The New Unionism and the Very Old

What History Can Tell Bob Chase and His Critics

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National Education Association President Bob Chase's advocacy of a new unionism, in which organized teachers will join administrators in promoting educational reform, has provoked widespread dissension within the ranks. ("Teacher vs. Teacher? Nonsense," Oct. 22, 1997.) His initial address on the subject, at the National Press Club in Washington in February of last year, was met, for example, with unveiled hostility from urban union leaders in Wisconsin. In a joint letter, officers of NEA locals in Milwaukee, Madison, Racine, and Green Bay attacked his speech as "capitulation to the agenda of the enemies of public education."

At the union's national convention in July, Mr. Chase did manage to win the Representative Assembly's support for the concept of establishing programs in which teachers assist and review their colleagues, but this initiative, which obligates no action on the part of locals, nonetheless provoked considerable opposition. Even the progressive Peace and Justice Caucus has been divided on the matter of the new unionism. In the Summer 1997 issue of its publication, one member, echoing the disaffected Wisconsin leaders, wrote that Bob Chase was telling them to "climb into bed with the 'boss'" and accused the NEA president of a "collaborationist approach" that "may bring him plaudits from right-wing, anti-labor groups, but it will neither help members, nor improve education."

Although we disagree with the stance of Mr. Chase's opponents, we do not consider their concerns groundless. By maintaining that the purpose of organized teachers is to focus on bread-and-butter issues, they draw on a long tradition of teacher activism that rightly has viewed with skepticism the practices of many administrators, school board members, and business interests, as well as an ideology of professionalism that calls on teachers to be impecunious and apolitical for the good of the children.

By many accounts this self-assertive tradition begins with the Chicago Teachers Federation, the most notable organization of classroom teachers early in the century. Led by the redoubtable Margaret Haley, the organization was dedicated foremost to improving the conditions of elementary school teachers, who exclusively composed its membership. Under Ms. Haley's leadership, the CTF worked to improve an extremely weak pension law, to protect tenure, and to raise long-stagnant salaries. Most dramatically, through court action the CTF compelled major businesses to pay long-owed taxes that relieved the budget woes of the school board. Concerned not only with material benefits, the Chicago Teachers Federation opposed actions of administrators that were likely to burden teachers excessively or subject them to arbitrary practices. Thus, it resisted the implementation of the "platoon plan," fundamentally an efficiency measure that threatened to dramatically increase the workload of teachers, and it opposed a secret rating system of teachers. Not merely concerned with weakening the prerogatives of administrators at the local level, the CTF sought as well to democratize the National Education Association, then dominated by college presidents and superintendents, so that it would represent the concerns of teachers who constituted the vast majority of the membership.

Although the CTF established an education committee that attracted lecturers on pedagogy and psychology, its fundamental purpose was to improve the conditions of classroom teachers. This set it apart from teacher organizations that enrolled mostly women but were dominated by the agendas of male administrators, on the one hand, and from female organizations devoted to sociability and professional development on the other hand. Margaret Haley readily acknowledged the basic commitment of the Chicago federation to improving the circumstances of teachers, but she decried critics who viewed this as merely self-interested activity. She contended that improving the conditions of teachers would improve the conditions of teaching. It is this perspective that has guided the practice of teachers' unions since the advent of collective bargaining in the 1960s. By pursuing bread-and-butter issues, union members have claimed, teachers would have the security and freedom to become better educators.

This was once a plausible contention, but the protections and augmented compensation unionized teachers have won do not necessarily translate into stronger educational commitments. On the contrary, as important as freedom of expression and good salaries are, the trade unionist approach of most NEA and American Federation of Teachers locals frames teachers' work in a way that has negative educational implications. By viewing teachers' activity as labor, rather than a calling, a trade unionist orientation legitimates a stance that limits effort while it seeks to maximize compensation. It tends to see such matters as helping students after class, doing significant after-school preparation, and conferring with parents as excessive work because it is uncompensated. A trade union perspective consequently positions teachers in ways that make their interests antagonistic to those of students, especially those students who are perceived as different, difficult, or requiring more than minimal attention. And we think this antagonism is most intense when the teaching force is predominantly white and the students predominantly African-American and Latino.

The protections and augmented compensation unionized teachers have won do not necessarily translate into stronger educational commitments.

There is another tradition of organized teachers, however, that has received little attention. These groups gave nearly equal weight to economic and educational advancement. Emblematic of this tradition was the Milwaukee Teachers' Association, the forerunner of the Milwaukee Teachers Education Association, whose current leadership opposes Mr. Chase's new unionism. At the time of its founding in 1901, more than 90 percent of Milwaukee educators were female elementary school teachers. Much like other urban teachers at the time, their financial situation was precarious. Wages had stagnated for 30 years, security of position for competent teachers was not assured, and retirement benefits were nonexistent. Equally important, the possibilities for excellence in teaching were limited by class sizes that averaged more than 50 students in the primary grades, by a highly prescribed curriculum that dictated the precise number of minutes weekly to be devoted to each subject, and by overzealous supervisors more than willing to instruct teachers in the proper method of holding chalk and in legislating the number of students who should recite memorized poetry before each reading lesson.

