Teaching Profession

A Different Kind of Union

By Jeff Archer — October 29, 1997 17 min read

As a tram pulls four cartloads of visitors from the National Education Association through the three cavernous plants of the Saturn car company here, what interests them most isn’t the team of robot arms synchronized to spot-weld car chassis, the modern foundry that turns foam shapes into engine parts, or the fact that an auto maker markets a line of apparel at its own gift shop.

It is the auto workers themselves, who so often smile and wave as the tram rolls by. Describing the tensionless environment as almost “surreal,” one NEA visitor asks if the car makers were told to look friendly during such visits. “When you tour the plant, it’s almost like everyone is in nirvana,” NEA President Bob Chase says later.

Maybe it’s not quite nirvana, but it symbolizes the kind of environment Chase wants his union to promote. Since taking the reins last fall, he’s been promoting a “new unionism” based on the idea that teachers should work as co-managers in their schools, with greater authority and a greater stake in their schools’ success. The Saturn Corp. pulled this off through a partnership between the United Auto Workers Local 1853 and Saturn management that gives union members a say at every level of decisionmaking. Chase wants to see firsthand what such a collaboration has meant to union members.

The visit to Saturn by a teachers’ union is not unprecedented. Delegations from both the NEA and the American Federation of Teachers have toured the fabled Spring Hill plant before. But this is the first time that the head of the country’s largest labor union has sought a close-up look at how the innovative car company operates. Along with the NEA’s top twoelected officers, the 28-person group includes members of the NEA collective bargaining staff, its executive committee, and representatives of state and local affiliates.

Given Chase’s pledge to reinvent the 2.3 million-member union, the field trip provides a glimpse into how new unionism can manifest itself. It also reveals the questions raised when a union seeks to change both the way it advocates for its members and what it advocates for. Skeptics could fill a book with all the differences between making a car and educating a student, and some doubters were among the NEA’s entourage. But Chase is still banking on Saturn’s providing some creative inspiration.

“We can’t just continue to do things the same way and think it’ll work,” he says on a bus ride across Saturn’s sprawling acres in the rolling farmland south of Nashville. “It won’t.”

The visit begins at the union hall of Local 1853, an immaculate building outfitted with a swimming pool, modern fitness equipment, and an indoor track. With a Saturn logo on his shirt and a twang in his voice, former local vice president Jack O’Toole tells the NEA folks: “I’m gonna talk to you about partnership.”

As its motto says, Saturn is “A Different Kind of Car Company.” Saturn threw out much of the conventional wisdom about manufacturing and marketing cars in an effort to compete with Japan. And so far, it appears to have exceeded all expectations. In the seven years since the first vehicle rolled off the assembly line, independent surveys of customer satisfaction rank Saturns--which sell for around $12,000--up with the luxury cars produced by Audi, Mercedes, and Infiniti. Its competitiveness at home proved, Saturn this year began selling cars in Japan.

But Saturn, a car company where the workers punch no time clocks, also represents a different kind of relationship between management and labor. By sitting on the company’s highest decisionmaking body, the Strategic Action Council, union members help decide whether the company will introduce a new model, what the cars will sell for, and who can retail them. On the plant floor, teams of union members elect their own leaders rather than work under a nonunion supervisor. The two partners have even invented some positions that are filled by personnel jointly selected by management and the union. As the visitors from the NEA found, it’s often hard to tell who is who.

All this, the NEA visitors are told, was made possible because the UAW local and Saturn management don’t see themselves as adversaries.

It was an innovation born of necessity.

In the early 1980s, American workers were shouldering much of the blame for the auto industry’s troubles competing with Japanese imports, especially in the small-car market. At General Motors--the nation’s largest corporation--the declining market share produced huge losses and layoffs. Popular opinion held that U.S. workers were inefficient, ill-trained, and little concerned with the quality of their products. Their unions were seen as inflexible and outmoded, holding back the industry. The Japanese car companies that were winning the quality war were not unionized.

It was in this climate that a committee of 55 UAW members and 44 GM managers convened in 1983 to see how they could build a high-quality American car in a company that ensured job security. The group traveled the globe studying not just the manufacturing techniques of other companies, but their governance. The resulting reports inspired GM’s Saturn project, named after the rocket that helped the United States win the race to the moon against the Soviet Union. Chairman Roger Smith committed about $2 billion to make the car company a reality.

