Teaching Profession

Elections Give No Easy Fix on Union Course

By Bess Keller — March 15, 2005 4 min read
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When longtime Los Angeles teachers’ union activist A.J. Duffy defeated incumbent President John Perez early this month, it was a first. In the 35-year history of United Teachers Los Angeles, no challenger had ever ousted a sitting president and his slate.

What’s more, Mr. Duffy and his group declared that they would take a more militant stance toward current contract negotiations, which have dragged on for more than 1½ years. And they have outlined an ambitious agenda for change, including more urgency in addressing teachers’ complaints about working conditions, closing the gaps in resources between schools, and going out front in the fight against the federal No Child Left Behind Act.


“People are tired, people are frustrated,” Mr. Duffy said last week. “They want a union that will stand up for them.”

Observers are mulling whether the defeats of Mr. Perez and of Deborah Lynch in Chicago, who was known nationally for promoting teachers’ involvement in school improvement, signal that the attempt to recast unions as partners in school progress is weakening.

The Los Angeles union, an affiliate of the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, is the nation’s second-largest local with 41,000 members. The AFT-affiliated Chicago union, with 33,000 members, ranks third.

Those who hold that perception also cite the ouster of reform-minded leaders over the past four years in the San Francisco, Hartford, Conn., and Cincinnati unions.

“There certainly are fewer progressive union leaders now than five years ago,” said Julia E. Koppich, a San Francisco-based consultant on teachers’ unions who once worked for the AFT.

Others, however, maintain that’s not the case.

Adam Urbanski, who heads the Teachers Union Reform Network—affiliates of the NEA and the AFT that want to restructure unions so they can promote changes leading to higher student achievement—as well as the Rochester Teachers Association, sees no trend, just ups and downs. He pointed to elections in the past few years that brought new leaders, but no major changes in direction, to the unions in Boston; Columbus, Ohio; and Montgomery County, Md.

Mr. Urbanski said it isn’t easy to meld advocacy for teachers with equal advocacy for students, the task of a new-style union. “But the risks of not trying are getting even greater,” he said.

Militant vs. Militant

Mr. Urbanski and others argue that it would be wrong to see the Los Angeles election as a marker on the way to the demise of what has been called “new unionism.”

John Perez, the incumbent UTLA president, who will leave office July 1, has been known as much for butting heads with Los Angeles Superintendent Roy Romer and engineering the defeat of two school board members who were at odds with the union as for sticking it out at the bargaining table without calling for labor actions.

And given the state of negotiations, several observers said, it was just good politics for Mr. Duffy to portray himself as more militant than Mr. Perez.


“That’s the only way you can win the election,” noted Mike Antonucci, a union critic and watchdog. “You can’t say you’ll be more accommodating; you have to say I’m going to fight for you.

“With union elections,” he added, “we tend to fall into the trap of thinking when an event happens, it’s because of a philosophical difference.”

Ruben Zepeda II, a Los Angeles social studies teacher who has worked in the district’s administration for two years, agrees that it was hard to pin down the reasons for Mr. Duffy’s victory. Still, he believes teacher dissatisfaction with the pace of contract talks and “the idea that change is coming at us too quickly” played an important role.

On the other hand, Mr. Zepeda said, the winner might have simply had the better organization for getting out a vote that totaled just over a quarter of the membership.

Fiscal Realities

Tom Mooney, the head of the Ohio Federation of Teachers, an AFT affiliate, said caution is advised in painting a big picture from a series of union elections. “There’s a story,” he said, “but it might not be simple.”

As an example, he cited the Cincinnati election that fell in the midst of a campaign to get local teachers to endorse a pay-for-performance plan that had been jointly crafted by union and school district leaders.

The conventional wisdom is that Rick Beck, the incumbent president of the 3,000-member Cincinnati Federation of Teachers, lost to Sue Taylor in 2001 because Mr. Beck had backed the pay plan and Ms. Taylor had criticized it. Teachers overwhelmingly defeated the plan in 2002.

But, according to Mr. Mooney, who preceded Mr. Beck in the post, “Sue Taylor was not the anti-reform candidate by any means when she unseated Rick Beck.” Rather, Mr. Beck took the fall for a flawed plan that district leaders refused to redesign until too late, Mr. Mooney argued.

He acknowledged, however, that the political and fiscal times pose challenges to union leaders bent on taking responsibility for school improvement.

With state budgets remaining tight, or even in crisis, choices about spending on teachers’ salaries or other needs become more difficult, for instance. Union leaders’ jobs, first and foremost, are to take care of their members’ needs, which usually translates into bread-and-butter issues.

On the political front, according to Mr. Mooney, union leaders must lead the charge for the best possible implementation of the No Child Left Behind law and contest many of its provisions.

Still, Mr. Mooney said, leaders who “washed their hands of reform” could expect defeat because teachers are deeply affected by changes mandated in the name of improvement and must help shape them if the changes are to work.

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A version of this article appeared in the March 16, 2005 edition of Education Week as Elections Give No Easy Fix on Union Course


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