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Not looking for the union label

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Esther Cepeda
June 10, 2012
— As observers outside Wisconsin attempt to divine what the failed attempt to recall Republican Gov. Scott Walker means for November's presidential election, let us instead focus on what the so-called union-buster's triumph says about Big Labor.

My favorite comment on the matter came via Twitter: "Please explain: why so many people I know who are in unions (trades or schoolteachers) so excited for Walker's win?"


Let me take a crack at that one: Because not every tradesman or teacher wants to be forced into joining a union. And they certainly don't want to pay hefty union fees that go toward supporting political agendas that have nothing to do with, say, educating children.


That's how I felt when I was a teacher and a forced member of a union, and how I still feel as the wife of a teacher union member. And a lot of others feel the same way, too.


Not that anyone would know this based on winter 2011 news coverage of masses of radical Wisconsin teachers calling in sick so they could travel to the state capitol building to wave signs comparing Gov. Walker to Hitler. The coverage of militant-fist-logo-wearing union sympathizers made it easy to imagine all collective bargainers as one big, happy family.


But if plummeting union membership doesn't adequately illustrate Wisconsin workers' desire to be relieved of their unions -- The Wall Street Journal recently reported that membership in the state's chapters of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees dropped by a heart-stopping 55 percent once the mandatory collection of dues was abolished -- then Tuesday's exit polls make it clear.


According to The Washington Post, almost a third of union members who cast a vote did so for Walker, as did 48 percent of voters who live with a union member but aren't members themselves.


Teachers in particular aren't feeling love for the unions they're basically forced to join, and recent data show that taxpayers increasingly agree with them.


The journal Education Next and Harvard's Program on Education Policy and Governance have been keeping track of attitudes toward teacher unions since 2009, and while the numbers had been stable until 2011, they fell sharply this year.


Though the majority of the general public felt neutral, the percentage of people with a positive view of teacher unions dropped to 22 percent this year from 29 percent in 2011. Last year, 58 percent of teachers had a positive view of unions but only 43 percent did this year, and the number of teachers holding negative views of unions nearly doubled to 32 percent in 2012.


Could this be because teachers are getting tired of being political pawns? Is it possible they're annoyed because they show up for work every day desiring only to teach children but are bombarded with union propaganda that seeks to paint the communities they teach in as toxic toward educators? Teachers tend to be particular about their classroom autonomy, so it's reasonable to believe that they're getting fed up by the constant pressure such as I felt to toe the union line while instructing my students.


Or maybe teachers no longer want to be represented by organizations that insist on portraying their rewarding white-collar profession as being on par with the struggles of coal miners.


Either way, the number of teachers who agree with standards anathema to unions -- that pay should be based on performance and not on seniority or accumulated college credits -- is on the rise, according to the National Center for Education Information's "Profile of Teachers in the U.S. 2011." The same goes for the number of teachers who see getting rid of unions as a way to strengthen teaching as a profession.


So never mind this nonsense about outside money being the reason for a union-buster to have prevailed in Wisconsin. All evidence points to the outcome being a simple reflection of the voters' will. The lesson the unions should take away is that just as there is power in numbers, there is also hubris -- enough to make for an irreparable fall from grace in the eyes of both voters and workers.


Esther Cepeda's email address is estherjcepeda@washpost.com.

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