Today, America’s schools feel many of the same pressures that squeezed Detroit in the early 1980s. Instead of Japan, they face a growing myriad of alternatives to one-size-fits-all public schools, including charter schools, privately managed schools, and the rapid increase in the number of parents who home school their children. The push for vouchers continues. And perhaps more significant is the perception of customer dissatisfaction underlying these options. As with the car industry, teachers’ unions are seen as hampering, rather than driving, needed school improvements. Earlier this year, an NEA-commissioned study titled “An Institution at Risk” reported that “the NEA is now painted as the number-one obstacle to better public schools.”

New unionism is both an answer to such critics and an attempt to revitalize the massive union.

Asked if he thinks public education now finds itself where the auto industry once was, Chase says, “I’m not sure we’re there yet, but if we’re not careful, we will be soon.”

Chase knows that not every one of Saturn’s programs can be imitated in public education. Indeed, he avoids defining new unionism too narrowly. “If we define it,” he says, “then we will have put ourselves in another box.” Instead, he talks about a change in attitude in which union members who once saw the central office as an adversary can work in collaboration with administrators for the sake of school improvement.

“It’s not in any way bashing what we’ve done--not that we’re repudiating our history at all,” he says. “None of this says we don’t still negotiate contracts, that we don’t concern ourselves with wages, hours, and working conditions.”

But he also adds, “We’ve got to be willing to accept our responsibility and not brush all of them off as the problems of others.”

Such statements have earned Chase ample derision from labor’s longtime critics and skepticism from traditionalists within the NEA who believe their union should worry exclusively about bread-and-butter issues. Chase estimates that 70 percent of the NEA membership supports his general call for new unionism.

The first official move in this new direction came last summer, when union delegates approved a measure giving the green light to affiliates that want to explore peer-review programs. The vote in favor of such efforts, which pair seasoned teachers with those new to the profession or having trouble on the job, came only after lengthy debate. Previously, the organization had officially opposed allowing teachers to evaluate each other. Peer review, Chase says, is only one possible manifestation of new unionism.

More may be found in the operations of the risk-taking Saturn Corp.

In contrast to most teaching contracts, which can run well over 100 pages, Saturn’s labor agreement is a slim pamphlet of 33 pages that can easily fit in a hip pocket.

The document includes little more than the company’s mission and philosophy, a description of work teams, and a listing of health and retirement benefits. Under working hours, all the contract says is that “to fulfill the objectives of the Saturn philosophy and mission, it will be necessary to have flexible hours of work that meet the needs of the individual as well as Saturn.”

Missing altogether is the standard “management-rights clause,” which in traditional contracts essentially gives management authority to make unilateral decisions on any issue not mentioned in the agreement. The clause generally encourages labor negotiators to defend themselves by building thick contracts that leave few issues to chance.

In the Saturn agreement, issues such as discipline are addressed with brevity and with some unusual features.

Union members and managers share responsibility for dealing with infractions, which often are first pointed out by an employee’s own team members. Saturn and the UAW have defined a three-step “consultation process” in which workers go from an “amber zone” to a “red zone” before being sent home--with pay--to consider whether they still want to work at Saturn. Only after that point do management and labor generally assume their more traditional roles--in which labor files a grievance and management pursues dismissal.

"[At other plants] it was absolutely, traditionally taboo to have a team member come up and say, ‘Gee, you’re drinking on the job or doing something that’s going to affect all of us,’” says Mike Herron, a union member who helps coordinate an entire plant. “It was just not done.”

Hearing all this, a few NEA representatives raised eyebrows at some of Saturn’s terminology: The discipline process was referred to as “behavior modification,” which began when someone exhibited “un-Saturn-like behavior.” But some of the teachers’ union members saw the potential for at least general applications of Saturn’s work-team model to schools, which many said are still structured to isolate teachers from each other.

“At Saturn, if someone doesn’t show up for work, management doesn’t have to discipline that person; his co-workers say, ‘Where the heck were you? You let us down,’” observes Lily Eskelsen, an NEA executive committee member and elementary school teacher in Utah’s Granite school district. “In a school there’s no incentive for me to sit down with a teacher and say that. Couldn’t we revamp the relations within the school so I would have an incentive to sit down with that teacher, where I would take responsibility for that myself?”

