Teaching Profession

Gen-Xers Apathetic About Union Label

By Julie Blair — January 30, 2002 16 min read
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The Chicago Teachers’ Union has spent the past 50 years helping shape educational policies and politics in the Windy City, but the organization has little meaning to Holly Kaye, a first-year educator who landed a job as a teacher-librarian in the nation’s third-largest school district.

“The union? I don’t even think I’m a member,” said the 20-something teacher, who, in fact, pays union dues in compliance with state law. “I’ve heard they are a good thing, but I don’t know much about them.”

Ms. Kaye, who hails from the labor stronghold of Detroit, has plenty of company.

Teachers between the ages of 25 and 39—often called Generation X by sociologists and cultural commentators—acknowledge they know little about organized labor, nor do many of them care to find out more. These younger educators, who are required to join unions by law in many states, typically don’t participate in the life of their teacher organizations and doubt they’ll ever take on leadership roles. They often dismiss such groups as irrelevant to their teaching practice and view them as averse to innovation.

What’s more, they express frustration with the internal politics of unions and the use of union resources to pay for causes they don’t support.

So pervasive is Gen X’s disenchantment, in fact, that leaders of the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers are aiming to overhaul the way they do business in an attempt to make their institutions more meaningful to younger teachers. Concerned officials of the nation’s two largest teachers’ unions and many of their affiliates want to ensure that enough of these young guns will be ready to lead some of the nation’s most influential political and educational players in the coming years of this new century.

“This is do-or-die for the unions—there is no choice,” said Adam Urbanski, the president of the 3,800-member Rochester Teachers Association, an AFT affiliate in New York. “The world around us is changing. Educators are coming in with different dispositions, different needs, and different requirements for their unions. Unions are increasingly taking proactive positions and restructuring their organizations and resources to meet the new demands.

“This is a major, major cultural change,” stressed Mr. Urbanski, a co-director of the Teacher Union Reform Network, a coalition of locals working to broaden the roles of their organizations.

Still, there is resistance within both the leadership ranks and the rank and file to a shift in emphasis, for fear that the unions will shortchange bread-and-butter issues.

But progressive leaders say they can fulfill both the traditional agenda and meet new needs. Doing so, they argue, is a matter of long-term survival.

Little Effect

Unions need crackerjacks like Raul Garcia.

At age 27, the Harvard-educated teacher has already served as a school leader—he worked as an assistant principal for a time before returning to teaching—yet he has no interest in playing such a role for the Boston Teachers’ Union, an affiliate of the AFT, at this time.

“I’m not an active participant,” said Mr. Garcia, who teaches humanities and writing at the Boston Arts Academy, a public high school. “I’m not interested in the issues. If I’m going to spend time outside of my classroom, I’d like to develop my practice.

“I don’t think I need a union,” he said, noting that teachers have a voice in governing the school. “I really trust and believe in the [school] leaders here. If I did have a really serious issue, we’d deal with it. I know my interests are being looked out for.”

Mark Healey, a high school chemistry teacher in Needham, Mass., feels much the same way.

“It took me a year to join,” the 27-year-old said. “I was overwhelmed with work and planning for school my first year, and I couldn’t even think about it until I got settled.”

Now a member of the Needham Education Association, an NEA affiliate, Mr. Healey said he appreciates the liability-insurance coverage it provides, but adds that much of the union’s work “doesn’t seem like it will affect me.”

Other young educators complain that teachers’ organizations are too concerned with matters unrelated to education.

Ashley Y. Washam, 30, said she went so far as to quit teaching in the Little Rock, Ark., school system because she felt, in part, that the union inhibited learning.

Ms. Washam claimed she was harassed throughout her three-year tenure to become a union member. “They would come into my classroom when I was in the middle of teaching and interrupt me,” said Ms. Washam, a former special education teacher.

In addition, she said she saw firsthand that teachers frequently substituted movies for instruction, while others left their classrooms unattended during the school day. When she notified administrators of the incidents, Ms. Washam said, little appeared to be done. She surmised that the union was able to block punishments.

