of prejudice. Anyone can be prejudiced towards another person based on race. Black people can harbor racial prejudice towards White people. Latino people can harbor racial prejudice towards Black people. White people can exhibit racial prejudice toward people of color.

Now racism is more than just racial prejudice. To understand the difference you can define racism as prejudice + power. See racism is a system that confers advantages on one group while systematically disadvantaging another group (for every advantage there is disadvantage). In America, racism is a system of White supremacy that advantages White people over people of color.”

This is an issue that Americans, frankly, don’t want to deal with – in fact, most of us refuse to see it at all.

We’re finally a color blind society, I suppose.

No, we don’t treat people of color equally because we can’t see any reason to discriminate against them.

We treat them unequally because we refuse to acknowledge how our privileged actions and power affect them.

This willful blindness is so pervasive we don’t even see it under the most extreme circumstances – brutality and genocide.

Compare our attitude with that of the country most associated in the American mind with mass murder of ethnic groups – Germany.

Deutschland, or the Federal Republic of Germany, has a history of civil rights abuses and factory murder.

During WWII, Germany committed some of the worst atrocities against humankind in a century know for atrocity. As Hitler and the Nazi regime conquered much of Europe, his government was responsible for the systematic extermination of 6 million Jewish people and 5 million non-Jewish people. Taken together, we call this dark period the Holocaust.

We all know that. But, the United States has a similar history of racism and murder.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, the US allowed legal chattel slavery of human beings stolen from Africa. These people were taken from their homes and families and sold into generational servitude. Of the 12 million enslaved people brought from Africa to the Americas, only about 600,000 were taken to the 13 Colonies and (later) the United States. The great majority of slaves were taken to sugar colonies in the Caribbean and Brazil where they were often worked to death and had to be replenished with new arrivals. Life expectancy was higher in the US and slaves often reproduced their numbers. By 1860, there were 4 million slaves in the country.

Treatment, however, was severe. Beatings and rapes were commonplace. Punishments often included whipping, shackling, hanging, burning, mutilation, branding, and imprisonment. It was most often meted out in response to disobedience or perceived infractions, but sometimes abuse was carried out simply to re-assert the dominance of the master or overseer over the slave. Most captive laborers weren’t allowed literacy or to congregate in large groups – except for church services – for fear these things would inspire thoughts of rebellion or escape. The economic prosperity of a large section of our country was built upon the blooded and beaten backs of these people.

But that’s not all.

Furthermore, the United States and its precursor British government practiced outright genocide against Native American peoples living here before the arrival of European settlers. The extent of this brutality is hard to calculate. Estimates of the pre-Columbian population for what today constitutes the U.S. vary significantly. More recent efforts put the number at approximately 18 million. As of 2010, only 5.2 million US citizens claim Native American ancestry. Of that, 2.9 million claim to be descended solely from indigenous peoples, while 2.3 million claim some combined heritage.

Arguments explaining this drastic plunge in population are numerous and heated. Certainly Native Americans weren’t able to cope with European diseases such as Smallpox. To what extent this was exacerbated by purposeful attempts to murder First Peoples with primitive biological warfare (“gifting” them smallpox infected blankets, etc.) is hard to determine. But since 1830, the national policy turned from assimilation to outright displacement. The Indian Removal Act authorized the government to forcibly deport tribes west of the Mississippi. But as Europeans encroached even further, this resulted in the genocide or near-genocide of many tribes, with brutal, forced marches including the infamous Trail of Tears, which alone caused 4,000 casualties.

Over time, the United States forced indigenous peoples into smaller plots of land until they were on reservations where they were coerced to change their hunter-gatherer life-style to a more agrarian culture which neither they nor the lands they were forced to live on were suited. Mass starvation was common. It wasn’t even until 1924 that all Native Americans were even granted US citizenship.

The point is this – no matter how much the depopulation of Native Americans can be attributed to natural causes, there was certainly a large factor of purposeful, government-sanctioned racism, and murder involved.

The bottom line? Both Germany and the United States have a history of brutality and genocide. It is not important to determine which atrocity is worse – American Slavery, Native American Genocide or the Holocaust. That’s irrelevant. Murder is murder. Genocide is genocide.

The crux of the matter is that both countries have a dark history of aggression and inhumanity to face. But each chose a much different path to do so.

In Germany, there is a policy of education and acceptance. They don’t hide from their past. They teach it.

The Holocaust is a mandatory, binding subject in all schools.

Students begin studying the Nazi persecution of the Jews between ages 12 and 15. At that point all students study the history of the 20th century – in general – and National Socialism – in particular. The Holocaust is a central topic of this instruction. So much so that students who who pass the Abitur exam (prerequisite for university) take it up again at age 18.

