A 'New Generation' of Teacher Unionism

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The signs all around us indicate that a new generation of teacher unionism is emerging. Ongoing changes in the practices of administrators and teachers suggest a shifting of ideologies and the coming of a new approach to labor relations, with educational policy as its center. At issue is the willingness of organized teachers to assume part of the responsibility for winning increased respect for public education, improving the effectiveness of schools, and making teaching a profession.

Administrators and teachers are engaging in labor-relations practices that would be considered heresies under conventional belief systems: peer review, differentiation among teachers, standards setting, problem solving, and self-management. Following years of party-line solidarity, the memberships of union, management, and school-board organizations are vigorously debating what constitutes good labor relations. And, after years of relative quiet, the subject of teachers' unions is attracting renewed public interest.

Among the heretical practices, we find unionized teachers starting to take seriously the idea that teachers should evaluate other teachers. Under conventional ideology, the idea that one member of a bargaining unit would evaluate another is a traitorous violation of the "solidarity" norm.

But since 1981, teachers in Toledo, Ohio, have actively engaged in peer evaluation for new teachers and in an intervention program for experienced teachers who are not performing adequately. Though this agreement remains controversial in many quarters, provisions for similar undertakings have found their way into statute in Ohio, and peer-review plans are under study by unions and managements as far away as Lompoc, Calif. In the new thinking, teacher solidarity means self-policing as well as self-protection.

According to the conventional ideology, responsibility for fixing school problems belongs to management. Decisions are management's prerogative; the less involvement with the union, the better, management believes. Labor accepts this turf division. From its standpoint, an offer to make decisions is sucker bait, an invitation to take the heat because management is too weak to make tough decisions. Besides, decisions are complex and messy, and getting teachers involved is a tough job that union officials would rather duck.

Now, in 27 school sites represented by the National Education Association, managers and teachers are engaged in joint planning, goal setting, and redefinition of teacher roles. In Hammond, Ind., members of the American Federation of Teachers bargaining unit are involved in a school-site management plan, and in New York City teachers have negotiated a contract allowing teachers and site administrators to waive work-rule restrictions in thecitywide contract in order to restructure their schools.

In conventional labor ideology, the contract encompasses the relationship between union and school district. Although teachers' unions have always engaged in professional development through publications and workshops for members, their official relationship with the school district hinges on the union's standing as the legitimate representative of teacher self-interest through collective bargaining. While the onset of collective bargaining legitimated teacher self-interest and signaled the end to the suffering-servant mentality, the ideology of good-faith bargaining hardened opposition to teacher participation in educational policy.

However, in the emerging belief system, teachers' unions also have a right and a responsibility to speak for the public good. In Pittsburgh and Miami, unions are engaged in practices that "go beyond collective bargaining" into school improvement. In Petaluma and four other California districts, the union and management are establishing a new type of written contract, called a "policy trust agreement," in addition to their regular relationship.

These changes underscore the importance of ideology to labor relations and the extent to which change in unionism is driven by conflict over competing ideas of what unions should do. Labor and management belief systems have progressed through two distinct historical and organizational realities: the first centered around meet-and-confer relationships and the second around good-faith collective bargaining. My research, along with the evidence of recent events, suggests that a third generation of labor relations, with educational policy as its focus, is arriving now.

Because the battles are not simply tugs-of-war about who gets more or less, but ideological struggles over what is good and proper, periods of change between labor-relations generations are particularly tumultuous. The internal tension frequently experienced by national unions and management organizations are reflected in school districts as "radicals" of either the left or the right vie for attention and loyalty with the conventional wisdom. Conflict often becomes public, and in its settlement new leaders emerge: School-board members lose elections, superintendents are sacked, and union officers face defeat at the hands of the members they thought they understood.

