Teaching Profession Opinion

Why Don’t More Unions Perform Like This?

By Charles Taylor Kerchner — June 06, 2017 5 min read
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Last Saturday, I listened to panelists at the Labor and Employment Relations Association annual meeting in Anaheim describe how labor-management efforts are creating better work lives for teachers and simultaneously stronger, higher performing schools.

Cheryl Bodger, director of schools at the ABC Unified School District and Ray Gaer president of the ABC Federation of Teachers described that district’s long-running effort to build teacher voice.

Jane Cooley, president of the Norco-Corona Teachers Association and her counterpart, Lisa Simon, the district assistant superintendent, spoke of the culture shift that has occurred there, and of how working together is paying off in school climate measures.

I applauded these efforts, as I have in the past.

John McCarthy of Cornell University (graphic above) described large scale research he and colleagues, including panel chair Saul Rubinstein from Rutgers University, are carrying out in schools and districts where teacher unions and school managers have learned how to work together. McCarthy’s research into union-management partnerships spans six states, 19 districts, and 372 schools. There are huge payoffs, particularly in schools with low income and minority students. Test scores are higher, teacher attachment to their jobs is higher, and teachers retention skyrockets. The effects are particularly strong in schools with low-income students.

Why Don’t Productive Relationships Spread?

But I’m left with the question: if the practices are good for teachers and good for education, too, why don’t more unions behave this way?

More than three decades ago, I listened to Albert Shanker describe what he saw as an approaching existential crisis facing teacher unions and all of public education. Public school advocates were losing power because the percentage of households with children in school was rapidly declining. The economy was changing. The military was gobbling up all the tax money. Tax credits and vouchers would rob public schools of their most ardent supporters. People were losing confidence in the institution.

The response, he wrote in 1983, was better political organization. “But effective organization means, among other things, reducing the internal conflict within the public education community.” He continued, “Conflicts within the school community are bad for a number of reasons. First of all, they tend to turn people off.”

‘A Union of Professionals’

Shanker came to believe that it was “union work” to make schools better and to rebuild the institution of public education. He helped me raise research money to travel the country and, with colleagues, write a series of case studies about districts where labor relations had evolved into what we called “professional unionism.” The American Federation of Teachers was to take the title of that book, A Union of Professionals, as its tag line.

In those days we thought that teacher unions were on a path from industrial union assumptions to professional unionism, where organized teachers would greatly influence the content of teaching work, not just the conditions under which it took place. They would also take responsibility for enforcing quality standards in teaching through such practices as peer review, and they would heavily influence professional development. In those heady days, pioneering locals—some profiled in our book—formed the Teacher Union Reform Network as a laboratory and support for spreading union reform across the nation. We were wrong.

TURN failed to transform either national teacher union. It’s morphed from a national organization to half a dozen regional bodies, including CalTURN, which brings together labor-management teams and provides coaching on learning together.

TURN Didn’t Transform Teacher Unionism

Adam Urbanski, one of TURN’s founders and leaders, attended the panel discussion, and provided a fistful of reasons that progress toward professional union assumptions is hard. Reform always optional. It’s easier not to. It’s hard for management to give up hierarchical prerogatives. It’s hard for unions to take responsibility for school outcomes.

His comments echoed those of the panelists. ABC president Gaer spoke about the exhaustiveness of the work, and the panelists from Norco-Corona talked about the slow, painstaking efforts to extend their practices to nearby districts. Mary McDonald from the Consortium for Educational Change, which provides consulting support to the regional TURN organizations, said their work in California reached perhaps 100 of the state’s districts.

Fix Labor Law

I believe the policy response lies in the law. Teacher labor law enshrines industrial unions. It doesn’t encourage, and certainly doesn’t compel professional unionism. Most unions and most school managers do what the law requires. They negotiate contracts. They administer them. Unions get a second and third bite of the apple through lobbying and electoral activity. That’s what union staff people are trained to do, and doing it well defines unionism.

If we want unions to behave differently, we should write labor statutes that make the keystones of professional behavior a condition of being recognized as a union and part of the enforcement mechanisms of unfair labor practice laws.

Going Deeper

How California’s Local Control Financial Formula opens up a significant opportunity to expand the opportunity-responsibility horizon for unions and management.

Danger and opportunity in California’s current political climate. (See posts on danger and opportunity, big ideas, fixing what needs to be fixed, and looking over the horizon.)

Union opportunity in teacher powered schools.

An analysis of why the legal tradition of industrial unionism is hard to displace, and a discussion organizing in charter schools: Malin, Martin H., and Kerchner, Charles Taylor. “Charter Schools and Collective Bargaining: Compatible Marriage Or Illegitimate Relationship?” Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy 30, no. 3 (2007): 886-936.

My union research in a nutshell.

Albert Shanker quote in: “The First Real Crisis.” In Handbook of Teaching and Policy, edited by Lee S. Shulman, and Gary Sykes, New York; London: Longman Inc, 1983.

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