German-sanctioned genocide pervades the entire curriculum – not just history and civics, where it is central. It is also frequently taught in classes on German literature, religion, ethics, biology, art and music. It’s not uncommon for science classes to disprove racist theories, art classes to study works produced by Holocaust survivors, etc. Students engage in long-term educational projects that often focus on these issues, as well.

Finally, students continue to learn about the Holocaust outside the classroom. Numerous class trips are scheduled to the nearly 100 memorial museums every year. Dachau, Bergen-Belsen, Buchenwald, and Sachsenhausen have several hundred thousand visitors – most of whom participate in guided tours for students and teachers.

But that’s Germany.

Q: How does the United States deal with its dark past?

A: Haphazardly.

In the USA, there is no such systematic educational approach to either American Slavery or Native American Genocide. While neither subject is completely ignored, there is no national push to ensure anything but a superficial knowledge of these events.

American school children know that we used to have slaves; they may even know that we didn’t treat the Native Americans so nicely. But they don’t know nearly the scope and fallout of these events.

Slavery is one thing. The Civil Rights movement is another. They may have some vague connection, but little is taught about the generations of nationally-endorsed racist laws that kept African Americans from voting or exercising the same freedoms available to White people. And after the Civil Rights movement!? It must have been all good, because there’s little else you’ll learn about it in most schools.

Likewise, students learn there used to be a whole civilization of Native Americans before Columbus arrived. They might learn a bit about a few of the skirmishes and disagreements between the US government and the indigenous peoples. But genocide!? That concept is usually reserved for WWII and European history when it could equally be applied to events at home.

You’d think the Common Core State Standards – our ill-conceived de facto national norms – would have solved this problem. However, they are exceedingly general when it comes to social studies and history. Criterion focus on “conflict and cooperation,” “evaluating patterns of change” and “interpreting historical events.” No emphasis is placed on particular historical occurrences.

It’s ironic that when it comes to skills such as Language Arts, the standards are – in fact – too specific. They prescribe things like close reading, an emphasis on nonfiction texts, comprehension without context, and the New Criticism literary point of view of the 1940s. But when it comes to fact-based pursuits like Social Studies, the standards are as watered down as weak tea. How else could they pass political muster for all concerned?

None of this stops individual teachers, schools or states from being comprehensive and specific. In fact, some states such as Virginia have their own state standards that emphasize local history and norms. For instance, one Virginia benchmark prescribes studying “the effects of segregation and ‘Jim Crow’ on life in Virginia for Whites, African Americans, and American Indians.” That’s a far cry from “evaluating patterns of change!”

Let me be clear. I am not advocating a rigid national curriculum. But I am in favor of a national desire to have some specific social studies standards at some level. Those standards should definitely be fleshed out by states and school districts, but the national emphasis should be on confronting our past, not ignoring it. Otherwise, our students will continue to be left with a vague idea of these events and their importance.

So I’d like to make a suggestion.

If the United States is serious about its ideals – if we really want to achieve our dreams of freedom and equal opportunity – we need to be more like Germany.

We need a comprehensive educational program that teaches our history – all of our history – even the nasty parts.

We need to emphasize American Slavery and Native American Genocide the same way Germany emphasizes the Holocaust.

Starting in middle school, students should learn about the events leading up to both tragedies.

Lessons should be plentiful and multidisciplinary. It shouldn’t be something that’s only the prerogative of the social studies classes. Literature courses should teach texts such as Beloved, Native Son and Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee in this context. Biology classes should do experiments to discredit racist theories of eugenics. Music and art classes should examine the rich heritage produced by these two peoples.

Schools should institute field trips to former slave markets, plantations, reservations, battle sites and massacres. This, in turn, would necessitate turning some of the historical sites into museums of equal quality to those explicating the Holocaust in Europe. No more fond reminiscences on life in the Antebellum South. They would show in stark detail what it meant to be a slave, how these people were housed, worked, penalized, etc. Battle grounds, in so much as they exist, wouldn’t just be about numbers killed and instruments of war, but instead show in detail the inhumanity practiced by our forebears.

The point is not to rub our children’s noses in the brutalities of the past. The truth of history should be inescapable, yes, but we must also teach the value of tolerance and acceptance of those different than us. To do this, we need a comprehensive program of ethnic studies. We need to teach the stories, histories, struggles and triumphs of people of color on their own terms.

For this to have any lasting effect, it is essential that such courses occur at all of our schools – not just those made up of mostly minority students. Our children need to know that it’s okay to be who they are. There’s nothing wrong with being non-White just as there’s nothing particularly special about being Caucasian. We’re all people. We all deserve respect, acceptance and love.

