Equity & Diversity Opinion

Is There a ‘Blue State’ Frontier for Teachers’ Unions?

By Charles Taylor Kerchner — September 07, 2015 7 min read
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We know where the frontiers of labor relations are in Red States. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who bows only to Donald Trump in the bombast department, wants to punch teacher unions in the face. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s campaign message is that he beat teacher unions in his state, and that qualifies him to be the leader of the free world. Defeating unionized public employees is a centerpiece of Republican strategy.

No Rush to the Frontiers

So, where are the frontiers of labor relations in Blue States, particularly in California? There is a frontier; at least I can see one on the horizon. Unions have sent scouts out to look at the territory, but there is no rush to populate it.

In the Golden State, rather than take advantage of the unparalleled political opportunity offered by a popular incumbent Democratic governor, a supportive state superintendent, and a near supermajority in the legislature, the state’s teacher unions are spending their political resources playing defense. (See posts on danger and opportunity, big ideas, fixing what needs to be fixed, and looking over the horizon.)

They long ago lost the battle of the op-ed pages. The lack of articulated ideas from the California Teachers Association and the California Federation of Teachers allowed Marshall Tuck to challenge an incumbent state superintendent last fall and gain the editorial support of virtually every newspaper in the state. The idea vacuum allowed his corporatist model of education reform to play out to a receptive audience. As a political novice, with little support from the state’s education leaders, he got 48 percent of the vote.

Rather than fix underlying problems with teacher tenure, evaluation, and seniority laws—all easily achievable—they subjected themselves to the endless battering of the Vergara plaintiffs’ lawyers and commentators who turned bad economics into teacher bashing. More of this is to come. The legal challenge to agency fees, the requirement that non-members pay for the representation they receive under collective bargaining law, will be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court this term.

It’s Not Just Holding Past Gains

It’s not that these challenges are not serious; they are. But if California’s unions define the frontiers of labor relations as simply holding on to what they won in the 1975 collective bargaining law, they’ve lost even before the fight starts.

However, there is a labor relations frontier that could, if the unions organized around it, move unions and school districts out of an industrial union mindset and give teachers a legally protected role in tackling the vexing dilemmas that surround unequal student achievement.

Years ago, Julia Koppich and I wrote that teachers should bargain educational goals. We argued that single-number accountability schemes were inadequate, and that teachers should have both a right and a responsibility to link dollars, educational practices, and accountability. We had little hope that such an outrageous idea, presented in an academic journal, would find its way into state policy.

New Tables for New Discussions

But it has. In a very significant way, California’s Local Control Funding Formula and the Local Control Accountability Plan punctuate the fiction of industrial labor relations, which maintains that teachers’ economic interests could be separated from their interests in the content and delivery of instruction.

Teacher unions have had no hesitation about claiming the dollars that the new funding formula and the state’s recovered economy have made available. They have been much less visible in the educational strategizing and rethinking teacher work life that the statute invites.

Invisible Unions

Researchers, who have examined budget and standard setting under the new laws, have a hard time finding a union presence in LCFF/LCAP development in most districts. Julia Koppich writes, “About a year ago, several colleagues and I conducted a study of the first year of LCFF implementation. We interviewed union leaders in the districts we visited and found that the union was almost never involved in LCAP development. Sometimes the district didn’t think the union should play a role. At least as often, the union didn’t see a place for itself in the process.”

Yet, the LCFF/LCAP statutes specify that unions need to be offered an opportunity to discuss the school district budget and the accountability metrics districts will use. This is not traditional collective bargaining. LCFF/LCAP essentially create a new table with chairs for parents and citizens as well as the union.

Thinking Smart About Money

Although its implementation is still shaky, local control financing and accountability offers the opportunity to make schools and districts smarter about how they spend money, to explicitly connect money and expected outcomes. For example, reducing class sizes is very popular. Teachers like it. Parents think it’s a great idea. But a substantial reduction in class size is extremely expensive. The LCFF process invites comparing alternatives: would the same money be better spent on professional development or on an after-school tutoring program?

In the San Juan school district in Carmichael, teachers and administrators agreed to prioritize student social and emotional issues that were interfering with learning. “In the LCFF discussions, we were able to make the case that adding counselors and nurses was a necessity, both to successfully educate students with stress and mental health issues and to offer integrated services to college bound students,” says Tom Alves, executive director of the San Juan Teachers Association.

Another budget decision was to build prototypes of learning resource teams that combine several specialists, such as experienced teachers, counselors, nurses and speech therapists, to create integrated approaches to a student’s learning problems.

Bread, Butter, and Educating

Alves connects the union’s activism in educational issues with traditional collective bargaining: “You have to deliver on bread and butter issues in order to capture the membership’s interest in professional items,” he says. As the union’s web site illustrates, it is still in protracted contract negotiation. The union tries to codify labor-management working committees in the union contract: a standards and assessments committee, for example.

Successful union operation in the LCFF/LCAP arena calls on traditional organizing skills. It’s necessary to convince people that if they get together they can do something about issues they care about. For teachers (and the same is true for parent organizing) building a sense of Sí se Puede is fundamental.

“We had tough discussions,” said Ray Gaer, president of the ABC Federation of Teachers. Even though teachers had long discussed a broad scope of issues with the administration, “we were still dealing with a culture of mistrust, a carryover [from the past].” “Some teachers were cynical, believing that their voice would not make any difference; some were upset that they didn’t get everything they asked for.”

Tough discussions? Yes, even in ABC, the Los Angeles County district that has long been known for a problem solving relationship with the ABC Teachers Federation that’s been shown to benefit students. “Having a collaborative relationship already helped us [with the LCFF negotiations because] there was a certain level of trust, says Superintendent Mary Sieu.

ABC used its LCFF budgeting process to fund mental health and social workers. And it is piloting an alternative to its suspension program in eight of the 30 district schools.

It did this after looking at the data that showed African American students were being suspended at three times the rate of others. Working on this social justice and equity issue also addressed teacher concerns. “It was a teacher worklife issue,” said Gaer. “Being able to manage and help students with emotional problems far outweighs providing blackboards and other stuff to classrooms.”

“I can’t imagine what it [LCFF/LCAP discussions] would be like for a district that didn’t have a good prior working relationship,” said Sieu.

A Call For Union Organizing

And that’s precisely the problem in occupying the new labor relations frontier represented by California’s new finance and accountability laws. These new laws call on the unions to invest in organizing: teaching their own staffs and local union leaders to understand the new processes. Then the core skills of organizing click in: articulating ideas and demands, creating coalitions with parents and other interests, and understanding when and how to compromise in search of agreement.

Applying these old skills to the new frontier of budgeting and accountability is what labor relations could and should look like in a Blue State.


Union president Randi Weingarten writes of the AFT’s Labor Day project to photos and IAmMyUnion signs from unionized workers around the country. The text of Weingarten’s email calls attention to a new Women’s Policy Research Center research brief says that women who are covered by a union contract earn $212 more a week.

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