Transforming Teacher Unions

— Joel Jordan

Transforming Teacher Unions:
Fighting for Better Schools and Social Justice
edited by Bob Peterson and Michael Charney,
published by Rethinking Schools, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, 1999, $12.95 (+$3.50 shipping and handling).

FROM A RADICAL perspective, Transforming Teacher Unions, published by the editors of the progressive newspaper Rethinking Schools, has much to recommend it. It persuasively argues that a pure and simple trade unionism that confines itself to improving teacher salaries, working conditions and contract protections, without addressing the broader issues of the nature and quality of education, is increasingly inadequate to counter the mounting attacks on public education.

Teacher unions, the authors contend, must aim to secure for students the best possible education. They need, therefore, to concern themselves with central aspects of public education that were previously the exclusive responsibility of school administration -- curriculum development, training of teachers, students' programs, and the like.

Moreover, since the project of providing a good education is so profoundly undermined by the background conditions of class exploitation, racial oppression, and poverty that restrict the educational opportunities of so many students, teachers should be in the forefront of struggles for social justice, in the community and in the work place.

The basic idea, excellent in itself, is that teachers in their unions must go beyond their immediate concerns, and see the interests of students, and thus the interests of social justice, to be in their own interests.

Nevertheless, Transforming Teacher Unions as a program for teacher unionism is fatally flawed by its central premise. This is that, unlike private industry, which is only concerned with profit making, public education is a “neutral” institution and, because the administration and teaching staff have no need to attend to profit they share “a common interest in students.” (134)

Not Adversarial?

On the assumption that administrators and teachers have the same basic interests, the book rejects what it calls an “industrial union approach” because of its adversarial character; argues for a collaborative approach to teacher unionism in which school districts and teacher unions share power; and focuses heavily on those aspects of “school reform” that are concerned with further “professionalizing” teaching and “raising standards.”

Transforming Teacher Unions rejects the industrial unionism model in favor of collaboration because, ostensibly, its adversarial character is inherently egoistical, inevitably sacrificing the needs of students to those of teachers and administrators.

“Relationships with local school authorities tended to be contentious and adversarial. Unions put a priority on protecting the rights of teachers, while district administrators focused on protecting their bureaucratic power and procedures. The best interests of children [are] often slighted.” (15)

By the same token, the editors implicitly approve the key point of departure of the Teacher Union Reform Network (TURN), a coalition of reform-minded teacher union local leaders, to the effect that: “The adversarial labor/management culture must be replaced with collaborative approaches involving all the stakeholders in public education.” (23)

If teachers and administrators can overcome their mutual animus and suspicion, the argument goes, they can get down to the central task of improving students' education by improving the professionalism of the faculty.

Much of the book is thus devoted to mostly glowing descriptions of various joint union-management efforts to “raise professional standards,” including several, such as peer review and reconstitution, that put teachers and teacher unions in the position of disciplining, up to and including firing, other teachers. (See ATC 82, September-October 1999, “Mutual Support or Policing?” for this author's extended critical analysis of peer review).

This perspective immediately raises the question of whether teachers' defending their own material interests against the administration actually does prevent them from fighting for the needs of their students.

Put another way, does the “new” professional collaborative unionism really make it possible either to defend student interests or the pursuit of struggles for social justice, let alone protect teachers' material interests? Underlying both questions is the more fundamental one of whether teachers and administrators really do have common interests.

Teachers and Administrators

Since the mid-1970s at the latest, in the wake of the fall of profitability in the private sector and “the fiscal crisis of the state,” employees in both the private and the public sector, notably teachers, have been subjected to a seemingly ever-intensifying offensive from both private employers and local, state, and national governments.

The labor movement in general, and teacher unions in particular, have been weakened in their response to this assault by the unwillingness of union leaders to respond militantly. Rather than lead a counter-offensive, unions in many industries, beginning with those facing intense international competition, chose to try to defend their members' interests by allying with their own employers to make their companies more profitable and thus presumably better able to provide good wages and working conditions.

