In This Corner. . .
Once a brawler, Tom Mooney flexes union muscle in new ways.
When the superintendent of the Cincinnati public schools moved last spring to cut innovative teacher programs, his mailbox was soon stuffed with letters from prominent educators and researchers across the nation, urging him to reconsider. The letter-writing campaign was orchestrated, of course. And there was little doubt that the person behind it was Tom Mooney, president of the Cincinnati Federation of Teachers.
Over the past 20 years, while superintendents have come and gone from the Queen City, Mooney has been a constant political force. Always a shrewd tactician, Mooney has displayed a knack for picking the right strategies for the right moment. In 1979, at the tender age of 25, he led 4,000 people through downtown Cincinnati at rush hour to protest low wages, poor working conditions, and the district's shabby treatment of teachers. Today, with the union and the district on more amicable terms, he works hand-in-hand with school officials on many issues, an equal partner in some of the city's ambitious education reforms.
The result? Long before "new unionism" and "teacher quality" became buzz words of the '90s, Cincinnati has turned itself into a model of how to make teaching a real profession. Thanks largely to Mooney and the CFT, Cincinnati teachers play key roles in district decisions, affording them influence
that other teachers only dream about. And during the 1990s-a time when teacher quality has at last come to be seen as the essential ingredient in student achievement-Mooney has negotiated a package of teacher-development programs that gives Cincinnati teachers more rights and responsibilities than their counterparts in virtually any other city.
Of course, when Mooney started teaching in 1975, unions focused on little beyond wages and working conditions. As a middle school social studies teacher from Antioch College in Ohio, he made $8,700 a year; raises weren't keeping up with inflation, classes were overcrowded, and bureaucrats ran the show. Mooney says teachers had two choices: quit or get militant.
Mooney chose the latter and started reading the newsletters published by the American Federation of Teachers' feisty local. The AFT chapter had lost Cincinnati's first bargaining election to its National Education Association rival in 1969. But Federation members took lessons in battle tactics from a Milwaukee-based brewers' union, and in 1976, they won the right to represent teachers. Mooney, 22, was on the bargaining team for the first contract. In 1979, he successfully ran for president, a full-time post.
One of Mooney's first moves was to put together a bargaining council with the three other unions that represented employees of the Cincinnati public schools. (Mooney's wife is the president of the clerical workers' union. The couple has two children, ages 11 and 16.) The first order of business was to secure raises: "People were just fleeing in droves. We had to raise six kinds of hell."
But even as he waged a traditional labor war over traditional labor issues, Mooney hoped for more. Cincinnati's union contract at the time spoke of treating teachers more like professionals, but that remained largely rhetoric.
Then came the education reform movement sparked by A Nation at Risk, the 1983 federal report that condemned the state of America's schools. Teachers were badly stung by the harsh verdict, but Mooney says his members recognized its essential truths and were ready to act. "They would have been nailing manifestos to the courthouse door any time of the week-if they had had the time to type them up."
In the education policy swirl that followed A Nation at Risk, the Cincinnati union had an advantage: It was an affiliate of the AFT, whose president, Albert Shanker, backed radical school reforms often rejected by the NEA. Mooney also realized that raw power wasn't going to get teachers where they wanted to go, especially in the conservative, corporate-dominated environment of Cincinnati.
In 1985, although the bargaining climate was still adversarial, the Federation negotiated a breakthrough contract that introduced peer review, called for raising academic standards, and lowered class size. Before the next round of bargaining, the union and district were trained in so- called "interest-based bargaining," a technique designed to ease conflict in negotiations and focus parties on the big picture. Over the next 10 years, the two sides forged a partnership to create the teacher-quality programs for which the city has become known.
Today, a steady parade of visitors comes to Cincinnati's schools to learn more about the district's peer assistance and evaluation program, in which classroom experts work with both new teachers and veterans; its career-in-teaching program, a four-step career ladder that moves teachers into school leadership roles; and its professional practice schools, run in partnership with the University of Cincinnati, that provide yearlong, paid internships for prospective teachers in their fifth year of college.
Despite the accolades showered on these programs, Mooney often has to defend them from budget cutters in lean fiscal years. "As much as we have made structural changes in the direction of becoming a profession that are bolder than certainly most other places," he explains, "a lot of the opinion leaders and powerful people in the community still don't seem to get it or seem to support it. The [school] bureaucracy finds it threatening. And so there's a constant tug of war."
At times, CFT's rank and file also resists Mooney's forays into nontraditional union issues. Last year, teachers rejected a plan to close and redesign failing schools. (They later reversed themselves, however, and two schools were scheduled to be shut down.) Teachers also balked at a proposal to give bonuses to educators at improving schools.
Mooney-led teacher initiatives occasionally run up against the interests of others in the district. Parents, for example, are pressing for the same kind of influence on decisionmaking that the CFT wants for teachers. Margaret Hulbert, president of the Cincinnati chapter of Parents for Public Schools, says Mooney understands the need for parents and teachers to come together on behalf of public education. He speaks well on the subject, she says. "But at the bargaining table, he reverts to protecting teachers' rights. I'm always going to be reminding him that he could be doing more to bring parents to the table."
Still, Mooney gets glowing reviews for his vision for the schools. "I have a great deal of respect for him and his ideals," says Virginia Griffin, who recently stepped down after 32 years on the Cincinnati school board. "We've had some knock-down, drag-out battles, but that's to be expected. Even when he was pushing for things for teachers, it was always for the kids in the long run."
Ralph Jackson, the CFT's number two officer, says, "He could tell you where he thinks the organization needs to be five years from now, and then five years later you look back and say, 'That's where we are.'."
After two decades as president of the 3,500-member CFT, Mooney doesn't plan to run again. The union's focus on teacher professionalism, he reasons, has generated a cadre of dedicated, talented people who can take his place.
"It's ridiculously egotistical to think nobody else can do it," he says.
And after years of long hours-"I used to have to stop him from calling me on Sunday," Jackson says with a laugh-Mooney admits he's ready for a slower-paced lifestyle. "This is just grueling. The family pays too high a price; you personally pay too high a price."
What's next is not clear. Mooney says he may get a master's degree, which he's never had time to do, but he's made no definite plans. "I've been doing this long enough, and it's been so absorbing and consuming that I almost have to cut those ties before I can think clearly about what I want to do when I grow up.".
Vol. 11, Issue 01, Pages 42-43Published in Print: August 11, 1999, as In This Corner. . .