Published Online:

Marginalizing Unions: Formula for Disaster

Article Tools
  • PrintPrinter-Friendly
  • EmailEmail Article
  • ReprintReprints
  • CommentsComments

When presidential hopeful Bob Dole recently blamed teachers' unions for the failure of American public education, he aimed at capitalizing on their negative public image. The Republican nominee hoped to tap the deep vein of voters' mistrust--the conviction that teachers' unions are self-serving and power-hungry, and that they are chief obstacles to school reform. While there is some justification for this perception--after all, teachers' unions, like trade unions, were created originally as adversaries whose sole purpose was to balance management's unchecked power--Mr. Dole's comments were mean-spirited. More important, he missed the point. The fact is that unions, and the 3 million teachers they represent, must be partners in any reform movement. Marginalizing them is a formula for disaster.

One doesn't have to look much further than the American workplace to see the reasons why. I spent five years working at some leading manufacturing plants with a team of graduate students, talking to the rank and file, union leaders and management, watching as they struggled to cope with a changing world--some successfully, some not. My study led me to realize that to restore our economic prosperity, a new compact built on cooperation must be struck between managers and labor. The outlines of such a compact, one that rejects the adversarial model that has characterized American labor relations for a half-century or more, are now becoming visible in a growing number of companies. And the lessons we can draw from industry are every bit as applicable to education.

Our research has made it abundantly clear that companies that succeed are the ones that establish mutual bonds of interdependence with their employees. In today's fast-changing and unpredictable economy, managers, union leaders, and workers have no choice but to learn how to work cooperatively with one another across the traditional boundaries that previously separated them. As successful companies learn to become more responsive to their customers, they make the switch from mass production to what is now being called "high performance" or "lean" production. High-performance work systems reverse the flow of effort (and the negative human relationships) established by mass production. Instead of pushing huge volumes of standardized products down the assembly line and out the door, lean production creates flexible, but tightly linked connections that produce a "pull" up and down the chain of human activity.

But as I witnessed in my research, profound changes like these do not come without some pain. Not only do the systems have to be redesigned to produce high-quality goods at low cost, but a fundamental cultural transformation is also required. Little by little a new culture built on mutual interest and cooperation between managers and workers takes the place of the old industrial culture in which conflict was the norm. Managers must disregard the harsh lessons taught by mass production and learn to treat their employees fairly. Union leaders must risk being called "Judas goats" and learn to cooperate with managers, while employees have to take on more responsibility for helping to design and operate the production systems. Both sides find that they have more in common than they did as adversaries and they must work cooperatively for the common good--a discovery that generates interdependence and ultimately mutual respect and trust.

This emerging compact between labor and management casts the union in a whole new light.

Union leaders often worry, with good reason, that these high-performance systems will spell the end of trade unionism. After all, how many have watched companies all but dismantle their workforces under the banner of "restructuring" or "re-engineering"? But my study leads to a different conclusion. Far from diminishing the union's role, this emerging compact between labor and management casts the union in a whole new light. The union continues to function in its traditional role of representing its employees and balancing management's power, but it now becomes an instrument of productive change as well. Under the new assumptions of mutual obligation and cooperation, the union's focus shifts. The union takes on a broader set of interests, including not only the traditional ones such as wages, safety, promotion standards, training, and pensions, but also new ones like child care, environmental issues, and education.

But making this transformation is difficult. Changing from adversaries to allies refutes the basic principles of management-labor relations. Suspicion of collaborating with the company is buried just as deeply in rank-and-filers' bones as authoritarian instincts are lodged in managers'. Unions' representative form of government and the turmoil of union politics also slow change and inject a certain sense of unpredictability into the process. No sooner does one group assume leadership and head in a new direction than an opposition group advocating a return to the old way forms. Thus, trying to reshape the union while being accountable at the polls is every bit as daunting as reforming management. Working with management is not easy for elected union leaders because any move to cooperate can be quickly interpreted as selling out, which can be the equivalent of political suicide.

The very same issues are now emerging in education. Just as so many 20th-century companies tried to automate to bypass unions and workers, school administrators try to bypass teachers' unions when it comes to school reform. The research supports them. Study after study shows that successful reforms are built around small, autonomous schools that are tightly linked to parents and local communities. To the extent that teachers' unions are mentioned, they are depicted as obstacles. In actual cases where unions have been consulted by school administrators, it has usually been only to gain temporary support or to extract exclusions or waivers from collective bargaining agreements. This can't go on. Even if Bob Dole could destroy the teachers' unions, his pledge would come at a high cost. It would mortgage the future in the form of debts that one day must be paid. Sooner or later, reforms created without the full participation of teachers and their unions will most certainly founder on the old adversarial culture that pits teachers against administrators and divides parents and schools.

The lesson from industry is clear: Uncertainty has become permanent, and public education must now learn to adapt.

There is no doubt that the schools will come under increasing pressure to improve educational quality for an increasingly diverse student population. And money is running out. A growing number of states are finding that educational demands are outstripping their ability to pay. It seems unlikely that in today's era of tight purses that voters will settle for anything less than fundamental educational reform. Whether education will get a "wake-up call" as American industry did a decade ago, or whether it can be restructured voluntarily, is debatable.

The lesson from industry is clear: Uncertainty has become permanent, and public education must now learn to adapt to resource constraints and changing conditions. Lessons we have learned from industry can help restructure the public schools. I am not suggesting that education copy industry, and I am certainly not suggesting an "industrial model" of education. What I am saying is that there is much to learn from a close observation of companies that have already left mass production behind.

I am not alone. Earlier this year, Helen Bernstein, then head of United Teachers Los Angeles; Adam Urbanski, the head of the Rochester (N.Y.) Teachers Association and a vice president of the American Federation of Teachers; and Robert Schwartz, then with the Pew Charitable Trusts, formed a group of 21 teachers' union presidents from across the country to redesign teachers' unions to become active participants in school reform. ("Prolonged Budget Fight Alters Terms of Debate on Education Spending," May 8, 1996.) The high-performance union that this Teacher Union Reform Network, or TURN, envisions will continue to protect its members' economic interests, but it will also expand its historic charter to include taking on responsibility for educational quality and partnering with management to improve education. With a two-year grant from Pew to UCLA, where the project is housed, these AFT and NEA union activists aim to make Bob Dole eat his words.

Wellford W. Wilms is a professor in the graduate school of education and information studies at the University of California at Los Angeles. He is the author of Restoring Prosperity: How Workers and Managers Are Forging a New Culture of Cooperation (Times Books, Random House, 1996). His e-mail address is

Web Only

Related Stories
You must be logged in to leave a comment. Login | Register
Ground Rules for Posting
We encourage lively debate, but please be respectful of others. Profanity and personal attacks are prohibited. By commenting, you are agreeing to abide by our user agreement.
All comments are public.

Back to Top Back to Top

Most Popular Stories