Despite Resistance, NEA's Chase Presses New Unionism

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During his first year as president of the National Education Association, Bob Chase traveled thousands of miles and soothed his throat with dozens of cough drop as he delivered speech after speech about the importance of reinventing teacher unionism.

Mr. Chase, who argues that NEA affiliates must expand their focus from teachers’ wages and protection to include advocacy for high-quality schools and teaching, also absorbed a lot of name-calling--from his own members.

One critic accused him of encouraging a suicide cult that would be "the Heaven's Gate of the labor movement," Mr. Chase told delegates here last week attending a conference on collective bargaining.

Four local affiliates from Wisconsin sent the new president a letter in February likening his stance to that of appeasers of Nazi Germany in the 1930s.

And plenty of other NEA members are clearly uncomfortable with Mr. Chase's call for less conflict and more collaboration with management toward the shared goal of school improvement. (See Education Week, Feb. 12, 1997.)

Rather than abandoning traditional unionism, however, Mr. Chase argued for an expansion of collective bargaining to reflect more fully the changes in teachers' jobs and address the mounting public expectation for schools.

"We have yet to exploit the full potential of collective bargaining as a vehicle for improving shools," he told the conference. "It is the ideal framework for managers and employees together, a formal venue for hammering out the reform process."

Awarding Partnerships

The one-day conference, held as a prelude to the 2.3 million-member union's annual Representative Assembly, reflected Mr. Chase's priorities. In the past, the pre-assembly conference was aimed at helping members who work in states without bargaining laws.

But this year, it showcased districts that are using the negotiating process in novel ways, including Seattle; Columbus, Ohio; Memphis, Tenn.; and Deer Valley, Ariz.

Jack O'Toole, a member of the United Auto Workers and a senior consultant for the Saturn automobile plant's consulting group, gave delegates an overview of the union-management cooperation that spawned the successful line of cars. The plant in Spring Hill, Tenn., is governed by a 33-page memorandum of understanding, Mr. O'Toole said, while the UAW'S national contract covering other car factories is 1,200 pages.

Like their counterparts at the American Federation of Teachers, teams of NEA staff member and elected leaders have visited the auto plant. And this year, Saturn and the NEA teamed up to bestow a new "partnership award" to association members and school district managers who are working closely together.

The awards--recognizing longstanding cooperation, joint decisionmaking, and a systemic focus for the entire district--were scheduled to be given to teams from Columbus; Glenview, Ill.; Memphis; New Albany, Ind.; Pinellas County, Fla.; and Seattle.

Since 1992, the Seattle Education Association has taken a leading role in addressing the problems plaguing the urban district, including poor student achievement, budget shortfalls, and a lack of community confidence.

The union bargained a "trust agreement" last year with the district that spells out their shared goals. The agreement then formed the basis for future bargaining.

Despite much progress toward getting schools the resources they need, the union has met with resistance from its members.

Last month, the Seattle union rejected a tentative accord on a new contract that would have given schools the latitude to hire teachers without regard to seniority.

Roger Erskine, the executive director of the Seattle association, said union leaders plan to work hard this summer to address members' concerns before scheduling another vote on the pact. But he predicted it would pass.

Peer Review

The Seattle affiliate, along with the Columbus Education Association, also has gained notice for its programs to mentor beginning teachers and assist veteran members who are having trouble in the classroom.

Currently, it is against NEA policy for teachers to play a role in evaluating one another--a task that traditionally has been left to school administrators. But, in a first test of Mr. Chase's presidency, national delegates were scheduled late last week to debate changes in union policy that would remove that restriction and, in fact, encourage local affiliates that are interested in the programs to create them.

While the idea is not new, only a handful of teachers' locals sponsor such programs, including a number of AFT affiliates and the NEA'S Columbus association.

Mr. Chase has been a strong supporter of the approach. And in May the NEA'S board approved a resolution in favor of peer-assistance and -review programs.

Advocating a greater role for teachers in helping their colleagues could cut down on the turnover among beginning teachers and provide struggling ones with some help, supporters say. Such programs, with management support, also are an immediate step that unions can take to help improve schools.

In his remarks here, Mr. Chase acknowledged that his own role is limited because of the union's decentralized structure. But he pledged to use the bully pulpit and seek changes in union policies that would give members the leeway they need to break out of what he called "dysfunctional" and "defensive" patterns.

The proposed policy change was the subject of much debate here among delegates.

"We definitely don't feel we should be evaluating one another," said James Smith, a delegate from Wisconsin who teaches English at a technical college. "We feel as though it would divide many of our members. It's not our role."

Charles Hewett, a 1st grade teacher in Indianapolis, where the teachers' association has been barred by state law from bargaining on many issues, was skeptical. He noted that if teachers engage in evaluations, they could be barred from the bargaining unit.

To Dale Korman, a delegate from Torrance, Calif., the policy change seemed remote from the pressing issues facing school in her district, including dramatic class-size reductions and a lack of licensed teachers to fill the openings.

But Sylvia Du Vall, a junior high school mathematics teacher from Lorain, Ohio, was enthusiastic. "We can raise our own standards," she said. "Who better to be accountable to than other teachers?”

Vol. 16, Issue 40, Page 6

Published in Print: July 9, 1997, as Despite Resistance, NEA's Chase Presses New Unionism
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