Teaching Profession Opinion

Déjà Vu or Something New? California Seeks Labor-Management Cooperation

By Charles Taylor Kerchner — May 13, 2015 5 min read
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A quarter century ago Julia Koppich and I synthesized the experience of labor relations radicals in A Union of Professionals, case studies of districts and unions that were trying to redefine teacher labor relations by moving from industrial unionism toward what we dubbed “professional unionism.” Late last week, I observed California districts and unions getting energized by some of the same possibilities.

Despite the obvious failure of professional unionism to become the norm over the last 25 years, I found myself excited about the possibilities for its reemergence in California. The primary reason for optimism that goes beyond hope, was the confluence of state leaders willing to take risks with their own membership to support changing labor relations.

More Than A Symbolic Gesture

State Superintendent Tom Torlakson, opened the California Labor Management Initiative symposium in San Diego on Friday. He spoke of the need to move past the negative energy that has enveloped other states’ interaction with teacher unions. The language of collaboration was more than a symbolic gesture. Torlakson has coined the phrase, The California Way to describe the differences between the state’s politics and those of Obama-Duncan brand of school reform. (A policy agenda using the framework is in draft form and will be made public within weeks.)

Is this serious? One of the ways I’ve learned whether public officials are invested in a project is whether they make more than a symbolic appearance at meetings devoted to those projects. Torlakson stayed. He stayed through the opening sessions, over night, and for the breakout sessions the following day.

The labor management initiative took a long time to develop. The idea of bringing unionists and school management together was one of the proposals from Torlakson’s transition team when he took office in 2011. It took four years of behind-the-scenes diplomacy to get the state’s education interest groups to the point that they would commit to working together. Those who undertook this work are tight-lipped about why the process was so lengthy.

All Together Now

But the major education organizations did appear at the same time and place. On the opening panel were Eric Heins, incoming president of the California Teachers Association, Joshua Pechthalt, President, California Federation of Teachers, Wes Smith, Executive Director, Association of California School Administrators, Jesús Holguín, President, California School Boards Association, and Jai Sookprasert, Assistant Director for Governmental Relations, California School Employees Association.

As one veteran school watcher said, “It doesn’t make any difference what they say; the optics (of everyone sitting together) are just wonderful.”

But the remarks were telling, too. Who would have guessed? Panelists talked a lot about money, how California’s education funding is inadequate, and what might be done about it. But they also turned to their organization’s capacity to move labor-management relations forward.

Heins said, “We have road maps to help get districts there. When you are collaborating, it does not mean loss of power; it means parity. Sometimes it involves political risks with members.”

Longstanding Partnershps

During the rest of the symposium, districts and unions told how they worked those risks and troubled times. The ABC labor partnership is well known, its 20 year history told by ‘On California,’ The Los Angeles Times, by researchers Saul Rubinstein and John McCarthy, and most recently by school superintendent Mary Sieu. Perhaps it’s best summed up in pure pragmatics, by ABC Federation of Teachers president Ray Gaer saying, “we don’t spend money on lawyers (fighting each other). We take that money and spend it on professional development. We think that solving problems is a better investment than fighting.”

San Juan Unified also has a story in which the union—not the school board and administration—has been the stable element. As Tom Alves, the veteran executive director of the San Juan Teacher’s Association said, “I’ve worked for 9 superintendents.” Years ago, San Juan was among the pioneers in teacher peer review in California, along with Poway Unified. Now, it is redesigning its whole teacher evaluation system around continuous growth and support for all teachers.

The symposium also underscored another truth about labor-management cooperation: it isn’t mostly about cooperation. It’s about creating a long-term relationship that can withstand disagreements and still solve problems. It is less about “making nice” than it is about learning how to have difficult conversations. It’s about the politics of getting things done.

Some of these conversations are just starting. As Pomona Teachers Association president Michael da Rosa said, “we really enjoyed positional bargaining, and we were good it.” The union in Pomona is in the early stages of establishing a working relationship about professional development and other topics, and that district is collaborating with Corona Norco and two other districts to form a regional partnership.

A Way Forward

The California Labor Management Initiative faces an uncertain future. But there is a path forward. The conference last weekend was oversubscribed. Shelly Masur, CEO of the CDE Foundation, thought that perhaps 20 district-union teams would apply; 100 did. The pent up demand will spill over into a second symposium in the fall if the funding and logistics can be worked out.

There are also two established labor-management workshops. Both the ABC partnership and the California Teacher Union Reform Network hold conferences where teams of union and administrator members are invited.

Finally, the CDE Foundation is beginning what it calls the California District Capacity Project, modeled after the long-running Massachusetts Education Partnership, whose members presented at the symposium.

Depending on your view of history, the long, careful diplomacy needed to bring about the labor-management symposium was either important groundwork or an indication that things are unlikely to change. While I can’t say that these new efforts will change labor relations, I can say the effort is worth it. There are no good alternatives.

Going Deeper

For more on professional unionism, see this summary of A Union of Professionals along with a table with professional unionism and industrial unionism compared.

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The opinions expressed in On California are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.