Early on, the Milwaukee Teachers' Association showed a willingness to unite with other groups when mutual interest dictated, and though initially it was open to elementary school teachers only, it soon sought high school members as well. The MTA worked with principals to achieve a tenure provision, a rudimentary pension, and a modest salary increase before it had the clout to strike out on its own. Although such alliances would continue to be forged when they supported teachers' interests, and these at times included top administrators and a minority of the school board, the MTA was increasingly estranged from the school board majority and became the primary opponent of the board on a number of issues that influenced teachers' livelihoods. Beginning with a successful salary campaign that more than doubled the salaries of the lowest-paid elementary school teachers, the MTA won a series of victories against the board by appealing to the courts and, especially, to the state legislature. In the 1920s and 1930s, the MTA defeated the school board's efforts to scale back pension benefits, abolish tenure, make drastic cuts in salaries during the Depression, fire married teachers, and require teachers to retire at the age of 70. The teachers' antagonists included not only the school board majorities but often also the most powerful business interests in Milwaukee. Part of the reason for the MTA's successes was the fine legal mind and lobbying skills of its attorney, the brother of five teachers. But the continuing support of local legislators and leading Milwaukee newspapers in the face of opposition from powerful interests also reflected the strong public support the MTA possessed.

Certainly, it was easier to arouse public sympathy for the teachers' financial plight when wages were lower than they are today. But the moral weight of teachers' claims came not so much from wages that often were less than laborers', but from their obvious commitment to better educating children. From its inception, the object of the MTA was "to promote the general interests of its members, and the cause of education." It pursued the latter in part through a program of self-improvement--speakers on topics of pedagogical import at monthly meetings, annual lecture courses that brought high levels of attendance, and contracts with the local normal school for extension classes related to teachers' perceived need for content that would help them improve teaching.

In contrast to course-taking today that often is undertaken to maintain certification or to advance steps on the salary schedule, for many years there were no financial returns for such self-improvement, nor were there returns for attaining a college degree when the MTA first advocated that new teachers be required to possess one. In fact, for a time the MTA lobbied to lengthen the school year without additional pay because the union considered a longer term sound educational policy.

Not only was the Milwaukee Teachers' Association interested in increasing the knowledge of teachers, it also tried to influence practice. It sponsored, for instance, a lecture series on the "project method" by William Heard Kilpatrick of Columbia University. Attended by more than 800 people, including a number of prominent citizens, the series launched a successful effort to make the rigid, subject-based curriculum into one that was more attentive to children's interests and to interdisciplinary possibilities. The group also shaped educational policy through creating a Teachers Council that addressed matters of curriculum, and through gaining a major voice for teachers in determining what textbooks would be required.

The Milwaukee association demonstrated that it was possible to take education seriously without sacrificing the pursuit of material rewards. In fact, its work around the former made its pursuit of the latter more palatable to the public. Although the MTA ultimately lost sight of its educational purpose, its accomplishments over several decades suggest that Mr. Chase's professional unionism need not degenerate into company unionism.

In one respect, the Milwaukee Teachers' Association had articulated an even stronger professionalism than Bob Chase has. It advocated that teachers should have a major role in hiring as well as evaluating teachers. We believe both should be objectives of organized teachers. We also believe, however, that other professions provide a warning about the arrogance and self-interested agendas of insulated, self-perpetuating bodies.

Although a new unionism requires greater control by teachers of both the conditions of teaching and the personnel who teach, the standards teachers develop must be shaped by an ethos that exalts what parents want teachers to do for their children: to recognize, honor, and develop their gifts and capacities, and to set no limit on what each might accomplish.

We cannot specify what formal relationship between teachers and parents may best support this professional ethos, but we contend that the fundamental point of unions ought to be their ability to militantly bring organizational power to bear on the project of serving children and their parents. In cities, particularly, this may require a major transformation in the stance of predominantly white unions toward the children of color they teach. It does not require taking a vow of poverty.

Vol. 17, Issue 29, Pages 46, 50

Published in Print: April 1, 1998, as The New Unionism and the Very Old
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Web Resources
  • Read a statement made Feb. 11, 1998, by Bob Chase, president of the National Education Association, at the National Press Club on the first anniversary of the launch of his "new unionism" initiative.
  • Read a January 1998, joint statement, "Teacher Unions Report Substantial Progress Toward Merger," from either the AFT or the NEA.
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