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Reinvent unions; don't gut them

By Sam Chaltain, Special to CNN
  • Sam Chaltain says Wisconsin governor proposes stripping union's power to save money
  • Chaltain: Two wrongs don't make right; if unions must change, they shouldn't lose power
  • He says unions crucial barrier to worker abuse; U.S. should be proud of collective bargaining
  • Chaltain: Unions should be reinvented, teachers not demonized, U.S. values upheld

Editor's note: Sam Chaltain is a D.C.-based writer and educator and author of "We Must Not Be Afraid to be Free: Stories of Free Expression in America" and "Faces of Learning: 50 Powerful Stories of Defining Moments in Education."

(CNN) -- School systems across Wisconsin have been canceling classes as teachers protest Gov. Scott Walker's effort to curb collective bargaining rights for state workers, including educators.

And I can't help but think of the old adage that two wrongs don't make a right.

The first wrong stems from some of the ways teachers unions have come to operate. Clearly, unions need to reinvent themselves if they want to remain viable in the 21st century, and old-school policies like "last in, first out" and the fact that in many places it's almost impossible to fire a bad teacher don't serve anyone's best interests.

All the union leaders I know realize that they must find a way to represent their members' core interests and reform the public education system in needed ways. They -- and we -- can do better.

The second wrong, however, is to suggest that the answer will come from abolishing the right to collectively bargain altogether. This is not just a core American principle; it's designated as a "fundamental right" in the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights.

We would be wise to remember that an absence of this power led to some of the worst moments from our history: the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory disaster, for example, which laid bare the need for more humane working conditions; or the exploitation of Chicano and Filipino farm workers, which was mitigated only thanks to the leadership of Cesar Chavez and the establishment of the National Farm Workers Association.

Describing the motivation of those workers, Chavez said they were people seeking to change their own fortunes and not "by seeking charity. They are not begging at the welfare office. They are not, like many of their employers, lobbying the halls of Congress with their gold-plated tin cups asking to be paid for not growing crops. They are trying to do it in the way that millions of other Americans have shown is the right way: organization, unionism, collective bargaining."

Understood in that light, legislators in Wisconsin -- and citizens across the country -- should be grateful our unions are still capable of generating sufficient power to slow the runaway train of, say, proposed new teacher evaluation policies (great idea) that, in some places, would tie more than half of a teacher's "quality" to student performance on test scores (horrible idea).

And we should all be grateful we live in a country that recognizes the essential value of collective bargaining as part and parcel of our country's commitment to liberty and justice for all.

The solutions we seek won't come by abolishing collective bargaining but by reinventing the role of unions, so that right starts getting applied in ways that best serve the interests of union members and the larger community.

The solutions will come when we stop demonizing the teaching profession as a monolith of self-interested adults who don't care about children. And they will come when we remember that, at our core, we are a nation founded on the revolutionary notion that the power rests in the hands of the governed and not the government.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Sam Chaltain.