Saturn’s unusual system of financial incentives--called the Risk and Reward program--also drew a mix of interest and apprehension from the NEA delegation. All Saturn employees are awarded annual bonuses of $12,500 based on the company’s overall profits, whether it meets production schedules, and the cars’ quality ratings from external audits. Since the program was instituted in 1992, the company’s more than 9,000 employees have received awards for all but two quarters. Once, they were penalized when a strike at one of their suppliers held back their production. Last year alone, Saturn handed out some $90 million in bonuses.

But there’s also a downside. Twelve percent of each employee’s wages is withheld each quarter. If employees fail to complete their required amount of training, meet high standards of quality, or demonstrate the ability to work in teams, then all employees lose some part of the withheld funds. Saturn says that since 1992, the typical Saturn employee has lost less than $50.

Although more school districts are examining pay-for-performance programs as a way to reward good teachers, many of the NEA members viewed Saturn’s Risk and Renewal program with caution.

“I don’t think we’d ever be able to get away with withholding pay,” says Barry Gilbert, the assistant executive director of the Milwaukee Teachers Education Association. “But I thought it was an interesting way of providing an incentive for the whole organization.”

The MTEA was one of four Wisconsin affiliates that earlier this year signed a letter sent to Chase opposing elements of his call for new unionism, comparing it to the practice of appeasement used with Nazi Germany in the 1930s.

During the Saturn tour, many of the NEA visitors argued that higher performance doesn’t easily translate into more money for schools. Plus, many felt quality is easier to measure in a car company than in education. “How are we going to measure quality?” Eskelsen asks. “If we don’t define it, it’s going to be a NAEP score or an SAT score, and we know that’s too narrow.”

At Saturn, many said, the workers are held accountable for outcomes they have direct control over. In a telling question, Philip Rumore, the president of the Buffalo (N.Y.) Teachers Federation, asked a Saturn employee what the company would do if the parts from one of its suppliers varied widely in their quality. Answer: Saturn would switch suppliers. Teachers, said many of the NEA members, have less control over the raw materials they work with. But many added more generally that public education should look at new procedures for both supporting and holding educators accountable.

“I liked the concept of experimenting and doing a trial-and-error approach toward improving quality, where you institute the stuff that works and throw out what doesn’t,” Gilbert says.

Chase showed great interest in Saturn’s professional-development efforts. Each year, Saturn requires all employees to go through at least 92 hours of job training, ranging from taking company-run courses to reading job-related books and materials. The auto workers regularly take time off to disassemble competitors’ cars to see how they’re built. In recent years, Saturn’s employees have, in total, racked up one-third more hours than required. Employees are further encouraged to design and lead their own programs.

“Their members are the ones developing those training programs,” Chase says. “We traditionally believe you have to bring someone in from the outside to do that.”

Chase isn’t visiting Saturn to find specific programs that can be exactly replicated in public education. He came to see how a whole company was built on trust and collaboration between labor and management. At Saturn, he says, he was encouraged to find that collaboration didn’t weaken the union, but rather empowered its members.

Donald Ephlin, the former UAW vice president who helped start Saturn, tells Chase: “We have not given up any of our legal responsibility to represent the workers here. But we have gained a lot.”

The union’s strategy for gaining new powers, Ephlin goes on to explain, was to present management with solutions--usually outside of the collective bargaining process--before it got blamed for the company’s problems. Traditionally, he says, union members waited and reacted to the actions of management.

“I ended up with more influence at General Motors than I ever imagined,” Ephlin says. “I didn’t get it by demanding it, but by infiltrating, by working on their problems.”

But even emulating the Saturn philosophy of partnership won’t be easy. Throughout the two-day visit, many of the NEA local and state representatives voiced a similar concern: Partnerships are easier to form in a private company like Saturn, where there are only two major constituencies--the workers and management. In addition to an elected school board, a local teachers’ union may face the city councils that control a district’s purse strings, parent groups, and superintendents with often short tenures. They’re also bound by mandates and funding levels set by state legislatures and, in some cases, court orders.

“Our problem is we have a couple school board members who are still living in the 1950s, who say we shouldn’t be doing cooperative learning, we should be teaching like we did 30 years ago,” says Roger Sharp, an NEA executive committee member who teaches in a suburban Indiana district. “When you have a political entity like a school board, you can have a problem.”

