The confession: I come from a Union family (I mean Labor, not necessarily Yankee). My father was a union man, a plumber, all his working life. I have refused to pass picket lines in labor conflicts in the past and I have enough knowledge of U.S. labor history to highly value the importance the unions had in ending unsafe, unfair, and exploitative employment practices that arose with the Industrial Revolution.

But Unions are becoming dinosaurs today because they value longevity (called “seniority”) above performance. When union people were organized from the ranks of assembly-line workers or sewing sweat shops, it made sense that the protection of older workers who had devoted their working lives should be paramount. It also made sense, because unions took responsibility for certifying the qualifications of journeymen workers with the rise of craft unions (plumbers, electricians, welders, etc.). Apprenticeship programs were the unions’ means of guaranteeing the quality preparation of union workers. That provided value to employers by differentiating their members from non-union workers.

My spouse pays dues to a teachers’ union, and I’m pretty sure that her organization will be decrying the President’s proposal for merit pay for teachers. In support of their reservations, I have no doubt that the absence of dependable, valid measures of teacher performance makes this a difficult proposal to implement.

However, I’d be interested in seeing the unions return to relevance by taking up the banner of quality as their own. Why shouldn’t teachers’ unions, or any unions, be the first to demand outstanding performance by their members and back it up with measures and education that ensure it? Why wouldn’t they be the first to advocate thinning the ranks of professionals who want to coast or who can’t contribute to the advancement of the field?

Credentialing seldom signifies more than the ability to persist through much school, more paperwork, and some tough exams. These are not related to excellence in education. They are merely obstacles to hurdle. Unions will be embraced by everyday people when they stand for excellence and ensure quality rather than being seen only jealously guarding their turf.

Your curious friend,


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