Isn’t that really one of our most cherished ideals?

We hold these truths to be self evident – that all men are created equal.

They are endowed with certain unalienable rights.

That among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

If our actions matched our words, maybe then we’d finally realize the American Dream.


NOTE: A shorter version of this article appeared in the LA Progressive.

My heartfelt THANK YOU to the following people without whom I could not have written this piece: Dr. Mark Naison (Fordham Univeristy), Dr. Yohuru Williams (Fairfield University), Dr. Denisha Jones (Howard University) and Traci Churilla. Any faults are my own.

A Curriculum of Compassion

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Rayvin was back.

I had been told to expect her today. She’d been on my class roster since the beginning of the year but this was the first time I had seen her in person.

Such sad eyes. Such a defeated look on such a young, beautiful face.

“Welcome back!” I said smiling and picking up her loose hand to give it a silly shake.

“I thought we might see you today!” I said ushering her to a choice seat in a front corner.

She said nothing.

Rayvin had been in my class last year when I taught 7th grade. She had disappeared about halfway through the year – sucked into a mire of horrific circumstances, homeless shelters and life experiences no one should have to endure.

Now that I was teaching 8th grade and she had come back to the district, she had been returned to me like a dead letter.

The poor thing slumped into the seat I had given her. But I wasn’t about to give up.

I gave her an assignment I knew she’d enjoy. I remembered she liked to read horror stories so I put a book under her nose and opened it to Edgar Allan Poe.

She obeyed with no comment. But I wasn’t about to give up.

As the class discussed the story, I offered her a chance to participate. After every question I’d ask, I let me eyes casually fall on her face to see if she was interested in commenting before giving someone else a chance. She met my gaze but said nothing.

When class was over, she crumpled her papers in her hand like a tube.

Just as she got up, I asked, “Would you like a folder?”

She stopped as if she had heard me for the first time.

“Yes,” she almost whispered.

“Would you like a three-ring binder?” I asked and reached under a desk to a pile of supplies I collected for just such occasions.

Her face lit up into a smile.

I don’t remember what she said after that. I gave her the binder and she left.

It was the best moment of my day. The best moment of my whole week.

I had gotten through to her. She knew that someone – SOMEONE – cared.

THAT’S why I teach.

We waste a lot of talk in academic circles on curriculum and standards and lesson plans. But in the classroom, most of the time it’s all empty words.

Teachers have to make lightning fast decisions in real time. They can’t refer to a workbook, their notes or government-sanctioned benchmarks.

They have to appraise the situation and act.

If a student is misbehaving, the teacher has to quickly make a judgement why it’s happening, who it’s affecting and what’s the best course to correct it before it spreads out of control.

If a student isn’t acting like his-or-herself, the teacher has to mentally take note of the situation, compare it to past knowledge of the child’s history and then decide how best to help the young person without bringing down undue attention.

If a student doesn’t understand something, the teacher has to find out where the misunderstanding comes from, explain away the troubled spot and then gauge to see if his action has solved the problem.

And all in the blink of an eye.

It’s one of the things I love about teaching. It’s also why not everyone can do it.

You have to not only live in the moment but persevere. You have to be there for all 20-or-30-something students as well as you can, as quickly as you can, at the same time.

It’s a rush, let me tell you.

It’s also draining and frustrating and painful.

But it’s so worth it.

You get to help people – people who really need it. Not at a remove. You get to stand in front of those in need and help them up – even if they don’t know they’re on the ground.

There is such joy in what I do.

I wouldn’t trade it for the world.

I’ll keep doing it even though my state and local government are determined to evaluate me to death with mountains of paperwork and statistics that would make even a statistician weep.

I’ll keep doing it even though my duly-elected school board publicly bad mouths their staff and refuses to even negotiate with us in person so we can afford to keep our own families.

I’ll keep doing it as long as I can.

One day I may not be able to do it anymore.

My health suffers. Time with my wife and daughter gets sacrificed.

But no matter what happens, I helped Billy express himself in writing. I made shy Kelcey feel safe enough to share her journal with the class. I showed Shaun that sometimes stories are about people just like him.

And I made Rayvin smile.

That’s so much more than enough!


NOTE: In an effort to preserve students’ anonymity, names and unimportant details may have been changed.

This article has been published in Public School Shakedown and the Badass Teachers Association blog.

Forget Corporations… Unions Really ARE People

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One word.

That’s all it takes to make some folks explode with anger.

One PARTICULAR word.

Not the F-word.

Or the C-word.

Or the even the N-word.

