Reform is a loaded word. When I speak of union reform, I am thinking of efforts to democratize unions and make them more responsive to membership. Others however may be attaching union reform efforts to specific neo-liberal "reforms." Some, such as Rick Hess, even suggest Labor Management Collaboration (LMC) as a way to get unions to participate in their own demise. A good friend of mine on the labor left referred to the Teacher Union Reform Network (TURN), a group with which I’ve been active, as “astroturfy.”
We must separate LMC as a public good from specific policy prescriptions. If a local or state affiliate decides for some unknown reason that merit pay, privatization, or exotic flavors of teacher evaluation is good for its members, I can’t speak for those people. But there is no reason that LMC can’t lead boards, administrators and unions into deeper and more refined work on conventional collective bargaining agreements, featuring single salary schedules and considerable opportunities for teacher leadership and autonomy.
The term "Comprehensive Unionism" can better denote efforts to create a type of unionism responsive to the unique characteristics of education. In TURN, we use Three Frames as a lens analyze and improve our work.
- Industrial Unionism refers to the war fighting capability of the union, its capacity to use adversarial methods to promote bread and butter issues and enforce the collective bargaining agreement. A robust capacity is the foundation for the other two frames.
- Professional Unionism speaks to our capacity to be the arbiters of quality in the profession, to improve instruction for the betterment of teachers and students.
- Social Justice Unionism demands that we see the big picture: unions exist not just for the betterment of members, but for the betterment of all. The recent Chicago Teachers Union strike was a shining example of Social Justice Unionism in action.
My work as a local president has focused on the Professional Unionism lens. In my 20 year career, I’ve lived through 16 principals and 7 superintendents in 5 schools located in 3 different Vermont supervisory unions. This experience has taught me that the quality of teachers’ (and therefore students’) lives on a day to day basis is profoundly affected by the quality of administrative work.
I have sat through endless union meetings that focus on administrative failure, where administrators and boards are trashed, where eyes roll and sarcasm abounds. This culture encourages a type of defensive bargaining, where participants lead by asking, “What would happen if the worst administrator in the world got a hold of this contract language?” And on the other side they lead by asking, “What would happen if the worst teacher in the world received this benefit?”
As teachers, we ought to know through our experience with students that if you treat people like idiots, you get….idiocy.
What if we flipped this and used collective bargaining as a tool to promote excellence rather than to eliminate incompetence? What if we gave flexibility to administrators to administer schools with the expectation that along with this assistance comes a high bar. And what if boards and administrators took a risk, and gave teachers autonomy and leadership opportunities, along with an expanded definition of what it is to be a professional educator, with the expectation that we would provide evidence of improved professional practice and student learning, evidence which could be readily seen by reasonable citizens?
In such a system incompetence would be noise. When you have to hire millions of teachers and administrators a certain amount of noise is inevitable. We should focus on the music, so that it drowns out the noise.
Professional success promotes the happiness of teachers. When students are learning and growing, it improves the quality of educators’ lives through a profound sense of professional accomplishment. In my world view, unions are great American institutions which exist to promote well-being. See the connection? Let's raise the bar.