It is easy to recall the organizing wars of the 1960's and 1970's as the ideological emphasis of teacher organization changed from participation and consultation through various meet-and-confer mechanisms to self-representation through collective bargaining resulting in written, enforceable contracts. Pitched battles were fought within the nea over whether collective bargaining was a legitimate undertaking for teachers. The old guard said it would cheapen the profession, and the Young Turks of the nea Urban Project countered that the current process was a failure. While the aft had no historic problems with explicit unionism, it had to resolve the battle between its revolutionary and pragmatic wings.

And in thousands of school districts across the country, teachers went through the process of acting out the then-radical notion that they had the right to speak for themselves.

The events we are witnessing now can be seen in this mirror of history. Representatives of the two national unions debate the wisdom and meaning of recent contractual changes, such as the Rochester career-stage plan. The National School Boards Association appoints a commission to study ways of promoting productive, harmonious relationships, but does so in language so provocative that the result is likely to be a clash of wills over unionism itself. U.S. Secretary of Education William J. Bennett castigates the nea for footdragging on reform issues, to which the nea replies that Secretary Bennett's idea isn't what it had in mind. Internally, the nea and the aft consider radically restructuring. In all these cases, the question being asked is not whether teachers have the right to an economic interest in their jobs, but how the energy and commitment of organized teachers can be brought to bear on problems of school reform.

Although the battle lines have not yet hardened, the struggle for teacher unionism in the 1990's is taking shape around three important issues in public education:

How does public education retain popular support?

How can union activity aid school effectiveness?

How can teachers become employed professionals?

As public education's best-financed and organized interest group, unions play a pivotal role in developing support for public education. The nea, in particular, is a lobbying nonpareil; its members are politically active in virtually every Congressional district in the country. But interest-group representation does not subsume educational politics. The larger perception that public schools are incapable of solving their problems breeds reform movements that either attempt remote control of the schools by close-order certification and testing or seek to disinvest in them by proposing vouchers and other mechanisms that would structurally alter the institution of education in the United States. Unions are hard pressed to come up with credible alternatives.

The next generation of labor relations also faces the problem of making schools effective places for learning. This means that labor, management, and the public must come to terms with a vastly broadened scope of interaction between organized teachers and their employers. Part of the compact that surrounds existing collective bargaining is an assertion that it is possible to cleave between the teachers' legitimate interests in their salaries and working conditions on the one hand and the educational policies of the school district on the other. Elaborate restrictions in the scope of bargaining were supposed to segregate bargaining from school policy.

Of course, nothing of the kind happened. Even in the most restrictive scope of bargaining, establishing the wage-and-salary schedule, transfer policy, and class size for a school district effectively accounts for the allocation of as much as 90 percent of the school's operating budget.

Savvy administrators and union leaders recognized this fact and developed side agreements. Some actually helped one another. But the explicit involvement of unions in school management, and the expectation that such involvement was a central role of unions, not a social service they performed for their members, was not publicly recognized until recently.

Finally, unions face the problem of redefining teaching as a profession. The next decade represents a unique opportunity that the grand hope that a teaching profession can be created will triumph over the grand illusion that one already exists. This decade's teaching-reform movement presages the organizational reform movement of the next. Moreover, it is now recognized that professionals can be employed for wages. Lawyers and physicians more and more commonly belong to large firms that face analogous problems in the clash between professional and bureaucratic authority systems.

For unions, solving the professionalism question means more than muscling control over state teacher-certification boards or winning a chair at the table where the national examination will be drafted. It requires that unions look seriously at the set of policies and practices that define teaching work within school districts. How is employed professionalism defined in school sites? What responsibility are teachers willing to take to define and enforce their own standards? What relationship does the union have to the behavior of teachers in the workplace?

The responses of the unions and management to these issues will significantly influence the shape of teaching in the next decade. As it is currently emerging, the increased involvement of unions in the determination of educational policy will place teachers in roles of greater responsibility: for the public's perception of their status, for the redefinition of their own work, and for the worth of their schools.

Vol. 07, Issue 17, Page 36

Published in Print: January 20, 1988, as A 'New Generation' of Teacher Unionism
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