It’s the U-word. UNIONS!

Say that word, especially in a positive light, and heads burst like rotten pumpkins holding freshly lit firecrackers!

Eyes narrow, nostrils flare, a vein pops out on a forehead – and then a diatribe comes pouring out of your interlocutor’s mouth like the deep-seated, half-digested bile it is.

I just don’t get it.

Unions are people, after all.

Mitt Romney may have earned himself a place in the Presidential Candidate Hall of Shame for saying the same of corporations. But where he was wrong about the company, firm or business – it’s more truthful to speak this way of labor unions. Or any Democratic institution, for that matter.

No, I don’t mean that unions are individual entities that have lives of their own and deserve civil rights. But the people who make up those unions do.

That’s the whole point. Unions are made up of people. Their whole purpose is to fight for the rights of the individuals in them.

Corporations, on the other hand, have people who work for them, yes, but their raison d’etre is to earn profits for the board of directors or shareholders only.

While both work for the good of their members, unions work for ALL of their members. Corporations only work for the good of a limited selection of those connected with them – the owners.

At least that’s how it’s supposed to work. There are unions that work well and those that don’t. But the concept of a labor union – all the workers at a place of business gathering together to equal the power of the owners – is a good one.

Critics, however, see everything about unions as wrong.

They accuse unions of (1) stifling flexibility and creativity in the workplace. They say unions are (2) Communist, (3) politically allied to the Democrats and (4) increase costs. Among other things.

Let’s examine these claims:

1) Unions stifle flexibility and creativity:

Naysayers act as if unions impose rules on the helpless bosses. This is untrue. There is nothing in any union contract that was not agreed on by both parties. Sometimes it’s quite difficult to reach agreement. Often compromises are made on both sides. But each party has an equal say in what goes into the agreement.

As a result, sometimes the contract gets in the way of an easy fix to a problem. But is that really surprising for a document born of compromise? Neither party gets exactly what it wants. They meet in the middle. Sure, it would be much more flexible for the owners to make all the decisions. Likewise, it would be more flexible if the workers got to make all the decisions, too. But would either really lead to the best working environment?

Take break periods. If it were up to most managers, workers wouldn’t get any time to recoup from the constant demands of the job. They’d have to keep going with no respite until quitting time – maybe with a brief working lunch.

So union contracts often require breaks in the day. Not as much as workers would like and not as few as the bosses would prefer, either. To achieve this, you lose some flexibility.

For instance, if the contract says workers get two 15-minute breaks, you can’t combine them into one 30-minute breather. This makes it difficult if you’re needed at your post but have to stop suddenly to punch out. Otherwise, you won’t have time for both breaks.

It would seem to make more sense to keep working now and take a longer respite later. However, that is not what management and labor agreed to do.

It’s a compromise to benefit both parties. Workers are assured of having breaks in their day while management is assured that labor can’t take advantage of the situation by manipulating the clock to get a prolonged period off. If it becomes a problem, both parties can revisit it and make changes during the next contract negotiations. It may be difficult to change deeply embedded practices, but it can be done.

It doesn’t stop anyone from being creative. It just means you have to work within certain guidelines – and doing that may actually require innovation!

2) Unions are Communist

This is patently false. In fact, there are few more democratic institutions than labor unions.

All decisions are made by majority rule. Members vote on who serves as officers, who will have a seat on the negotiation committee, whether to accept a contract, when and if to go on strike, etc. That doesn’t sound like Soviet Russia! It sounds like Independence Hall in Philadelphia!

The only difference is it attempts to equalize power between the workers and the boss. It never actually achieves this ideal, but it does increase the say of the working stiff over the fat cats of the world.

That is not communism. It’s a respect for people’s individual rights.

Think about it. You don’t lose your human rights the moment you take a job. Why should the owners get free reign over their employees? Likewise, owners don’t lose all their power just because they need other human beings to make the goods and/or services they provide. Labor shouldn’t get to dictate everything either. It’s a give-and-take. When working well, it brings out the best in everyone.

Let’s be clear. THIS is what critics are really railing against. They’d rather preserve the owner’s power. The idea that the elites have to listen at all to menial workers just rubs them the wrong way. They’d rather be the ones making all the decisions – just like Pol Pot, Mao Zedong or Kim Jong-il. Come to think of it, the non-union workplace is more like Stalingrad than the union one.

Without unions, workers are at the mercy of their employers. Not exactly a red, white and blue proposition!

3) Unions are politically allied to the Democratic Party

How I wish this were true!

It would be great if one political party stood up for the rights of the working man! Unfortunately neither donkey nor pachyderm is exactly itching for the job.

