Teaching Profession Opinion

Patrick Dolan: A Gentle Guide to Productive Labor Relations

By Charles Taylor Kerchner — December 07, 2016 2 min read
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When I first met Pat Dolan a quarter century ago, he was on the stage at a very large National Education Association conference drawing a triangle on a flip chart. The big triangle with the little triangles inside represented the bureaucracies, big and small, in which both labor and management representatives spend their lives.

They are both opponents, but they are utterly dependent on one another. No union survives if the employer doesn’t thrive; no employer does well with permanently disgruntled workers.

Dolan, died last week. He had worked in labor relations for four decades, patiently teaching labor and management that solving problems is an essential ingredient to creating high functioning organizations. It’s also necessary to create good jobs for union members.

Dolan, who had consulted on high profile labor talks such as those between Ford and the United Auto Workers, was telling the story of an autoworker who said something like, “You know, in many ways I’m a lucky guy. I’ve got a high school education, and I worked here for 35 years. My wages bought my family a house, and my four kids went to college. I get four weeks vacation, and we have a little cabin on a lake with a boat where we can go to relax. My health insurance is great. But I hate my job.”

Dolan’s message of radical empathy was channeled into concrete steps in his book Restructuring Our Schools. He’s brought this message to school districts and to labor-management organizations such as the Consortium for Educational Change [see tribute], the Teacher Union Reform Network and its regional affiliates, such as CalTURN, and the state’s new Labor-Management Initiative. It’s a practical book with a profound underlying message: that when conditions change in an industry, labor and management need to come to grips with those changes or both die.

I’ve tried to sound some of these themes in my own work. Many organizations, public and private, are fundamentally dysfunctional: deeply competitive, silo oriented, and full of blame. Dolan taught how to build a scaffold for change with the foreknowledge that a whole organization can’t be moved at once, but at the same time just moving one piece won’t work. His solution is to span the boundaries between the layers and pieces of the organization, opening communication and slowly building trust.

His method is too slow for some. I understand that. But fast fixes in entrenched organizations seldom work. School reform rabbits lose. Tortoise’s win, both because they are slow and steady and because they have a thick shell. Dolan drew his bureaucratic triangle thousands of times, I suspect. People who were wise enough to listen got help as they moved slowly forward.

His message needs to live on.

In this video produced by the Teacher Union Reform Network, Dolan talks about the three faces of teacher unionism—its social justice roots, its industrial legal heritage, and its professional aspirations—within the context of competitive pressure virtually all industries are facing.

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