Bennett Rebukes Unions For Hindering Reforms

By James Hertling — January 22, 1986 2 min read

Secretary of Education William J. Bennett has delivered a surprisingly harsh indictment of the nation’s two main teachers’ unions.

His comments, contained in a Jan. 12 interview with the Newark Star-Ledger, prompted leaders of the unions to chastise the Secretary for making “inaccurate” statements.

“If the education-reform movement—and I think we’re still in the midst of it—is simply to constitute one great excuse for the leaders of teacher unions to gripe on a massive scale, then it’s going to hurt the educational-reform movement and it’s going to hurt the plight of teachers,” said Mr. Bennett in the interview.

Mr. Bennett said Mary Hatwood Futrell, president of the 1.7 -million-member National Education Association, and Albert Shanker, president of the 610,OOO-member American Federation of Teachers, have been “behaving very badly.” He accused them of using the reform movement to advocate higher salaries and better working conditions for their members.

He also said teachers’ strikes “have not been conducive to the well-being of the profession.”

“A lot of these people who say they speak for [teachers] simply do not,” he said. ''Teachers are frankly better and more sensible human beings than the impression you would get from listening to their union leaders.”

The Secretary granted the interview to a Star-Ledger reporter who had written a news analysis suggesting that teacher-union leaders were doing their members a disservice by emphasizing pocketbook issues.

According to an aide to the Secretary, Mr. Bennett phoned the reporter, Robert J. Braun, to praise the piece and then accepted the reporter’s request for a personal interview.

Unions’ Reaction

Leaders of both unions took exception to Mr. Bennett’s characterizations.

In an interview, Ms. Futrell said Mr. Bennett’s general praise for teachers indicated that “he is now moving closer to where we are, with respect to the profession.” She added, “I would hope that his future actions support his concern for teachers.”

“It is worth noting that Secretary Bennett would make remarks which are in conflict with those of his boss, President Reagan,” the A.F.T. said in a prepared statement.

“It is President Reagan who has praised the A.F.T. for its ‘fair, openminded approach to encouraging good teaching and good teachers,’ ” according to the statement, “and who has said that the A.F.T. was providing ‘an example of positive leadership and winning respect for the teaching community.’ ” Mr. Reagan made the remarks at the union’s 1983 convention in Los Angeles.

The A.F.T. statement said Mr. Bennett was “dead wrong” in his comments about strikes, noting that strike activity is at its lowest point in years.

Union spokesmen expressed surprise at Mr. Bennett’s outburst, saying they have been stressing issues of teacher “professionalism” in connection with “bottom-line” issues of salaries. They also observed that the unions’ political rhetoric has been generally low-key recently.

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A version of this article appeared in the January 22, 1986 edition of Education Week as Bennett Rebukes Unions For Hindering Reforms