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AFT Leader Says Strong Union Needed Now More Than Ever

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For someone who was content in a behind-the-scenes role at the American Federation of Teachers, Edward J. McElroy has spent the past year using his skills as an organizer and negotiator to help fashion the union’s response to the No Child Left Behind Act and expand the organization’s membership.

After easily winning the presidency last year—following Sandra Feldman’s decision not to run again—Mr. McElroy quickly began to speak out strongly about problems that members were experiencing with the federal law. And he’s encouraging the union’s 1.3 million members to become more politically active.

Edward J. McElroy, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, works in his office at AFT headquarters in Washington.  Mr. McElroy, who became the organization’s president in July 2004, says
Edward J. McElroy, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, works in his office at AFT headquarters in Washington. Mr. McElroy, who became the organization’s president in July 2004, says "it’s been an interesting and difficult and rewarding year."
—Christopher Powers/Education Week

“It’s been an interesting and difficult and rewarding year,” he said in an interview as his anniversary drew near and he presided over his first AFT Quest conference July 7-10. “I’ve been president for a year, and it seems like 10.” At the time he chose to run, many observers speculated over whether Mr. McElroy—the longtime secretary-treasurer of the AFT—would be merely a stand-in leader until someone else emerged.

But Adam Urbanski, the president of the Rochester Teachers Association in New York, says he thinks members aren’t asking that question anymore.

“No one thinks of him as an interim [president] or a lame duck,” he said. “Ed McElroy has shown his own style. He’s a breath of fresh air. He’s very real.”

A Tough Position

Nevertheless, some experts maintain that the 64-year-old McElroy—who admits he never planned to be president of the AFT—still needs to define himself.

“From where I sit, he hasn’t made any big changes,” said Julia Koppich, an author based in San Francisco and an expert on teachers’ unions. “He’s neither backtracked or moved them forward. He’s kind of a black box to me.”

Ms. Koppich added, however, that someone in a position like Mr. McElroy’s has to walk a fine line between making changes and protecting the interests of members.

“I think it would be very difficult to be a union leader right now,” she said. “Even if you are reform-minded and progressive, you represent people who feel they are under siege.”

One area that Mr. McElroy feels is particularly being attacked is teachers’ and other public-employee benefits. In a recent “Where We Stand” column that runs in several newspapers, he criticized California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s plan to replace the state’s pension system with a 401(k)-type investment program.

“And this spells trouble for public employees throughout the country,” he wrote. “Union members, especially in the public sector, are among a dwindling number of workers who have been able to hold onto adequate health benefits, fair conditions of employment, and pensions providing a secure and dignified retirement.”

It is perhaps attention to those and other typical collective-bargaining matters that have led some to suggest that teachers’ unions are less interested in school improvement and change than they were a few years ago. Even at the local level, in such places as Chicago and Los Angeles, leaders who were viewed as reform-minded were defeated in the past year. ("Elections Give No Easy Fix on Union Course," March 16, 2005).

But Mr. McElroy, a former social studies and English teacher in Rhode Island, rejects the suggestion that unions, particularly the AFT, are no longer interested in educational improvement.

“I believe your best shot at making changes that are necessary in order to improve the instruction for kids is where you have a strong union,” he said.

Dividing His Time

Because Mr. McElroy also serves as a member of the AFL-CIO’s executive council, and on several committees, his duties and his interests extend beyond public schools alone. That has especially been the case recently with five unions—Teamsters, Service Employees International Union, United Food and Commercial Workers, Laborers’ International, and Unite Here—that are threatening to leave the AFL-CIO. The shake-up has led to several meetings with colleagues over the future of the union movement.

“It’s been time well spent, but time that I didn’t expect to spend,” Mr. McElroy said, adding that he’s also found a lot less time for two of his favorite activities—eating in fine restaurants and playing golf.

His other responsibilities and his interest in broader union issues, however, naturally led some people to question what kind of educational leader he would be—especially since he followed two strong reformers, the late Albert Shanker and Ms. Feldman, into the position.

“Folks did wonder how he would fare when it was his turn to make policy decisions,” Mr. Urbanski said. But he adds that Mr. McElroy’s reaction to the NCLB law—one that focuses on supporting the basic foundations of the law while also “fixing” problems in the implementation of it—is a good example of his ability to be a peacemaker.

“He indeed seeks guidance from those he considers to be strong on education, but he filters it through his own common-sense radar,” Mr. Urbanski says.

Over the next year, some of the education issues that Mr. McElroy is particularly interested in will probably be more visible. For example, this summer, the AFT will unveil some materials that it has produced with WETA, a public-television station in Washington, designed to help teachers work with English-language learners. The union is also compiling research on high school improvement efforts.

Carrying over from his days as a social studies teacher, Mr. McElroy would also like to see a stronger emphasis in schools on history and civics. It’s an issue over which he has found common ground with an unexpected ally, Sen. Lamar Alexander, a Republican from Tennessee and the former secretary of education under the first President Bush.

According to Celia Lose, an assistant to Mr. McElroy, the senator and Mr. Shanker had a mutual respect for each other, and that relationship has been revived now that Mr. McElroy is in charge.

The current AFT president also showed a willingness to reach beyond typical political alliances by hosting a recent reception for Randy Kuhl, a newly elected Republican representative from New York.

No matter how bipartisan he may be, however, Mr. McElroy is also leading an initiative designed to hold politicians in Washington more accountable.

“We’re pushing a lot of that work to the membership level,” he said.

During the summer recess, AFT members are meeting with their local congressmen and senators to discuss not only education, but also Social Security and the federal budget.

Although some observers still wonder whether Mr. McElroy’s run at the top of the nation’s second-largest teachers’ union will be a short or a long one, he says he’s firmly committed to his position.

“I intend to serve in this capacity until I don’t want to do it anymore or until others don’t want me to do it anymore,” he said.

But that’s not to say he doesn’t wish events would have turned out differently, referring to Ms. Feldman’s recurrence of breast cancer, the reason she didn’t seek re-election.

“Life shoots you a lot of curveballs,” Mr. McElroy said. “I wish Sandy Feldman was here answering these questions.”

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