School & District Management

A Union Chief’s Defeat Stirs Debate on Leadership

By Vaishali Honawar — June 13, 2006 6 min read
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When Louise Sundin, the president of the Minneapolis teachers’ union for more than 22 years, was routed in a re-election bid last month by an opponent who claimed she had gotten too close to the district management, she was the latest in a growing line of progressive, seemingly well- entrenched union leaders to face rejection.

Over the past few years, more than a half-dozen union leaders who have worked collaboratively with their districts have been voted out of office, including Edwin Vargas in Hartford, Conn.; Deborah Lynch in Chicago; Rick Beck in Cincinnati; and John Perez in Los Angeles.

Reform-minded union leaders attribute Ms. Sundin’s exit to a variety of problems in the Minneapolis district, among them a sharp drop in school enrollment, downsizing of the teacher workforce, and administrative turmoil.

“The last five years have been all downhill,” said Ms. Sundin, who added that she was the target of members’ frustrations over all those issues.

Even so, her defeat has refueled discussions in some circles that union members are rejecting leaders receptive to a less traditional model of unionism, a trend that could make the pursuit of school improvement endeavors difficult.

Mike Antonucci, a teachers’ union watchdog who runs an online newsletter, said even groups like the Teacher Union Reform Network, or TURN, a network of affiliates of the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, have been criticized for not being bold enough in advancing challenging ideas for improvement.

“It is not that they are not bold in talking about reform; but they don’t take a stand against old-school unionists,” he contended, adding that a perception that progressive leaders are being defeated in elections would end up making union leaders more gun-shy than ever.

Striking a Balance

Union leaders themselves are reluctant to draw a link between progressive unionism and election losses. Instead, they say, labor-management collaboration is on the rise in urban districts.

Tom Mooney

“There is a growing interest in the notion that teacher unions have an obligation to play a role in school reform,” said Tom Mooney, the president of the Ohio Federation of Teachers.

“Otherwise, politicians and business leaders will shape the reform agenda. More and more union leaders get this and feel the need to shape [reform] themselves.”

Increased demands on teachers because of the federal No Child Left Behind Act have also led to unions’ focus on a broader range of issues, he said.

For union leaders, striking a balance between traditional employment issues and participation in school improvement initiatives is essential. And difficult, said Harold Brown, the vice president of school improvement at the Knowledge Works Foundation, a Cincinnati-based foundation that will later this month release a book on labor-management collaboration.

Mr. Brown said more and more unions realize they have to be reform-minded and have to put students first.

Harold Brown

But union leaders cannot focus on improvement issues and neglect bread-and-butter ones, he cautioned. “If you’re viewed as being too much on the other side, you are doomed,” he said.

Judy Schaubach, the president of Education Minnesota, the merged state affiliate of the NEA and the AFT, said it can also be hard to keep members in the loop about reform efforts, given how busy they are. But, she added, doing so was extremely important to keep members from feeling alienated.

“The challenge is difficult, in a very large local, to keep everyone…feeling they have a voice,” she said. “It is not an easy thing to do with any union.”

Even so, unionists point to a number of successes, among them the pioneering move by the local in Toledo, Ohio, to put forth a peer-review plan in which skilled teachers monitor and evaluate their colleagues—a model that has since been adopted by other locals.

In Minneapolis, Ms. Sundin helped implement a teacher performance-pay plan that became a model for other districts. In Rochester, N.Y., the union collaborated with the district on a variety of issues, including a peer-review plan and the creation of a “living contract,” under which unions negotiate year-round.

Those on the other side of the table say they hope the defeat of Ms. Sundin and other change-minded union leaders will not cause unions to shy away from working on school improvement measures.

“It would be unfortunate if teachers decided to not want to focus on [improvements], because if you don’t have student systems that have a high quality, then the whole question of investment in public education falls by the wayside,” said Reginald Felton, the director of federal relations for the Alexandria, Va.-based National School Boards Association.

Change Essential

Adam Urbanski, the director of TURN and the president of the Rochester Teachers Association, said there has always been a risk for union leaders who seek to become collaborative with their district administrations. But it is a risk, he said, strong urban unions can afford to take.

Adam Urbanski

“I have always advised weak unions not to be collaborative, because they will get eaten up alive,” he said. Yet, he said, “there is no way, in my view, that any urban school system in America would be effective without labor-management collaboration.”

Attributing Ms. Sundin’s defeat in Minneapolis to dissatisfaction with her progressive unionism “would be myopic and disingenuous,” Mr. Urbanski said.

Robert Panning-Miller, Ms. Sundin’s challenger, had portrayed a union leader who had become too close to management.

“We need a union that can say no,” Mr. Panning-Miller, who did not return repeated calls over a week for this story, was quoted as saying in the Minneapolis Star Tribune during his campaign. “Our current leadership has been walking hand in hand with the district.”

At the same time, he told the newspaper, he was not a hard-liner himself, but rather wanted to democratize the union.

“Nobody in the district would say that there is a leader tougher than I am,” Ms. Sundin said last week, calling her opponent’s criticism “naive and ridiculous.”

But, she warned, adversarial relations between unions and school leaders could backfire on teachers. Already, she said, Minneapolis schools are bleeding students to charter schools and other options.

“Adversarial relations will not keep parents who keep children in public schools—and that means they will not keep teaching jobs,” Ms. Sundin said.

Walking the Talk

History has shown few union leaders make drastic changes to the status quo once they are at the helm, Mr. Antonucci argued, citing Los Angeles, where A.J. Duffy last year overthrew then-President John Perez, promising to be more militant.

“It’s really the difference between A and B, rather than A and Z. In Minneapolis, we will see the same thing as in Los Angeles, where the person gets elected with a fire-and-brimstone mandate and in the first few months walks the talk,” he said. “But over a period of time, they settle into incumbency, and in a lot of cases, are indistinguishable from their predecessor.”

In an increasingly changing school atmosphere, union leaders might also have no choice but to get on board with initiatives for school improvement.

“The best way and most effective way to get teachers competent salaries, appropriate benefits, and appropriate working conditions is through collaborative, and not adversarial, relationships,” said Mr. Urbanski.

But, warned Mr. Brown of Knowledge Works, teachers’ unions also have to be prepared for resistance from their rank and file as they work on changing schools, and learn to be discerning about what initiatives they do decide to take up.

“Even if there’s a good thing,” he said, “there is going to be some resistance.”

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Coverage of leadership is supported in part by a grant from The Wallace Foundation, at www.wallacefoundation.org.
A version of this article appeared in the June 14, 2006 edition of Education Week as A Union Chief’s Defeat Stirs Debate on Leadership

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