Historically, the Democrats have done more to increase unions’ power than the Republicans. But that’s a pretty old and dusty history book you’re reading.

In the past 40 years, both parties have gleefully striped away union protections and rights. The only difference is that some Democratic politicians concede the right of unions to actually exist. Many Republicans act as if they would abolish the institution at the first opportunity.

Rank and file union members vote based on the platforms of the candidates involved. If there were a Republican candidate running on pro-union policies, union members would probably vote for him. That’s just called Democracy.

If a party wants the union vote, just give workers a reason to vote for your candidates.

4) Unions raise costs

Yes, and no.

In the short term, they do. But in the long run, unions may actually increase profits thereby paying for any increased initial investment.

When your business has a labor union, you have to pay higher wages. You have to have more safety regulations so less people get hurt on the job. You pay more for healthcare and pension plans. You have to cover more paid leaves and vacation times.

This is true. But it’s not a liability. It’s an advantage.

When you treat workers well, the quality of their labor increases. It just makes sense. If people are happy at the job, they’re going to do it better than those who hate it. This increases the quality of your product and, thus, sales. So you may have to pay more money upfront, but it gets offset by profits. Does the increase justify the cost? That depends.

Every business needs customers. Without money, consumers can’t buy the goods and/or services you provide. So when you pay a higher salary, you’re creating a potential market.

Consider this. When workers have more money, that’s cash that goes right back into the economy. They have money to buy stuff, maybe even the stuff you’re selling. That’s why Henry Ford famously made sure to increase wages at his auto factories – so that his employees could afford to buy the very cars they were making!

But what about non-union workers? Is it fair that union labor gets all this while everyone else is left wanting?

The short answer – yes.

If you’re jealous of the benefits of being in a union, join one. Don’t tear down someone else. Don’t be a resentful child popping another kid’s balloon because Mommy didn’t buy you one. Go get yours. Unionized labor will welcome you with open arms.

Petulant envy is exactly the attitude the bosses want you to take. You can always tell a news source is bought-and-paid-for when you hear some talking head spouting such petty, childish nonsense.

But leaving aside those who’d rather bring you down than boost themselves up, there’s an even more important reason to support unions. Membership actually benefits all – even non-unionized labor!

It’s called the free market. When unions boost salary and fringe benefits at one business, others have to do the same to compete. If your business doesn’t pay the same high salaries, it will lose the best employees to businesses that do. That’s simple economics.

None of this is seriously in contention. These are proven historical facts. Naysayers really just don’t want to pay a fair wage. They’d rather pay as little as possible and thus bring down salaries and benefits across the board.

In fact, as unions have decreased, that’s exactly what’s happened!

It’s a matter of point of view. Should we aim for a shared prosperity in this country or a limited one? Should we aspire to be a nation that’s best for all or only for some? I know my answer.

What about the global marketplace? Don’t unions make it harder for the US to compete with foreign markets, especially those in the third world?

Again, the answer is both yes and no.

Sure, it costs more to treat labor as human beings than as indentured servants. When you pay a living wage, your costs will be more and your profits initially lower than a company that keeps its workers in dormitories and has suicide nets outside the windows. But do we really want to compete with that? Is that the kind of America you want to live in? Does your morality really allow you to make money off of the misery of your employees?

Heck! Why pay workers at all? Slavery has a much better return on investment. The owners can keep people alive as cheaply as possible and then just work them to death. Profits would soar!

Assuming, of course, there’s anyone left to buy! That’s a pretty big problem. Right now, the third world is only able to continue these practices because it has a willing market here in the US. Without us buying these cheap products, they wouldn’t have customers and, thus, couldn’t continue.

Instead of slobbering all over ourselves in covetousness at their inhumane business practices, we should be putting political pressure on these third world companies to reform! We should boycott their products.

The irony, of course, is that many of the most egregious crimes committed against third world peoples are perpetrated by US companies who’ve outsourced their labor. We are selling short our own workers by preferring brown and black people in foreign lands whom we can more easily exploit.

If Americans had higher wages, they could more easily disengage from these abuses! If US consumers had higher salaries, they’d be more choosey about what they buy – they’d spend more freely on high quality goods – like the kind made by a unionized workforce.

In short, we need to stop shaming hard-working people from using their collective power to improve their lives. There’s nothing wrong with demanding fair treatment. Human beings deserve to be treated humanely.

And that’s exactly what unions are. Human beings.

They are engineers, nurses, auto-workers, letter-carriers and food service employees.

They are your teachers, police and fire fighters.

They are fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers, sons and daughters.

They’re just people.

Not a dirty word.


This article has also been published on the Badass Teachers Association blog.