School & District Management Opinion

It’s True: Good Labor Relations Are Good for Kids

By Charles Taylor Kerchner — October 29, 2014 5 min read
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Last week, I sat in on part of the 16th annual labor-management retreat at the ABC Unified School District in a hotel just down the street from Disneyland. Labor relations may not actually make ABC the happiest workplace on earth, but these folks do have fun. The morning included skits with fake blood, space shot parodies, and a logo-creating contest: all of this to illustrate how the district and the ABC Federation of Teachers do serious business.

I have written their story scores of times: School district gets tired of fighting, pivotal leaders come in to try to create a productive relationship, and breakthrough operating arrangements are created. Historically, these relationships don’t last. We wrote about them years ago, but by the, A Union of Professionals, was published, about half the agreements we wrote about had come unraveled.

But the story in the 21,000-student ABC district is different. Its partnership is not a transitory era of good feeling between a superintendent and labor leader. The arrangement has lasted for more than a decade and a half. PAL, as it is called, has infused both the culture and the operations of ABC’s schools. It has existed long enough, and penetrated the schools so deeply, that the advantage of joint labor-management problem solving shows in student outcomes. (ABC includes the cities of Artesia, Cerritos, Hawaiian Gardens, and portions of Lakewood, Long Beach and Norwalk.)

Rutgers University professor Saul Rubinstein reported that, of the district’s 26 schools, those with stronger labor-management partnerships had statistically significant higher scores on the California Academic Progress Indicator. These persisted after student poverty was taken into account.

While partnerships should never be considered a valid response to student poverty, he noted, a good partnership contributed to student achievement about two-thirds as much as poverty took away.

Partnerships also contributed to more extensive communications among teachers and between teachers and administrators over topics that contribute to student achievement: including student performance data, curriculum development, and mentoring. (Rubinstein’s data are included in a report, written with John E. McCarthy and published by the Center for American Progress. Also see an earlier report on the partnership.)

Productive labor relations did not magically appear at ABC. Superintendent Mary Sieu, who has worked in ABC for 25 years, remembers the era of bad feeling before and after a strike in 1993. Seeking an end to the fighting, the school board dismissed the superintendent and sought another who could open up lines of communication with the union. PAL was created, and it has persisted through four superintendents since. And the union has weighed in heavily, with more than $400,000 from the American Federation of Teachers innovation fund. “Teachers are not the problem,” Sieu said in an interview, “they are the solution.”

The retreat was a day of real work. The labor bigwigs appeared the day before to offer support: Randi Weingarten, president of the AFT, Josh Pechthalt, president of the California Federation of Teachers, and Dean Vogel, president of the California Federation of Teachers. Last Thursday, however, teams from ABC district schools and with visiting teams from as far away as South Africa learned the craft skills of working together.

I came away with three lessons:

Cooperation is not the goal

First, what is called “cooperative labor relations” or “partnership” in ABC is not about cooperation; it’s about the politics of getting things. It’s not about the politics of protest or resistance--speech making, bullhorns, and protest tee shirts--it’s about confronting one another about things that matter. On Thursday, labor and management representatives discussed technology, the Common Core, and student discipline: all topics that are toxic in other districts.

Learn how to talk to each other

Second, the foundational craft skill is learning how to listen and how to talk effectively. In a session called “fierce conversations,” administrators, teachers, and classified workers sat at round tables learning how to talk about the differences between “official truths” at work and the reality in schools and classrooms.

For example, the official truth is that Common Core curriculum will be an advantage to all students and the testing system will bring 21st Century technology to the process of evaluation. But the much messier on-the-ground truth is that many teachers are not ready, implementation has gone too fast for them, and the necessary supports are not in place. The testing technology is still incomplete and the tests are not well matched to the way children develop, particularly at the early grades.

The farther the truth on the ground is from the official truth, the harder the conversation will be, and the more necessary. Often, official truth is an aspiration--all children can learn--rather than a capacity of the existing system.

Yes, this is real unionism

Third, the lesson answers the question: Is this real unionism?

ABC Federation of Teachers president Ray Gaer thinks it is. “People burn out on conflict,” he said. “People who work together are willing to keep at it to do a positive thing.”

Gaer sees a huge opening for problem solving unionism in California’s new Local Control Financing Formula, which moves budget and accountability discussions away from Sacramento and into school districts and communities. “It’s forcing unions to think about academics and programs: things that were not typically union,” he said. “It’s an opportunity for unions to grow.”

One of the things that Gaer’s union local has figured out is that fighting is expensive. It spends less, for example, on lawyers than other locals, and so does the school district, and they jointly spend more on professional development. In one workshop, former superintendent Gary Smuts was quoted saying, “We all have a fixed amount of energy. We can use that energy to push together or pull apart.”

Will these practices spread?

I left ABC rejoicing in what they have been able to accomplish, but I am also convinced that the politics of getting things done through labor-management partnerships won’t spread on their own accord. Efforts at what we’ve called professional unionism have been underway for a generation, and the union reform virus is not very contagious.

Unions will largely do what the law requires them to do: negotiate contracts, fulfill their statutory responsibility to represent teachers, grieve when the contract is violated, and raise a little hell, and there are certainly places that they need to.

Union activism began before a young Gov. Jerry Brown signed the California education collective bargaining law in 1975. But it spread only after there was a labor law.

If we want unions and managements to behave differently than the 1975 law requires, maybe we should ask ourselves what kind of a law would induce behaving differently.

(Photo captions, from top: Professor Saul Rubinstein, Superintendent Mary Sieu, ABC Federation President Ray Gaer. Photos by CTK)

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