“Unions basically protect the teachers not doing a good job,” charged Ms. Washam, now an educational therapist for a private treatment facility.

Clementine Farr Kelley, the president of the 2,000-member Little Rock Classroom Teachers’ Association, an affiliate of the NEA, denied that her union recruits members during classroom time. Nor does it have the power to intervene in the evaluation of educators, she added.

Teachers’ unions are also perceived by some Gen Xers as pushing a liberal political agenda with which they disagree.

“I don’t hold the same beliefs or moral standards of the people that are in charge of lobbying in [Washington] D.C. for the unions,” said Tammy M. Jones, a 34-year-old 4th grade teacher from Huntsville, Ala. “When I was a member of a well-known union, I was upset to know my hard- earned money was going to a campaign fund of someone I had no intention of supporting. After that election year, I withdrew.”

She’s now a member of the Alabama Conference of Educators, an independent professional organization.

‘I Can Go Elsewhere’

Even those educators who consider unions to be vital cite internal politics as a hindrance to recruiting and retaining young members.

“The generation gap is so real,” said Christie A. Morrison, a future middle school teacher who is on leave from Michigan State University to serve as a chairwoman for the NEA’s student program. At a conference in Michigan not long ago, she recalled, a midcareer teacher approached her and said, “ ‘You need to fight these battles; you need to appreciate it,’ blah, blah, blah. But it’s like, ‘No, if you can’t provide for my needs, I can go elsewhere.’ ”

Ms. Morrison’s role is not only to bring the younger generation’s perspective to the NEA’s Washington headquarters, but to build up the little-known 20-year-old program for college students.

Student members at colleges and universities nationwide currently number 51,000—only about 5 percent of the potential population, Ms. Morrison said. Not only can the program provide needed services to those future teachers, she said, but it also can help secure the loyalty of tomorrow’s rank and file.

Forgotten Sacrifices

Not all that long ago, union loyalty was largely a matter of course for many Americans. During the 1960s and 1970s—when the Generation X teachers were born—educators in many parts of the country did not question signing on with the unions. They were a part of daily life for many families and were perceived as valued partners that helped common folks win the right to fair wages and better working conditions, says Wayne J. Urban, a professor of history and educational policy studies at Georgia State University in Atlanta.

During that era of rising labor activism in public education, teachers put their jobs on the line to support their unions’ positions. Occasionally, they were sent to jail; some were beaten by police—all in the name of improving their lot in the workplace.

“Young people don’t understand the reasons for unions,” said Richard M. Ingersoll, a University of Georgia sociologist who studies teachers’ unions. “People take for granted their structure ... and the fact that they need those basic protections.”

By the 1980s, however, the nation had become more conservative and much of the public saw unions as a hindrance to individual initiative, Mr. Urban says.

Fewer Americans joined the labor movement. The proportion of the workforce belonging to unions fell from a high of 50 percent in the early 1940s to 12 percent to 15 today, according to Tom Loveless, the director of the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank.

A majority of the current crop of union members nationally are government employees, including, of course, public school teachers. Data from the NEA and the AFT indicate that the ranks of the two biggest teachers’ unions continue to grow, in part because they have guaranteed membership in the 22 collective bargaining states. In Michigan, New Jersey, and Washington state, for example, unions represent all teachers in labor negotiations.

The NEA reports 2.6 million members, up from 2.2 million in 1996. About 85 percent are precollegiate teachers. Meanwhile, the AFT claims 1.2 million members, an increase from 907,000 five years ago. About 65 percent of its members are K-12 educators. The two unions also represent other K-12 school personnel, college and governmental employees, and health-care employees. Officials at both unions say that growth is even among all membership segments.

In both unions, though, there are far fewer Generation X teachers than those of other age groups, according to a survey of teachers nationwide conducted by the NEA.

In 1996—the latest year for which data are available—68.1 percent of the nation’s teachers younger than 30 belonged to the NEA, while 70 percent of those between the ages of 30 and 39 were members. In contrast, nearly 75 percent of educators older than 40 belonged.

