A Different Kind of Union

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Chase estimates that 70 percent of the NEA membership supports his call for new unionism.

Such statements have earned Chase ample derision from labor's longtime critics and skepticism from traditionalists within the NEA who believe their union should worry exclusively about bread-and-butter issues. Chase estimates that 70 percent of the NEA membership supports his general call for new unionism.

The first official move in this new direction came last summer, when union delegates approved a measure giving the green light to affiliates that want to explore peer-review programs. The vote in favor of such efforts, which pair seasoned teachers with those new to the profession or having trouble on the job, came only after lengthy debate. Previously, the organization had officially opposed allowing teachers to evaluate each other. Peer review, Chase says, is only one possible manifestation of new unionism.

More may be found in the operations of the risk-taking Saturn Corp.

In contrast to most teaching contracts, which can run well over 100 pages, Saturn's labor agreement is a slim pamphlet of 33 pages that can easily fit in a hip pocket.

The document includes little more than the company's mission and philosophy, a description of work teams, and a listing of health and retirement benefits. Under working hours, all the contract says is that "to fulfill the objectives of the Saturn philosophy and mission, it will be necessary to have flexible hours of work that meet the needs of the individual as well as Saturn."

Missing altogether is the standard "management-rights clause," which in traditional contracts essentially gives management authority to make unilateral decisions on any issue not mentioned in the agreement. The clause generally encourages labor negotiators to defend themselves by building thick contracts that leave few issues to chance.

In the Saturn agreement, issues such as discipline are addressed with brevity and with some unusual features.

Union members and managers share responsibility for dealing with infractions, which often are first pointed out by an employee's own team members. Saturn and the UAW have defined a three-step "consultation process" in which workers go from an "amber zone" to a "red zone" before being sent home--with pay--to consider whether they still want to work at Saturn. Only after that point do management and labor generally assume their more traditional roles--in which labor files a grievance and management pursues dismissal.

"[At other plants] it was absolutely, traditionally taboo to have a team member come up and say, 'Gee, you're drinking on the job or doing something that's going to affect all of us,'" says Mike Herron, a union member who helps coordinate an entire plant. "It was just not done."

Hearing all this, a few NEA representatives raised eyebrows at some of Saturn's terminology: The discipline process was referred to as "behavior modification," which began when someone exhibited "un-Saturn-like behavior." But some of the teachers' union members saw the potential for at least general applications of Saturn's work-team model to schools, which many said are still structured to isolate teachers from each other.

During the Saturn tour, many of the NEA visitors argued that higher performance doesn't easily translate into more money for schools.

"At Saturn, if someone doesn't show up for work, management doesn't have to discipline that person; his co-workers say, 'Where the heck were you? You let us down,'" observes Lily Eskelsen, an NEA executive committee member and elementary school teacher in Utah's Granite school district. "In a school there's no incentive for me to sit down with a teacher and say that. Couldn't we revamp the relations within the school so I would have an incentive to sit down with that teacher, where I would take responsibility for that myself?"

Saturn's unusual system of financial incentives--called the Risk and Reward program--also drew a mix of interest and apprehension from the NEA delegation. All Saturn employees are awarded annual bonuses of $12,500 based on the company's overall profits, whether it meets production schedules, and the cars' quality ratings from external audits. Since the program was instituted in 1992, the company's more than 9,000 employees have received awards for all but two quarters. Once, they were penalized when a strike at one of their suppliers held back their production. Last year alone, Saturn handed out some $90 million in bonuses.

But there's also a downside. Twelve percent of each employee's wages is withheld each quarter. If employees fail to complete their required amount of training, meet high standards of quality, or demonstrate the ability to work in teams, then all employees lose some part of the withheld funds. Saturn says that since 1992, the typical Saturn employee has lost less than $50.

Although more school districts are examining pay-for-performance programs as a way to reward good teachers, many of the NEA members viewed Saturn's Risk and Renewal program with caution.

"I don't think we'd ever be able to get away with withholding pay," says Barry Gilbert, the assistant executive director of the Milwaukee Teachers Education Association. "But I thought it was an interesting way of providing an incentive for the whole organization."

The MTEA was one of four Wisconsin affiliates that earlier this year signed a letter sent to Chase opposing elements of his call for new unionism, comparing it to the practice of appeasement used with Nazi Germany in the 1930s.

During the Saturn tour, many of the NEA visitors argued that higher performance doesn't easily translate into more money for schools. Plus, many felt quality is easier to measure in a car company than in education. "How are we going to measure quality?" Eskelsen asks. "If we don't define it, it's going to be a NAEP score or an SAT score, and we know that's too narrow."

Each year, Saturn requires all employees to go through at least 92 hours of job training, ranging from taking company-run courses to reading job-related books and materials.

At Saturn, many said, the workers are held accountable for outcomes they have direct control over. In a telling question, Philip Rumore, the president of the Buffalo (N.Y.) Teachers Federation, asked a Saturn employee what the company would do if the parts from one of its suppliers varied widely in their quality. Answer: Saturn would switch suppliers. Teachers, said many of the NEA members, have less control over the raw materials they work with. But many added more generally that public education should look at new procedures for both supporting and holding educators accountable.

"I liked the concept of experimenting and doing a trial-and-error approach toward improving quality, where you institute the stuff that works and throw out what doesn't," Gilbert says.

Chase showed great interest in Saturn's professional-development efforts. Each year, Saturn requires all employees to go through at least 92 hours of job training, ranging from taking company-run courses to reading job-related books and materials. The auto workers regularly take time off to disassemble competitors' cars to see how they're built. In recent years, Saturn's employees have, in total, racked up one-third more hours than required. Employees are further encouraged to design and lead their own programs.

"Their members are the ones developing those training programs," Chase says. "We traditionally believe you have to bring someone in from the outside to do that."

Chase isn't visiting Saturn to find specific programs that can be exactly replicated in public education. He came to see how a whole company was built on trust and collaboration between labor and management. At Saturn, he says, he was encouraged to find that collaboration didn't weaken the union, but rather empowered its members.

Donald Ephlin, the former UAW vice president who helped start Saturn, tells Chase: "We have not given up any of our legal responsibility to represent the workers here. But we have gained a lot."

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