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The Global Teachers' Anthem

"Raise the threat level to a code red," they cry out.     

From Baghdad to D.C., a growing chorus of a-tonal anti-union executives around the world (the only choir that may be left after all the public school budget cuts) are asserting that the teacher union menace must be neutralized.  

In Iraq, Paul Bremer (as former head of the Coalition Provisional Authority) threw out most of Saddam's legal code but kept the 1987 Decree No. 150 that made it illegal for employees in the public sector to have a union or negotiate over the terms of their labor. This opened the door for the Iraqi government's inharmonious announcement at the end of March, 2009 that it intended to dissolve the Iraqi Teachers' Union (ITU)-a move sure to make Washington, D.C. public school chancellor Michelle Rhee's cheeks flush with excitement.

Rhee's discordant bluster was on display in a March 2nd interview with the Huffington Post: "We are going to impose the new evaluation tools regardless" of the outcome of talks with the union. "We are going to be moving people out who are not performing." 

New York Times columnist Nicolas Kristof stated in his out-of-pitch March 10 column, "Education reform is going to mean challenging the unions, and Obama signaled that that's what he plans to do."  

None of these recent union-busting voices have been as off key as George W. Bush's Education Secretary, Rod Paige, when he called the largest teachers' union in the US, the National Education Association (NEA), a "terrorist organization."  However, the similarity of the current tune from corporate education deformers is unmistakable: because teachers have some measure of job security, schools in America are dysfunctional. 

If only we could treat our teachers like Wal-Mart employees, test scores would rise and students wouldn't be left behind.  As a Time Magazine article recently contended, "The most glaring example of the backward logic of schools is the way most teachers receive lifetime job security after one or two years of work." 

But as the NEA explains, "Tenure does not mean a ‘job for life,' as many people believe. It means ‘just cause' for discipline and termination, be the reason incompetence or extreme misconduct. And it means ‘due process,' the right to a fair hearing to contest charges." 

Moreover, these Pinkerton style attacks on teachers' rights to collectively bargain suffer from the common problem middle schoolers face when attempting a first research paper: a scarcity of factual information to back up claims.  

Those who argue that unions prevent improved student achievement are at a loss to explain the high unionization rates of schools internationally that they lament are outperforming American youngsters.  Or why Southern "right to work" states that have managed to avoid unions in public schools score lower on the standardized tests that antiunion zealots overemphasize as the only real measure of student success.  As Arizona State University's Education Policy Research Unit reported, "Several studies found math, economics and SAT scores in unionized schools improved more than in non-unionized schools. Increases in state unionization led to increases in state SAT, ACT, and NAEP scores and improved graduation rates. One analysis attributed lower SAT and ACT scores in the South to weaker unionization there."   

In addition, a Department of Education study found that public school students' test scores in reading and math are as good as or better than the scores of comparable students in charter schools-the vast majority of which are nonunion.  

The gospel truth is, teachers unions the world over are raising the volume in the struggle to improve public education.  Time and again these unions have used their power to collectively bargain-and collectively strike-in defense of the schools: 

  • In 2005 the British Columbia Teachers Federation in Canada led the 46,000-strong union in a successful strike in protest of budget cuts to education, large class sizes, and government attempts to take away collective bargaining rights.
  • In May 2006, 70,000 teachers in the Mexican state of Oaxaca went on strike to prevent the privatization of education and demand more funding for student services.
  • On February 21, 2008 the Teachers Federation of Puerto Rico led a strike that was successful in stopping government's privatized charter scheme.
  • In Bellevue, Washington the teachers' union proved it was the most important voice for public education in the region when it led a successful two week strike at the beginning of this current school year to protest the implementation of what the school district called the "curriculum web"-a system that would ensnare students in mandated, daily, scripted lessons that would deny them access to the teachers' individualized knowledge, skills, and passion for the subjects they were teaching.

On March 28 of this year, over 500 protesters joined the Iraqi Teachers' Union in a demonstration against the attempted undemocratic government takeover of their union.  Champions of public education and union supporters are encouraged to sign their petition that demands that the union remain independent and that the union organizers not be imprisoned for their activity.     

If coming teacher struggles are successful at keeping funding for our music programs, students across the world should be taught in every language the great Woody Guthrie anthem "The Union Maid," with a refrain as relevant today as when America's great troubadour wrote it in 1941: 

"Oh, you can't scare me, I'm sticking to the union,
I'm sticking to the union 'til the day I die."
 

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