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Is there a subtext to public union critiques?

Posted by Feb 27th, 2011.

Holly Yettick is a doctoral student in the Educational Foundations, Policy and Practice program at the School of Education at the University of Colorado in Boulder.

The recent push to weaken public sector unions is making me uneasy. Part of the reason I am uneasy is that I am not even sure that this subtext is real. From day to day, my opinion shifts, to the point that I wonder whether I should even be writing this post. The object of this discomfort: The concern that teachers are the focal point of the rhetoric surrounding these initiatives at least in part because education is dominated by females.

There, I dropped the F bomb. But first let me explain why I hesitated to do so.  It is because I can think of many other reasons why teachers and teachers’ unions are the focus of the rhetoric surrounding initiatives. These reasons range from the credulous (There are more teachers than policemen and firemen and so reducing teacher pension benefits will make a bigger dint in state budget deficits.) to the cynical (The governors supporting the cuts are Republicans and conservatives are more likely to be sympathetic to the law and order functions of government.)

The concern that teachers are the focal point of the rhetoric surrounding these initiatives at least in part because education is dominated by females.

Now here’s what made me uneasy: As national attention has turned to the protests surrounding the Wisconsin capital, it has been focused almost entirely on the teachers and teachers unions that would be affected by Gov. Scott Walker’s proposal to weaken or eliminate collective bargaining.  Nationwide, more than 80% of K-12 teachers are female. If other affected employees were mentioned at all, they were referred to as social workers (69% female) or nurses (92% female for registered nurses). Exempt from Walker’s proposals (although supportive of the affected unions) are police and fire unions. Nationwide, 16% of patrol officers are female, and 3% of firefighters.

Then, in a profile in this week’s Sunday Times Magazine, reporter Matt Bai zeroed in on New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s antagonistic relationship with public employees’ unions.  Yet the only union members interviewed for the article were leaders of teachers unions.  On the first page of the article, Bai writes:

“Hundreds of thousands of YouTube viewers linger on scenes from Christie’s town hall meetings, like the one in which he takes a part a teacher for her histrionics. (‘If what you want to do is put on a show and giggle every time I talk, then I have no interest in answering your question.’)”

Personally, I cannot ever recall hearing a man referred to as “histrionic. “When I viewed the clip in question, I certainly did not find the teacher to be “deliberately affected or self-consciously emotional; overly dramatic, in behavior or speech.” I could not help but think that if the questioner had been a man, he would have been described as “persistent” or “insistent.”   As for Christie’s response, I also cannot think of the last time I heard a grown man’s laughter described as a giggle except perhaps in jest. Yet it remains acceptable to subtly denigrate a grown woman by describing her like a child.

Anti-union sentiment and initiatives are nothing new in this nation. Union membership has been shrinking now for decades in the private sector as the percentage of the general public that supports unionization. As Bai writes, public sector unions are in a sense, “the final frontier” for those who oppose unions.  There are many, many potential reasons why teachers’ unions appear to be viewed as both the primary target and the weakest link in this battle. I can’t help but wonder if the “f” word is one of them.  Further, it is not uncommon these days to hear complaints about “anti-teacher rhetoric.” (The crafters of such rhetoric generally deny that they are anti-teacher, as does Christie.)For those who believe that such rhetoric does exist, I can’t help but wonder if some it may also be anti-female.

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3 Responses to “Is there a subtext to public union critiques?”

  1. Bob Harold says:

    I’m not sure if it’s consciously anti-female nowadays but if you look at the overwhelming historical data – most teachers were/are women, women earn less money than men for the same work, teachers were/are underpaid compared to workers with similar educational credentials, teaching is disdained as a profession by much of society (“those who can do, those who can’t teach”), etc. etc. it’s not too hard to draw some fairly depressing conclusions.

  2. Derec Shuler says:

    I think teachers are prominently featured because education is a large portion of any states’ budget. Given that, there are a lot of teachers funded by state and local governments, and most are members of unions. As you pointed out, many teachers are female and that’s why it appears women are being singled out.

  3. Jeffrey Miller says:

    When people are afraid (or are conned into believing they should be afraid) of semi-mysterious, larger-than-life powers, it may be a truism to observe innermost, supressed biases come to the surface. We saw it with the whole birther phenomenon of Obama’s “qualifications” to be President, and in numerous other guises where well-meaning, totally non-racist people question Obama’s legitimacy. It’s not too difficult to understand that these otherwise color-blind people are in fact not so sure about their attitudes about race and authority.

    I do think Holly, your hypothesis deserves serious study. My money is on the studies showing that modern anti-union bias flows from the same poisoned well as the old Reagan/Bush welfare queens right-wing trope. In 2011 America, Puritan notions of female deviousness are alive and very un-well.

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