Teaching Profession Opinion

Negotiating What Matters Most

By Julia E. Koppich & Charles Taylor Kerchner — February 12, 2003 8 min read
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It is time to recast collective bargaining by changing the law governing labor relations in education.

It is time to recast collective bargaining by changing the law governing labor relations in education.

We are not yet entirely certain what a new law might look like. We do know that if, as a nation, we are serious about ensuring that all students reach high academic standards, education labor relations must be in tune with that goal.

We believe a new labor-relations system must:

  • Oblige union and management to assume joint custody of reform. Teachers’ unions and school district management must be bound by a common interest. Both must feel responsible, and be held responsible, for the outcomes of education improvement efforts.

  • Result in contracts in which improving student achievement is central. To make improving achievement a principal purpose of negotiated agreements, districts and unions should be obligated to agree on a set of measurable student-learning goals around which other elements of the contract are structured.

  • Remove all statutory restrictions on the topics of labor-management negotiations. If a primary purpose of labor- management agreements is improving student achievement, districts and unions must be free, indeed must be obliged, to discuss any and all subjects related to their common interest. Statutorily restricting the topics of discussion places artificial impediments in the way of education improvement.

The recommendation to change collective bargaining by altering its authorizing statute is not a conclusion we reach easily or take lightly. Those policymakers who would just as soon see collective bargaining disappear may take this suggestion as an invitation for open season on the rights teachers and their unions have long fought to establish. Moreover, what begins as the most modest tinkering with a statute, let alone a major overhaul, can, in the maelstrom of the legislative process, take a form never intended. Nevertheless, we are convinced that the risks are worth the potential rewards.

Fifteen years ago, when we began together to study teachers’ unions and education reform, we would not have imagined recommending a new education labor law. We believed then that, within the limits imposed by law, more educationally oriented labor-management agreements could emerge. But our work studying changes in the ways teachers’ unions work with districts, and districts with unions, as well as the experiences in the 1990s of many high profile district-union partnerships that have seen their most forward-thinking reform efforts crumble, have led us down a different path.

In 1989, a dozen California school districts and their teachers’ unions came together in the Trust Agreement Project. The goal was to develop written labor-management agreements outside the regular contract on certain topics—new forms of teacher evaluation and school-based decisionmaking, for example—that were not then the usual subjects of bargaining. Though difficult to achieve, productive agreements were struck.

From this project we learned that teachers’ unions and school district management were interested in taking on important teaching and learning issues, such as teacher peer review, school-based professional development, and placing teachers in schools and classrooms where they are most needed. When management and union are firmly committed to what each side views as a significant program, that program can be held harmless from the ravages of budget cutting. In addition, we found that union-management relationships established in the Trust Agreement Project had a tendency to “spill over” into regular contract negotiations. With both parties having worked cooperatively through difficult issues in one venue, the traditional negotiations arena was changed as well.

The Trust Agreement Project led us to four beliefs about collective bargaining as a force for education improvement:

  • Adversarial bargaining need not forever be the labor-relations norm. Labor and management can and will cooperate on issues of educational substance and import.
  • The product of true labor-management cooperation is not civility; it is educational improvement. Collaboration is not an end in itself. Labor-management collaboration is successful when it produces agreements that make education better.
Labor-management collaboration is successful when it produces agreements that make education better.

  • “Bread and butter” issues of wages, hours, and working conditions, recognized by state collective bargaining statutes as the legal scope of negotiations, reflect only a portion of union and management’s mutual interests. Both sides are desirous of meeting a broad array of education policy challenges that extend well beyond those the law specifies.
  • Not all labor-management agreements have much substance or staying power. Some fade away in difficult times, and too many are dependent on the personal relationship between union president and school superintendent.

Our thinking was expanded by analyzing national models in unions and districts that were rethinking labor-management relations in the context of education reform. During the 1990s, a number of districts and unions were achieving agreements on issues ranging from decentralizing authority and revamping professional development and teacher evaluation, to implementing joint union- management operation of budget and accountability systems.

