All women should be empowered to respond to sexual harassment without putting their careers at risk, fighting an entrenched bureaucracy alone or wasting time navigating a vague or changing policy in the employee handbook.
Union-negotiated contracts and state laws give Minnesota teachers that power — but both are under attack. Now that America is finally taking sexual harassment seriously, it’s time to reconsider the decision by the 2017 Legislature to weaken Minnesota teachers’ legal protections from on-the-job harassment and discriminatory layoffs (“Keep pressing to ensure that teacher quality is the top priority: Altering the ‘last in, first out’ layoff policy in state law was a good start,” Nov. 30).
The benefits of objective layoff criteria, including those based on seniority, extend to teachers who speak uncomfortable truths and, especially, to educators of color who often look different from their supervisors. The advantages to students of learning from experienced teachers are well-known.
However, in the current moment, let’s consider separately why unions are good for women.
Education Minnesota comprises more than 55,000 women (and nearly 17,000 men) who work in K-12 schools. A their president, I read with incredible frustration the news accounts of women who remained silent for years after disgusting incidents of workplace harassment.
We can commend these women for coming forward when they did, but that’s not enough. As a state, we need to face the imbalance of power in the workplace that forces too many women into the choice between quitting their jobs and enduring abuse. The strength that comes with union membership gives women the freedom to speak out.
For example, about 13 years ago, I was teaching second grade in a suburban elementary school in Minnesota. My class of 7- and 8-year-olds was reading stories with a partner when my classroom phone rang.
When I picked up, an administrator in the district office let loose a river of vile, hateful words about my colleagues and me. Looking out at 25 pairs of little eyes while listening to such angry filth shocked me nearly to tears. I hung up. The children saw that I was upset and that, in turn, upset them. We didn’t have a productive day.
By the next morning, I had pulled myself together and resolved to fight back. If he had done that to me, he would do it to others.
I had earned tenure, so state law prevented the district from firing me without due process. The school board had already signed off on a contract that set the layoff order, so a snaky boss couldn’t push me out through the side door in a trumped-up budget crisis.
Within hours of the horrible call, I had spoken with my union representative. Within days, I presented my complaint in person to the superintendent. Within a few months, the bullying administrator was gone. My union family stayed with me the whole time.
I can’t say Education Minnesota and the other unions in Minnesota have handled every case of harassment or bullying perfectly. The labor movement itself isn’t blameless. However, I do believe organized worksites are still far better for women.
Part of the advantage is financial. The Institute for Women’s Policy Research in Washington, D.C., reports that women in labor unions are better paid and more likely to have health insurance and pensions than women who negotiate their own compensation.
People in unions also command more respect from their employers and have a greater voice in how they do their jobs. Many of my male friends underestimate the value of that for women, but they’re learning.
The mix of better compensation and the freedom to stand up for yourself has led 14 new groups of educators to form unions and affiliate with Education Minnesota since January 2016. More are on the way. The educators at one school started unionizing, in part, because they wanted an administrator to stop calling them “fat cows.”
The common response to concerns about losing contractual and legal protections from discrimination and harassment are assurances that state and federal agencies will enforce the laws already on the books. Harassment scandals in the statehouse, Congress and those surrounding the president do not reassure educators about the future of those laws. The budget deficits facing the state and nation will affect those enforcement agencies.
If the choice is between relying on defunded government departments and compromised politicians, or an enforceable contract and a member rights committee, we’ll take the local control.
Finally, I’ll share one more story from my own career in response to some lawmakers’ suggestion that teachers should uncritically accept the evaluations of their principals as the basis for layoffs.
I began teaching in a school district along the Rio Grande Valley in Texas. In my official evaluation after my first year, my principal gave me high marks for everything but professionalism. Why? He wrote that he wished he had seen me in a dress more often.
The Legislature made a serious mistake by rolling back protections for teachers during the 2017 session. The harassment scandals splashed across the front pages of the Star Tribune are evidence enough. It’s time to pass laws to expand the full benefits of union membership to more people — both within public education and in the wider economy.
Unions are good for all working people, but especially women, and especially now.
Denise Specht is president of Education Minnesota.