Teaching Profession

New-Style Teachers’ Union Resorts to Old-Style Tactics

By Jeff Archer — September 03, 1997 3 min read

Held up as a model of a progressive teachers’ union that stands for both school improvement and workers’ rights, the Columbus Education Association in Ohio appears caught in an old-fashioned labor-management dispute.

Frustrated by the pace of contract negotiations this summer, the 4,700-member CEA voted last week to implement immediately “work to the rule,” meaning teachers in the state capital will stop performing duties unspecified in their contract. As a result, the educators won’t be volunteering to attend after-school student activities or take part in optional orientation sessions, for example.

Although not calling for an immediate work stoppage, the rank and file also gave union leaders the green light to call a strike if further negotiations this month break down. In the meantime, they’ll begin informational picketing at school administration offices. This is the closest the union has come to a strike since 1975, when teachers staged a five-day walkout.

“It’s a tragedy that we’re in this circumstance,” CEA President John Grossman said.

More than seven months of negotiations have failed to yield an agreement between leaders of the National Education Association affiliate and officials of the 63,000-student district. The latest three-year contract expired in July.

Money Still Issue?

Although salary is on the table, leaders of the Columbus union say many of their demands are on issues related to school improvement. They’ve been pushing for a greater emphasis on remedial-reading programs in the early grades, smaller class sizes, and stricter enforcement of the student discipline code.

“To see us pursuing progressive things and not getting anywhere is frustrating,” Mr. Grossman said.

District officials want strict new policies on teacher absenteeism and an expansion of principals’ power to choose their teaching staffs.

The Columbus dispute comes as national teacher leaders are advocating a departure from the old industrial-style unionism in which locals concentrate almost exclusively on issues of job security, salaries, and working conditions.

EA President Bob Chase has praised the CEA as a union that has focused on school improvement through its peer-review practices.

Long before the national organization endorsed the idea this summer, the Columbus affiliate created a peer-review program that allows teachers to evaluate each other’s job performance.

Columbus district officials say the district’s demands also are intended to drive school improvement. And many of the initiatives the union is pushing would carry a hefty price tag, they say.

“Those have big dollar costs,” said Greg Scott, the district’s chief negotiator. “And that goes not just with staff, but with building space.”

The two sides will continue bargaining with the help of a federal mediator. If that effort fails, the union will again poll members before going on strike.

Under Ohio law, teachers must give 10 days’ notice before walking off the job.

Detroit Opens as Planned

Although Columbus is one of a handful of districts grumbling about a possible strike, the nation’s major districts appear to have begun the school year without any actual work stoppages.

Despite threats of a walkout, teachers in the 11,500-member Detroit Federation of Teachers voted last week to start school without a new contract. Leaders of the American Federation of Teachers local and school officials agreed to pursue binding arbitration to settle remaining differences.

Teachers in the 3,000-student Burrillville, R.I., district delayed the start of school last week, and teachers in the 2,300-student Massac County, Ill., district have been out since Aug. 20.

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