Interior of classroom in elementary school

Interior of classroom in elementary school. Row of empty desks are in illuminated room.

Since COVID’s arrival in Colorado about a year ago, our state’s schoolteachers have proven themselves again and again to be resilient, diligent, innovative, adaptable and dedicated to our children. In short, they have done a remarkable job persevering amid the pandemic.

All of which stands in stark contrast to the unions that claim to speak for all of them; that collectively bargain for some of them — and that probably represent the work ethic of very few of them. The Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest teacher union, with chapters in most larger school districts, has done a remarkable job of its own — handwringing, naysaying and foot dragging almost every step of the way in its COVID response.

The union most notably has balked at assorted plans by various school districts for letting teachers return to the classroom to teach in person. It also has issued successive lists of demands over purported safety concerns. This, despite the fact the governor (rightly) has prioritized teachers for receiving the COVID vaccine. And the union is foremost among those contending students shouldn’t take annual assessment tests this year despite the urgent need to gauge their academic deficiencies after a year of remote learning.

A noteworthy sidebar, by the way, involves a CEA union chapter in Aurora Public Schools attempting to second-guess that district’s efforts to address remote-learning deficiencies. The union is challenging Superintendent Rico Munn’s efforts to reshuffle classes to shore up flagging student engagement on Fridays. The union is not happy about losing a prep day.

All of which helps explain an over-the-top, headline-seeking press release issued by the CEA last week, essentially summing up its intransigence on COVID. The union announced that an “internal member survey” shows nearly 40% of members “are considering leaving the profession after the 2020-21 school year.” The press release claims, “Underfunding and lack of resources are at the root of the top reasons given: unrealistic workload, potentially unsafe working conditions during the COVID-19 pandemic, and low pay.”

Does it really sound plausible Colorado will lose anywhere near 40 percent of its teachers a few months from now? It’s hard to fathom how even the union itself believes it.

So, why the outlandish claims and rhetoric? More substantively, why does the union seem so averse to digging into classwork and tracking the results — like a student who’d rather scroll through Tik Tok than start his homework?

It’s because teacher unions, by definition, don’t represent the interests of students or parents or even the public school system or the policies that govern it. Like all labor unions, a teachers union’s operating premise is to advocate for the pay, benefits and working condition of its members. That kind of advocacy is not necessarily controversial in its own right, but in context of our public schools, it often enough conflicts with what’s best for students.

A union’s entire trajectory is toward the bargaining table. Every significant position a union takes is a gambit for negotiation. The aim is to give as little ground as possible, not to forge policy that balances interests, and certainly not to give higher priority to another group’s interests than to the interests of union members.

Viewed in that light, it’s easy enough to see why, even as COVID ebbs and vaccinations are underway, the teachers union would seek to keep schools on limited schedules as long as possible. And to limit teacher interactions with students. In other words, it’s clear why a union would insist on eliminating even the remotest risk of its members contracting the virus — when in fact that isn’t possible for anyone in society in general. It’s a bargaining position, after all.

In the spirit of never letting a crisis go to waste, it’s also clear why the union might take advantage of the pandemic to exact further concessions in advance of the next round of contract talks. Hence, its claims in last week’s press release about “unsafe working conditions” and “low pay.” As if members were being told to return to their jobs in a Bolivian copper mine.

It seems possible the union could go so far as to refuse to return to the working conditions that preceded the pandemic — even after the pandemic is over. Instead, pointing to “a new normal,” it may seek more time away from school for members — indefinitely; more buffers between teachers and students, and so forth.

After all, the next pandemic could be around the corner. Just in time to negotiate the next collective-bargaining agreement.