Teaching Profession

National Principals’ Union Chases More Members

By Denisa R. Superville — September 10, 2019 6 min read
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A national union for principals is campaigning to increase its membership, drafting in part off the momentum created by the surge in educator activism over the past two years.

The American Federation of School Administrators, which has been a relatively low-key outfit, most recently added the local union that represents the San Diego school district’s principals, vice principals, as well as supervisors in charge of food, transportation, and police services.

The union’s efforts have involved cold-calling local principals’ groups and attending principal-focused conferences to get face time with school leaders and prospective members.

The union’s push is also a response to last year’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, which many saw as a blow to union membership.

The principals’ union has largely operated in the shadows of the two education labor juggernauts—the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association. Its membership—around 15,500 active members and 5,000 retirees—is dwarfed by that of the two teachers’ unions.

Less than a third of the nation’s 90,000 or so principals are represented under collective bargaining agreements. Most principals are part of professional associations that provide professional development and advocate for policies that affect principals. And in some states, principals do not have the right to collective bargaining.

Whether the push by AFSA will lead to big membership gains is yet to be seen. Membership has remained relatively stable over the past two years, according to the organization.

The union will have to convince principals, who may see themselves as “free agents” or “agents of the [district] administration” that joining a union would be beneficial.

“It’s always a cost-benefit analysis,” said Robert Anthony Bruno, a professor of labor and employment relations at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign."If you judge that you can see yourself properly as part of a collective organization and you believe that that organization can be effective, then your probability of joining goes up significantly.”

In addition to San Diego, with about 500 members, the much smaller administrators’ union in Nashua, N.H., with about 50 members, joined AFSA this year.

Scott Treibitz, a spokesman for AFSA, said the union has gotten an increase in calls expressing interest, including from places that aren’t traditionally union strongholds or where collective bargaining is banned.

The union’s effort to enter the charter school sector—last year it passed a resolution to kick off a program to go after charter school leaders—has not been successful so far. While there was some interest, no new members have come from the charter sector, Treibitz said.

The union set up a booth at the July conference of the National Association of Secondary Schools Principals in Boston.

“The first reaction [from principals] was ‘I didn’t know we could have a union,’ ” said Treibitz.

More Than Pay

Ernest Logan, the organization’s president and a former New York City principal, said that most principals who are interested in joining the union are motivated by more than pay. (Public school principals make an average of $98,000 annually, according to recent federal data.)

It’s also about the conditions in children’s lives, like housing, health care, jobs, and apprenticeship programs for students.

The union last year encouraged assistant principals and principals to run for local and statewide office and that will continue to be a focus this year. Its priorities also include school safety, funding for professional development for school leaders, and school leader training.

"[Principals] realize that they cannot meet the challenges that people are asking them to meet running schools without coming together and demanding resources across the board,” Logan said to explain why San Diego and other local unions have expressed interest in joining AFSA, which is affiliated with the AFL-CIO.

Donis Coronel, the executive director of the Administrators Association of San Diego City Schools, agreed.

“It’s not just about wages,” Coronel said. “It’s about work conditions, work-life balance, quality of life in general in terms of benefits, and always being guaranteed a voice at the table.”

Jon Shelton, an associate professor at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay who studies public sector unions, is not surprised that there would be a push to get some principals to unionize after the victories from teacher strikes.

Some of the same conditions and issues that drove teachers to walk out—including overall education funding—are also important to school leaders and would make their jobs easier.

Through their strikes and other activism, teachers were “able to shine a spotlight on the state of education in this country,” he said.

“You can imagine that a lot of principals also feel like there is a moment where more intentional and sustained action could very well lead to better conditions,” Shelton said. “I think there is a greater sense of what’s possible now after the teacher uprisings.”

But whether the national push gains any traction depends on local politics, he said. And principals’ unions could face the same criticisms that teachers’ unions do: that they protect poor performers.

There’s also the hurdle of overcoming a culture where principals, who are seen as supervisors, are not traditionally union members. State labor laws, which vary but are largely based on private sector labor laws and therefore bar supervisors like principals from collective bargaining, could also be major challenges, said Shelton and Bruno.

“For the most part in the United States, we have accepted the fact that [teachers] should be allowed to form unions and collectively bargain,” Shelton said. “But principals, as supervisors, they are seen as needing to kind of stay above the fray.”

Coronel said San Diego’s affiliation with the national union will save money and provide better benefits to members.

Liability Insurance

After the Supreme Court ruling in the Janus case, Coronel approached the San Diego union leadership about affiliating with the national union.

“I felt that our organization was [a] stand alone [entity] and we needed to be part of bigger organization that had national ties and ties with other administrators’ unions outside of California,” Coronel said. Being affiliated with the national union will give the local union a collective voice on the national level, access to a staff attorney and to discounted benefits like liability insurance, Coronel said.

The national union provides access to a $1 million professional liability policy for principals in the event that they get sued, Treibitz said.

“Those benefits are much greater than what we, as a 500-person union, could offer our members,” Coronel said.

The union was also required to have an insurance policy for the directors and officers, at about $20,000 a year, which AFSA will now provide. The cost of being part of the national union comes to less than $8 per member.

The union will cover that cost, Coronel said.

“It was affordable to us,” she said, “and the return on investments seems like it would be well worth it.”

A version of this article appeared in the September 11, 2019 edition of Education Week as National Principals’ Union Chases More Members


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