Voices of (some) union leaders

Education Sector, the somewhat neo-liberal education think tank, has published an interesting study in which they interview local union leaders in several states about their views on the future of the teaching profession and where unions fit into that picture. It’s interesting in part because Education Sector has not been a strong advocate of teacher professionalism — or, perhaps more accurately, teaching as a lifelong professional career.

The report, written by Harvard professor Susan Moore Johnson and several advanced doctoral students at the Project on the Next Generation of Teachers (which Johnson directs), notes that in collective bargaining states, local union leaders (rather than state or national leaders) tend to hold sway over the opinions and actions of public school teachers around professional issues.

Yet we know very little about these influential local union presidents who represent teachers in these local contract negotiations. Almost no research has been done about their backgrounds, their beliefs, or their priorities. Understanding them is especially important at this time when public education faces unprecedented challenges—the performance demands of the federal No Child Left Behind Act and state accountability systems, stiff competition from charter schools (which are rarely unionized) and private schools enrolling students with publicly funded vouchers, and growing turnover in the teaching force.

The report, which surveyed union presidents in California, Colorado, Florida, Maryland, Massachusetts and Ohio, includes only the thoughts of union leaders “elected to their posts in the last eight years” — apparently in an effort to test whether newer presidents might be less aligned with what the report calls “industrial style unionism.”

The report’s findings are summarized this way:

We found that these presidents were not focused exclusively on advancing the traditional union agenda of better salaries, benefits, working conditions, and fair evaluation processes for their members. Although they said it was absolutely essential to pursue those goals, very few stopped there…. Most said that conventional union priorities were necessary, but not sufficient, given the increasing expectations of new teachers for professional support, the demands of school reform, and growing competition from charter schools and other nontraditional forms of public education.

While the report notes that union leaders’ views vary, the researchers found some general feeling that unions must focus more on student achievement. As one union leader is quoted as saying, “… if we don’t figure out how to make improvements in student achievement, we’re not going to have a school district, much less a union to advocate for anyone.”

Priorities varied from person to person and locale to locale, but these presidents’ expanded agenda often has included induction programs to support new teachers, professional development, alternative approaches to pay, and active engagement in school reform. Many of the union leaders reported that, in order to achieve this expanded agenda, they have worked closely with school administrators to develop new mechanisms for collaborative labor-management relations.

The report also sheds light on an interesting phenomenon — the rise of a new generation of teachers who are less tied to traditional union values and practices.

The presidents said…that newer teachers had no memory of the hardships teachers endured prior to unionization. Most new teachers took the contract for granted and some even questioned the need for a labor organization in schools. Unlike their veteran counterparts, many of these novices expected their unions to give them strong support in the first, often difficult years of teaching, provide ongoing training, pursue innovations in pay, or create opportunities for teachers to take on different roles in school.

All in all, it’s report worth reading, albeit that it represents the views of union presidents who were somewhat “cherry picked” (we don’t see Cleveland in the Ohio group, for example). Likely, it points to a future where unions will either be more focused on professionalism — or increasingly less relevant.

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