Accountability Opinion

Unions Need A Periscope To See Dangers over the Horizon

By Charles Taylor Kerchner — February 17, 2015 5 min read
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Let’s suppose you represented workers, and their work changed. What would you do?

Union leaders have faced this question for centuries, from the leaders of craft unions whose members faced a wave of industrialization to medical specialists whose work is being rationalized by technology. Historically, the story plays out the same.

In 1978, labor writer A. H. Raskin introduced readers of The Atlantic to Marguerite Bilodeau, a 70-year-old linotype operator, whose work had disappeared as the mechanical wonder she ran with great skill was replaced by the precursors to today’s word processing machines. “You’ll never publish the [New York] Times with automation,” she had said incorrectly. While the once-powerful typographer’s union provided her a lifetime income, it could not sustain her work or the union itself.

What to do when work changes is the elemental question that teacher unions face, not the tenure-limiting Vergara case or what to do about “toxic tests.” Earlier, I wrote about the 24-month window of policy opportunity that results from the re-election of Gov. Jerry Brown and State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson. I also wrote about the opportunity to develop concrete policies that marry deeper, more exciting and engaging teaching with an evaluation system that recognizes and reward that kind of teaching and learning. And I wrote about the opportunity to take care of everyday business—such as fixing the flaws in teacher due process—rather than allowing them to dominate the union political agenda. However, the biggest opportunity in the current political era is the chance to raise the organizational periscope and create better jobs for teachers and a strong teaching profession.

Lurking over the horizon, I see two huge dangerous, but potentially liberating forces:

  • First, there are computer networks that can teach or at least supply much of smartware for students to manage their own learning.
  • Second, there are organizational networks that challenge the traditional notion of a school or school district.

Applying networked computing power to teaching is much more than technological displacement, in union terms a substitution of capital for labor. Computer networks can change the learning production system, make possible a movement from batch processing to individualized teaching and learning.

Applying network logic to work organizations, profoundly challenges the existing division of labor and authority. Students get knowledge, information, and often direct instruction where they can. Assessments, tests, and recognition can be unbundled from traditional classrooms. Seat time, attendance, and even the conventional notion of a semester are open to question.

These changes threaten everything: the notion of a bargaining unit wrapped around a school district, seniority in assignment, exclusive rights to teach particular students, the standard salary schedule.

I know you are asking where’s the opportunity in this?

The good news is that the new technology and ways of organizing learning can produce better jobs for teachers, if teacher unions take a very small window of opportunity to organize around them.

For the last century, public education has been built around an orderly grouping of students and their somewhat forced march from preschool to high school. School systems adopted this model of teaching and learning because it was the most efficient knowledge manufacturing system available. The early 20th Century Administrative Progressives looked over their shoulders at Henry Ford and the remarkable advances in manufacturing productivity, and said, in effect, “we’ll take some of that.”

Now, we are rapidly gaining the capacity to individualize instruction. This is a good thing. We know that the best curriculum works for about 60 percent of the students, and if you are unlucky enough to be more than a standard deviation different than other learners, you have serious problems.

The substantive challenge for unions is getting technology to enhance teaching rather than dumbing it down. There is little doubt that there is a powerful pedagogy in computer games: gaming pedagogy to deeper learning and established standards.

The question is, “who does this”? Are they people with the job title “teacher”? Technology gives teachers the possibility of reclaiming the role of authors and developers, one lost long ago to the firms that package curriculum. It opens up the possibility of teacher collaboration on a scale not seen before.

When public school teachers organized along industrial union lines, it was management’s job to design the curriculum, set the standards, oversee performance, and rate teachers. Teachers bargained the conditions of their work, not the content.

While teachers gained protection from the arbitrary and capricious behavior of managers, the autonomy they got was individual, not collective.

But here’s the key: profession—like craft, or organized art—is not an individual decision. It is a collective characteristic, won in struggle and applied across an institution. The response to the problems of technology and the new governance—learning networks and organizational networks—lies in a struggle to organize outside of the prevailing industrial structure.

A little raising of the periscope took place last month at the American Labor at the Crossroads conference in Washington co-sponsored by the Albert Shanker Institute, the Sidney Hillman Foundation and the American Prospect.

American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten provided some provocative challenges. After noting that unions face a view that they are socially antique and a well-funded effort to break them, she said. The question is whether the labor infrastructure can adapt and adopt to meet the needs of a new generation. “This is on us...Not on our enemies...We must focus on what we should do.”

And then she added, “Quality can no longer be the province of management as it was under industrial unionism.”

In other words, organized teachers need to take charge of the content and execution of teaching. If we raise the periscope, we can see 21st Century teaching. The open question is whether it’s possible to see a 21st Century union.

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