The AFT’s member profile is similar. That same year, 11.9 percent of all teachers under 30 were members, while 13.4 percent of those between the ages of 30 and 39 participated. Nearly 13 percent of educators between the ages of 40 and 49 belonged, as did 18.4 percent of those 50 or older.

Change in Focus

Part of the problem, some observers contend, is that the unions have gotten lazy.

Nearly half the states mandate that teachers join unions, assuring both membership and dues. But those organizations that don’t work hard to meet the needs of newer members often find an apathetic rank and file that doesn’t participate in meetings or show up to cast votes. And because those members lack respect for the unions, observers say, they never consider investing their time and energy in leadership positions.

“The union has not done a very good job of passing the mission down to the next generation,” said Bruce S. Cooper, a professor of education at the graduate school of education at Fordham University in New York City. New educators “don’t understand the ideology.” he said. “They don’t understand the larger political agenda because they’re not part of it.”

Many union leaders are now taking such issues seriously.

Progressive local and state unions are focusing on what they call “teaching and learning issues"—curriculum development, professional development, and standards-based reform—and are incorporating them into collective bargaining sessions along with salary and benefits demands. Furthermore, they see their organizations as working in partnership with district administrators, rather than against them.

All of this, they say, is not only for the benefit of teachers. It also improves the lives of the children they teach.

Such organizations are also building loyalty among younger teachers by involving them in the culture of the union early in their careers.

“I was in the system five years ago, and the outlook then was that [the union] was an old boys’ network. It’s not like that anymore,” said Mary E. Vaccaro, a 29-year-old kindergarten teacher who was recently elected to the executive board of the United Federation of Teachers, the AFT affiliate in New York City. “Anyone who wants a place in the union can have a voice now. When you say something, it means something.”

The Minneapolis Federation of Teachers is considered a pioneer in changing its culture. For the past 15 years, it has been focusing as much on teaching and learning issues as it has salary and benefits. For example, the AFT local partnered with the school district to start a mentoring program, a master’s degree program, and online professional development.

Union officials in Montgomery County, Md., have made similar changes. Recent polls conducted by the NEA affiliate there found that young educators want their union to expand its role beyond bargaining, according to Mark Simon, the president of the teachers’ union in the suburban district.

The Montgomery County Education Association responded by modifying its governance structure. It added 75 additional teachers to the leadership ranks to represent the many disciplines and grade levels taught. They will run councils on teaching and learning and will be made responsible for communicating with their constituencies and meeting monthly with district administrators.

The union also joined with the district to develop a new teacher-mentoring program, establish a system of peer review, and offer an eight-part course for beginning teachers called Landing on Your Feet.

Evidence that teachers want their unions to take more of an interest in instructional matters came to the fore last summer, when the 33,500-member Chicago Teachers’ Union ousted its longtime leaders in favor of ones who promised to seek a “true partnership” with the district administration and to address teaching and learning issues. (“Challenger Topples Chicago Teachers Union President,” June 6, 2001.) “We definitely have a big commitment to all the constituencies in our union, and that includes a particular interest in new teachers,” said Deborah Lynch, the new president of the AFT affiliate. “We know that getting teachers into the system and keeping them is really important. We’re all aware of the [high] attrition rates.”

Sparking Interest

The 43,000-member Oregon Education Association is pushing its student-membership program in an attempt to initiate new talent into the unions even before aspiring teachers embark on their first jobs. Leaders of the NEA affiliate are offering to waive the $16 annual student-membership fee until June in the hope of enticing prospective educators to join. Future teachers receive all the benefits of the organization, including the liability insurance needed as a precursor to student teaching.

About 150 students have joined three campus chapters—numbers the union hopes to increase significantly within the next several years.

“We are offering workshops to those interested, on everything from classroom management—a big interest—to how to interview,” said Courtney Vanderstek, the OEA’s assistant executive director. “They come into the profession understanding what the organization can provide for them and feeling some commitment.”

