In Brockton, they helped establish a Horace Mann Charter School that serves high school dropouts; in this, the school’s second year, enrollment has doubled to 110 students. In Worcester, they collaborated with the school administration to establish grants to nurture up-and-running innovative educational programs of proven effectiveness. In Brookline, they monitored renovation of the high school, insisting on stringent health and safety measures to protect students, faculty and staff, who continued to use parts of the building during construction.

“They” are the teachers unions, and much of the work they do benefits not only union members, but also the students, schools, and communities they serve.

As president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, I am well aware of the positive impact our local associations are having across the state. As a classroom teacher with 27 years’ experience, I am upset by critics who misrepresent the record of the union that has represented me for my entire professional life. I am upset by Carol Gerwin’s CommonWealth article, “When Unions rule the Schools” [Spring 1999].

Gerwin quotes an unnamed superintendent who asserts that “unions are the greatest obstacle to education reform.” This assertion is correct if we are talking about “reform” that is imposed from above, without the active participation of teachers in the decision-making process. Teachers know what works and what does not work in the classroom. Teachers are the ones who must implement reforms in the classroom. Therefore, teachers — speaking and acting through their unions — will indeed oppose schemes that they know from real-life experience will not enhance the education of their students.

MTA has launched its “Ask a Teacher” Campaign to emphasize these facts and to promote an agenda of reforms we know will work: smaller class sizes; alternative programs for disruptive students; mentoring programs for beginning teachers; and financial incentives that will help recruit and retain new teachers (at present, 40 percent of new teachers nationwide leave the profession after five years — a situation that is clearly unacceptable).

Many reforms do require teachers to put in longer hours, and teachers do expect more pay for more work. This is only reasonable, but Gerwin quotes a management attorney who states derisively that teachers “want to be paid for every extra minute.” It is strange and a bit amusing that an attorney who bills by the hour doesn’t seem to understand that teachers want to be paid for their time just like other professionals. (However, the compensation we get is considerably less!)

It is not surprising that so many of the administrators Gerwin interviewed bemoan the power of unions. As she herself points out, “Before collective bargaining, many teachers had to put up with superintendents and principals playing favorites, evaluating their work unfairly, and making important decisions unilaterally.” Teachers were “subject to the whims and fancies” of whoever came along, one superintendent admitted.

Does anyone seriously doubt that such abuses would proliferate without the protections afforded by unions and collective bargaining agreements? As it is, such abuses are not now that uncommon:

* In one central Massachusetts city, a teacher was involuntarily transferred and a job offer was rescinded after the teacher publicly criticized her school system’s inclusion efforts.

* A community college teacher was fired because, as one administrator explained to her, she “complained so much” about the school’s faulty heating system.

* The administration of an urban elementary school in eastern Massachusetts refused to recognize that a teacher’s illnesses were related to the fact that her classroom was in an old chemistry laboratory that had been inadequately renovated.

Happily, MTA was able to intervene successfully on behalf of the teachers cited above. But MTA’s actions range beyond the protection of teacher rights. In November, MTA and its members from across the state successfully lobbied the Legislature to restore $94 million cut from the education budget by Governor Cellucci — a cut which would have severely hampered education reform efforts. A continuing and fully funded education reform effort remains a top MTA priority. Working with our 87,000 members statewide, MTA will continue to oppose any measure that would damage the education we provide to our students. Likewise, we will join with any group or organization working to strengthen the public schools.

Gerwin discusses the success of collaborative bargaining in such communities as Springfield, Brookline, and Belmont, and notes that “ten MTA staff members are qualified to train school and union negotiating teams in the collaborative process, and some serve as facilitators at the bargaining table.” The truth is that, since its founding in 1845, MTA has always preferred collaboration to confrontation. The bottom line is a system of quality public education, nurturing to students, rewarding to teachers, and absolutely essential to the future of our Commonwealth.

Stephen E. Gorrie is president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association.