Collective bargaining and collaboration: A new dialogue?

Last December, the Annenberg Institute and the National Governors Association sponsored a gathering of state policy-makers, national experts, union leaders, and educators ‘to identify how state policy and the collective bargaining process may support the goal of improving student achievement.’

Billed as the “first step” in A New Dialogue, the conference produced a variety of artifacts available for reviewat this dedicated website, including summaries of the issues discussed, video and audio clips of participants, general information about the purposes of the organizers, and selected resources.

As to purpose, the website’s homepage begins:

Collective bargaining in public education, traditionally, has positioned teachers unions and school districts as adversaries. But increased expectations for student achievement require a new dialogue involving a broader range of community stakeholders and focusing on the needs of students.

Among the more intriguing products coming out of the conference are two pre-conference interviews with panel discussion leaders Alan Bersin (California secretary of education and former San Diego school superintendent) and Randi Weingarten (former high school social studies teacher and president of the United Federation of Teachers in  New York City).

In Bersin’s view, the struggle between reformist school leaders and teacher unions emerges from “the tension between teaching as an occupation and teaching as a profession.” Bersin appears pessimistic about whether the “new unionism” movement — which proposes more professional autonomy in return for more professional responsibility — can ever evolve into a new paradigm within which administrators and teachers can work more effectively for the benefit of their shared clients.

“It is not in the nature of the public-sector union organization to act in ways that fail to benefit short-term member interests,” he says. “To expect the union to take on educational needs of children as a first priority is, from this perspective, to misconstrue the situational possibilities entirely.”

In her interview, Weingarten describes teachers and their union leaders as eager to support the move to professionalism but maintains that, for many teachers, professional conduct is framed more by social justice concerns than personal advancement or reward. “Educators are not entrepreneurs,” she says. “They are people who believe in helping children learn. They want to be treated fairly and given the wherewithal to do their jobs well.”

As a prominent union leader, Weingarten said she is ready to stop debating whether unions will or should exist, and focus instead on creating a climate of collaboration. “There are many of us who would be quite willing, in a trustful environment, to take collective responsibility. The teacher union leaders I know talk about how to help all kids learn. We look at collaborative collective bargaining as the vehicle to do that – and we talk about how the union can facilitate this process. We talk about how you treat teachers as professionals, because they are the opportunity agents.”

After reading these two lengthy interviews, skillfully conducted by Kris Kurtenbach and Gloria Frazier of Collaborative Communications Group, one can’t help but wonder how many more steps will be required to  get from the “new dialogue” to a new day, when the old labor-management model is replaced by a climate of true professionalism on both sides.

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