Labor and management in a number of urban districts, among them Pittsburgh; Cincinnati; Rochester, N.Y.; Miami; and Chicago, were together shattering commonly held views about the respective roles and responsibilities of labor and management. Moreover, they were using the contract as the means to do so.

We thought we were witnessing the glimmerings of a new kind of teacher unionism. We gave it a name—professional unionism.

Professional unionism is fundamentally different from classic teacher unionism. Industrial-style teacher unionism emphasizes the separateness of “union work” and “management work,” thrives on adversarial union-management relationships, and focuses on protecting the rights of individual teachers. Professional unionism blurs the line between labor and management, recognizes labor and management’s interdependence, and emphasizes the protection of teaching as well as teachers.

It turned out that we were overly optimistic. In the districts we visited, teachers’ unions and school management were working together to tackle important educational issues. But these districts and their unions were not rewriting the text on education labor relations. They represented—and still represent—a bare handful of school districts nationwide. We saw little evidence of a halo effect. Professional unionism seemed to be spreading neither very far nor very fast. Sometimes the reverse seemed to be true. As education reform focused increasingly on test-score accountability, many unions hunkered down and management became ever more protective of its turf.

A new labor-relations statute is in order not because history was wrong, but because history is just that.

Moreover, cracks began to appear in the armor of the districts we had studied. Union-management relationships often were personality-dependent. A bold superintendent who saw the union as ally rather than enemy and a savvy union leader could accomplish important educational goals. But superintendents came and went, often too quickly.

Unions have struggled with their own problems. A number of progressive union leaders have found themselves facing electoral opposition from challengers who want to return the union to the old ways.

In addition, civic coalitions, which provided much of the context for new union-management relationships and the agreements they spawned, became frustrated when student-achievement results were not quickly forthcoming. Many backed away from the reformers they had so eagerly supported, or broke apart entirely.

Realizing that change was possible within the existing labor- relations system but very hard to achieve sparked us to set in play a new conversation about unions, union-management relationships, and collective bargaining. Five years ago, we saw that public education was in the midst of profound institutional change that militated against traditional labor- management policies. We made the case for:

  • Making improving student achievement a central purpose of negotiated union-management agreements;
  • Expanding the scope of bargaining to include topics that lie at the heart of teaching and learning;
  • Moving decisions about important educational issues—selection of personnel, expenditure of funds—to schools; and,
  • Expanding teacher career opportunities through a new labor-market arrangement.
Labor policy has been ignored or treated as the unruly stepchild of education reform.

The fundamental belief driving our 1997 book United Mind Workers: Unions and Teaching in the Knowledge Society was that the labor-relations system we have is not a good fit with the education system we want.

For a decade and a half, it seemed possible to us that progressive labor relations could occur within the confines of existing collective bargaining law. It no longer does.

Traditional collective bargaining served teachers well for some considerable time by giving them voice and influence when they had none. But current collective bargaining law protects the status quo, offering incentives for neither union nor management to change. A new labor-relations statute is in order not because history was wrong, but because history is just that.

No one has seriously taken up the issue of education labor policy since teacher collective bargaining laws were enacted. There have been a few wrong-headed efforts to tweak existing statutes. By and large, however, labor policy has been ignored or treated as the unruly stepchild of education reform. We believe it must become the essential companion of reform.

The call for a new collective bargaining law is not a call for unions to abandon their work in behalf of decent wages, hours, and working conditions for the teachers they represent. That work must continue. It is a call to change labor law so that the outcome of labor-management negotiations is an agreement that places improving student achievement front and center. It is a call for a labor- relations system focused squarely on negotiating what matters most.

Julia E. Koppich is an education researcher and teacher-policy expert based in San Francisco, and Charles Taylor Kerchner is the Hollis P. Allen professor of education at the Claremont Graduate School University, in Claremont, Calif. They are the authors of United Mind Workers: Unions and Teaching in the Knowledge Society, A Union of Professionals, and other works.

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