Educators Involved in Politics? Absolutely!


By Sean M. Spiller

Average CEO compensation at Fortune 500 companies hovers around $15 million per year. Last year, reported federal lobbying in America topped $4 billion. More than half of all members of Congress report a net worth of more than $1 million. None of these facts are especially surprising. The powerful in America have long had wealth, and the wealthy have long had political power.

But while it’s not surprising, it does not mean that it’s good for America to have wealth and power so concentrated. We are a democracy, founded on ideals of liberty and justice for all, and not just for a few. Growing income inequality makes our nation weaker. It threatens the future prosperity—and even threatens the basic economic security—of a huge swath of hardworking American families.

That is why unions are more important today than ever. At a time of record and rising wealth inequality, working people must remain united in our demands for economic justice and a voice in our political institutions. That’s why I’m inspired by the determination of the United Auto Workers to ensure that the car companies’ record profits are shared by the people who made those profits possible. I’m encouraged by Amazon workers who are demanding better salaries and working conditions at the world’s fifth largest company, owned by America’s second wealthiest person. I stand in solidarity with unionized RWJ nurses here in New Jersey who are striking for patient safety and economic justice in that critically important sector of our economy. And I’m proud that New Jersey is home to the largest union of public school educators, who work every day to keep New Jersey’s public schools the best in the nation.

It’s no coincidence that most of the states with top-performing schools also have strong unions, while many states near the bottom of the list also have laws and policies that muzzle the voices of working people, including professional educators who know better than anyone what policies and priorities are needed to help our students succeed. In a state like New Jersey, where NJEA members have long advocated for better school funding, stronger curriculum standards and better, safer working and learning conditions in our public schools, the results are clear. The students in our schools are better off because the adults in their schools have political power and know how to use it. Or, to put it more bluntly, where unions have political power, students benefit.

Of course, union political power is threatening to people who benefit from the status quo. That’s why Amazon invests huge amounts to stop organizing efforts in its warehouses. It’s why Starbucks baristas face threats to their livelihood when they demand collectively bargained contracts. But all the anti-union propaganda in the world does not change the fact that unions are good for union members, good for nonunionized working people and make life better for just about everyone outside the 1%.

There aren’t many multimillionaires driving school buses, cleaning cafeterias or teaching long division in New Jersey public schools. But there are hundreds of thousands of committed, capable professionals doing that work every day, and they deserve a vote and a voice as much as any Fortune 500 executive or hedge fund manager.

Sean M. Spiller is the president of the New Jersey Education Association and a high school science teacher in Wayne.

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