By contrast, Saturn was built from scratch in a “right to work” state, where the law prohibits requiring workers to join a union. Many of the company’s first hires were workers who were frustrated with or laid off from more traditional plants in Michigan. Although elements of the Saturn partnership are being tried throughout the parent company, Saturn’s union members still characterize the labor-management relationship at most other GM plants as adversarial.

“What they said at Saturn is that the whole thing revolves around trust,” says Gilbert of the Milwaukee teachers’ union. “That’s very difficult to introduce where there is an existing adversarial relationship. Historically, that describes our situation.”

Saturn officials themselves added that the partnership approach wasn’t for everyone. A few workers even returned to more traditionally organized plants after finding they couldn’t adjust to the lack of time clocks or the idea that they would be held responsible for the quality of not just their own work, but each other’s. Despite the smiles and waves they received on their tram ride, the NEA members were assured that not all current employees are entirely happy with the way Saturn is run. Chase says a worker told him: “It’s not paradise,but it’s good.”

Most of the visitors left Spring Hill believing Saturn offered valuable lessons for educators. “I think we’ve looked with suspicious eyes at business models for so long,” Eskelsen says. “I think we’ve missed some opportunities.”

The NEA, in fact, has formed a continuing relationship with Saturn. The two organizations have teamed up to create a partnership award to recognize districts that demonstrate significant collaboration between labor and management. Last July, the Columbus (Ohio) Education Association won one of the first six Saturn awards for its 12-year-old peer-review program. Once seen as the black sheep of the NEA family, the local affiliate is now showered with accolades. After Chase sang its praises this year, the local received more than 1,100 requests for information.

“What’s new about new unionism is Bob Chase and the NEA becoming leaders in the reform charge,” observes Charles Kerchner, an expert on education and labor at the Claremont Graduate School in California. “Before it was the function of maverick locals in the NEA and of maverick locals in the AFT. ... The people who were mavericks in the NEA and were shunned are now being held up as examples.”

Inside the NEA, Chase has convened a committee of staff members and elected officers to meet periodically to study new unionism and ways to support locals attempting new approaches. Chase says the NEA can play a leading role by providing affiliates with models, such as sample contract language for peer-review programs.

“What Bob is trying to do is to get more people in the building [the NEA’s Washington headquarters] to understand the breadth of what’s going on in the locals,” says John Grossman, the Columbus president and a member of the committee.

In addition to employees from the collective bargaining, legal, and other offices at the national headquarters, members of the new- unionism committee include: Roger Erskine, executive director of the Seattle Education Association; Linda Bacon, the president of the Pinellas County (Fla.) Classroom Teachers Association; Carolyn C. Dumaresq, the executive director of the Pennsylvania State Education Association; and Rumore of the Buffalo Teachers Federation.

Three weeks after Chase’s September visit, 51 staff members and managers of the NEA’s UniServ program, the union’s primary method of providing locals with bargaining expertise, toured Saturn. Chase also spoke at the UniServ representatives’ training sessions this year. “There was some resistance by some who would give the traditional arguments,” he says of their reaction to his agenda. “And then there were others that were ready to embrace it. But that’s to be expected.”

These key staff members, some observers say, could play a major role in promoting--or inhibiting--new unionism.

“If they think their work is basically chasing down grievances, then that work is going to crowd out everything else,” Kerchner says,"including inserting teachers in the fight for how to educate students.”

Externally, the bully pulpit is Chase’s primary tool for promoting new unionism. He continues to talk it up in speeches to state and local affiliates across the country.

“We certainly can’t dictate to our locals that they’re going to implement this new program,” says Sharp. “What we can give them are support and suggestions.”

Kerchner believes NEA members would do well to listen.

New unionism isn’t primarily about being “nice” to management. In their new book, United Mind Workers: Unions and Teaching in the Knowledge Society, Kerchner and two colleagues suggest that the unions will ultimately be empowered by using their clout to reform education, rather than by defending its current structure.

At Saturn, many of the line workers seemed to feel that they had already made that leap.

At one point during the visit, Reg Weaver, the NEA vice president, asked Saturn’s Mike Herron what he would regret most if he went back to a more traditionally organized plant. The auto worker held his hand at his chin: “Learning to only work from this point on down,” he said.

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