Opinion
Teaching Profession Opinion

Why Don’t More Unions Perform Like This?

By Charles Taylor Kerchner — June 06, 2017 5 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

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.

Related Tags:

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.


Commenting has been disabled on edweek.org effective Sept. 8. Please visit our FAQ section for more details. To get in touch with us visit our contact page, follow us on social media, or submit a Letter to the Editor.


Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Teaching Webinar
6 Key Trends in Teaching and Learning
As we enter the third school year affected by the pandemic—and a return to the classroom for many—we come better prepared, but questions remain. How will the last year impact teaching and learning this school
Content provided by Instructure
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
School & District Management Webinar
Ensuring Continuity of Learning: How to Prepare for the Next Disruption
Across the country, K-12 schools and districts are, again, considering how to ensure effective continuity of learning in the face of emerging COVID variants, politicized debates, and more. Learn from Alexandria City Public Schools superintendent
Content provided by Class
Teaching Profession Live Online Discussion What Have We Learned From Teachers During the Pandemic?
University of California, Santa Cruz, researcher Lora Bartlett and her colleagues spent months studying how the pandemic affected classroom teachers. We will discuss the takeaways from her research not only for teachers, but also for

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Teaching Profession Opinion ‘A Culture of Care’: How Schools Can Alleviate Educator Stress This Year
It takes more than deep breathing to alleviate the stress teachers feel. Here's how to get to the root cause.
Sean Slade & Alyssa Gallagher
6 min read
shutterstock 740616958 resized
Shutterstock
Teaching Profession Reported Essay Students Aren’t the Only Ones Grieving
Faced with so many losses stemming from the pandemic, what can be done to help teachers manage their own grief?
4 min read
Conceptual Illustration
Pep Montserrat for Education Week
Teaching Profession We Feel Your Grief: Remembering the 1,000 Plus Educators Who've Died of COVID-19
The heartbreaking tally of lives lost to the coronavirus continues to rise and take a steep toll on school communities.
3 min read
090321 1000 Educators Lost BS
Education Week
Teaching Profession Letter to the Editor Educators Have a Responsibility to Support the Common Good
A science teacher responds to another science teacher's hesitation to take the COVID-19 vaccine.
1 min read