A couple of months ago, I heard Joel Klein, head of New York’s Department of Education, blame the teachers’ union contract for the fact that there are a lot of Jewish holidays on the school calendar. (This was at a community meeting in Harlem, called because of distress over the push for charter schools and dissatisfaction with the situation in the local public schools.)

At the time, I thought, “how low can you sink?” Now, I’m not saying the question was necessarily inspired by anti-Semitism, but it could have been interpreted that way. And for Klein to link that ugly and divisive ideology with union-baiting is simply outrageous, especially in this town, with its large Jewish population that has made tremendous contributions to every democratic advance, from workers’ rights (think Clara Lemlich and the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire) to the Civil Rights movement (think Cheney and Schwerner).

Anyway, it turns out Klein can sink lower: he and his boss, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, are now blaming the union for the fact that many younger teachers could be laid off if the budget cuts go through. The union’s seniority rules are the problem, they say.

Like a magician, who waves a wand with one hand so that you don’t look at what he’s doing with the other, Klein and Bloomberg are trying to trick people into blaming seniority rules (which most working people support!) and not at the real problem, which is the proposal to cut education funding in the first place.

Governor Paterson and Bloomberg are trying to solve the state and city budget crises via “belt-tightening” for the working class, with brutal cuts to everything from libraries to bus and subway service, to day care slots, school programs and more.

The inability to find money for public services is not a law of nature – it’s a political decision. But to keep people from challenging and organizing against this decision, they point the finger at the unions.

So back to Chancellor Klein’s anti-UFT comments: blaming the teachers’ union is just plain wrong, whether it’s for the Jewish holidays, or for the impact the proposed funding cuts will have on the public schools.

Attacking the teachers’ union is not new, but it certainly has heated up recently, mixed into the national debate about education reform, test scores, NCLB, and charter schools. Underlying some of it is the idea that teachers are different from other workers, and that unions aren’t appropriate in schools.

So I asked some friends who are teachers, “why do teachers need a union?”

One friend who is in her third year of teaching said, “because unions give a voice to the people who have the most knowledge of what goes on in schools and the greatest impact on student achievement.”

An interesting take – so it’s not just about taking care of their own wages and benefits, in case that’s what anyone thought.

Along those same lines, another teacher said this: “With all the talk of school reform these days it’s amazing that the most important stakeholders – students, their families and teachers – are being shut out of the conversation. Parents are blamed for bad parenting and teachers are blamed for bad teaching. We need a union to help voice the perspective of the teachers who work tirelessly to provide a quality public education to our students.”

And finally, a third pointed out that among the many reasons teachers need a union, “two stand out: first, unions and contracts actually benefit students (ie, limiting class size, defining professional duties) and second, educators need protection from abusive, vindictive administrators (ie, retaliation related to politics, favoritism, taking undue advantage), as can happen in any workplace.”

The teachers union, the transit workers union, public and health care workers unions, and scores of others – together, these institutions have protected and raised living standards for millions of New Yorkers and their families. The city needs the jobs and services, and it also needs the unions that protect those who perform them.