The Oregon association, along with NEA affiliates in Alaska, California, Idaho, Hawaii, and Montana, is following the Washington Education Association’s lead by initiating the “Sparks” program.

Three years ago, union officials in Washington state began plucking new teachers from the membership rolls and sending them on union-sponsored retreats with the goal of giving them opportunities to reflect on their teaching experiences and meet other educators, said Rich Wood, a spokesman for the union.

Today, there is still no set agenda for the retreats, and each group of 20 or so participants— many of whom are minority educators—decide together on discussion topics. Between conversations on standards-based reform or parent-teacher conferences, they play rounds of putt-putt golf, bowl, perform skits, or nosh on Mexican cuisine.

A natural fraternity is formed, and bonds between teachers who were on retreat together often remain strong, Mr. Wood said.

So far, more than 400 WEA members have participated, with unexpected results. “Though it was not necessarily designed at the forefront to be a leadership program, we’re able to build strong connections with these members and make the union relevant to them,” Mr. Wood said. “Many have gone on to our regional Uniserve council or organize in the field at the local level.”

Such councils implement union policies at the local and state levels.

The Sparks program is successful because it allows new members to create their own union experience, according to Mr. Wood. No hierarchy or belief system is imposed—the effort is about teachers helping one another through issues.

“You can’t say, ‘This is your union, and we need you to do this because you’re a part of the group,’” Mr. Wood said. “It doesn’t work in today’s world.”

Outsiders are also supporting unions’ efforts to foster young leaders. The Los Angeles-based Broad Foundation gave the NEA a $15,000 planning grant last year to set up a fellowship program to build union leadership.

“This is an issue that will have to be addressed within the next five to 10 years by every teachers’ union,” said Dan Katzir, the director of program development for the foundation, which also helps support Education Week‘s coverage of such issues. “This is an industry in transition and a membership base in transition. There is a large population aging out of teaching ... and a much higher degree of turnover in your entering membership.”

But not everyone is ready for change.

Veteran educator Bill Harshbarger, a union officer in the 240-member Mattoon Education Association, an NEA affiliate in Illinois, argues that the unions are moving in the wrong direction. He worries the new agenda will supersede more traditional issues.

“Union leaders apparently hope that in redefining the union, it won’t appear to be an obstacle, [and instead] will be welcome at the decisionmaking table among policymakers,” the high school history teacher said. “Instead of fighting for members’ concerns about wages, hours, and working conditions, they collaborate with reformers on quality, professional development, and improvement of schools.”

Such efforts are expensive, he notes, and potential salary gains may be sacrificed to afford such services. Others say that although their members support the new philosophy, the unions don’t have the financial means or political capital to nurture it the way they’d like.

Members of the 6,300-member Albuquerque Teachers Federation, an AFT affiliate, are actively working to address the needs of Gen-Xers, but because New Mexico’s teachers are underpaid and work in poor conditions, the union is compelled to devote much of its efforts to those concerns, said union President Ellen Bernstein.


Ultimately, Ms. Bernstein and other state and national leaders say, it will be up to the local affiliates to do what it takes to energize their rank-and-file members.

Other critics say Gen- Xers would be wise to find a way around unions altogether.

The NEA and the AFT hold monopolies on American education—including its workforce, said Leo Troy, a professor of economics at the Newark, N.J., campus of Rutgers University.

“They affect not only how things are taught ... but also how much time is devoted to teaching,” Mr. Troy said. “A free market would allow Gen- Xers to demonstrate what they can produce. If they can’t, they won’t stay on.”

In the meantime, Ms. Kaye, the teacher-librarian from Chicago, remains unsure about her status as a member of her teachers’ union, and is too busy learning her new job to take time to figure it out.

“There are so many [paycheck] deductions,” she said, “you’re never really quite sure what they’re for.”

Coverage of leadership issues in education—including governance, management, and labor relations—is supported by the Broad Foundation.

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A version of this article appeared in the January 30, 2002 edition of Education Week as Gen-Xers Apathetic About Union Label


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