The United Auto Workers (UAW) experiment with Saturn is the most famous of these employer-employee collaborations. In return for the “right” to collaborate with management in certain aspects of the plant's operation, workers were routinely subjected to speedup, weekend work without overtime, and oppressive work schedules.

Not surprisingly -- and entirely symptomatically -- the workers at the Saturn plant finally rebelled and elected a new leadership committed to a more adversarial relationship to management.

Nevertheless, the two national teacher unions, the National Education Association (NEA) and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) hold the Saturn contract in such high regard that they annually reward local unionists who come up with particularly creative union-management schemes with a trip to the Saturn plant!

Like their counterparts in the private and public sectors, the presidents of the NEA and AFT, Bob Chase and Sandra Feldman respectively, have become major proponents of the “new (non-adversarial) unionism” touted by Rethinking Schools. Both, in fact, are contributors to Transforming Teacher Unions.

Presumably, they would argue that, in public education, unlike private industry, a collaborative approach makes sense, since the requirements of profit-making do not set employer versus employee, but rather unite them in furthering the interests of students.

Nevertheless, to say, as the book does, that the educational administration and teachers have a common interest in students is like saying that autoworkers and auto companies have a common interest in cars. Of course they do -- but they also have major differences about how to produce them, and indeed the nature of the product, which reflect their divergent class positions.

While public education is not a for-profit enterprise, top school administrators are nonetheless constrained by class interests rather similar to those of automobile executives.

Public schools, like other public institutions, operate within a political system that is subordinate to the capitalist political economy and generally functions in its support and according to the logic of profitability. The business community generally does not give its backing to providing adequate funding for public schools, for the obvious reason that financing education generally takes place by way of taxation and thus constitutes a subtraction from corporate profits.

Nor will business generally support democratic and creative teaching methods, for the simple reason that any pedagogy that fosters participatory and egalitarian values contradicts the authoritarian culture of the workplace (a fact that has been explored in depth in Henry Giroux's essays in ATC).

Schools and Capital

In line with the needs of capital, schools function as an essential mechanism for sorting and stratifying the future labor force with a minimum of social conflict. School systems reproduce the existing class and racial divisions of the broader society by providing vastly unequal resources to schools, in accord with those existing divisions.

At the same time, schooling in the United States provides an ideological justification for those divisions by fostering a myth of meritocracy by operating internally in accord with “objective,” “universal” standards -- while systematically neglecting the vast differences in preparation and resources that students bring from their homes and communities.

Nor, of course, is schools' fulfillment of these functions left to chance. State level politicians, especially governors, directly or indirectly, control public education. Given today's balance of class forces, and the dominant role of money in political campaigns, it is hardly a revelation that those politicians are profoundly constrained, if not directed, by corporate interests.

We can in no way be surprised that today's widely touted programs for “educational reform” -- generally featuring high stakes standardized testing and the imposition of “professional standards” on teachers -- are being jointly led by state governors and state business roundtables.

Are Local School Officials Different?

But what about local school boards, district superintendents, principals? Can they be considered allies of teacher unions, as Transforming Teacher Unions suggests?

Of course, individual school board members can become tactical allies under certain circumstances, especially when they are pressured and supported by well-organized unions and progressive political movements in their locality. But to expect that entire school boards and superintendents, particularly in large urban school districts, are about to join, much less lead, a fight for education equality and adequate funding, is unrealistic to say the least.

Mark Simon, president of the Montgomery County Education Association, Maryland, admits as much in his candid evaluation of his district's lack of commitment to a new collaborative contract agreement signed the year before:

“The school board signed off on the contract, but their commitment to a partnership with the union is very weak. Some of our proposals are being killed with smiles . . . The bureaucracies and complex communities that exist around school systems take an almost superhuman effort to change. It's not just a matter of coming up with good ideas.” (66)

The operative word here is bureaucracy. District superintendents and associate superintendents, right down to school principals and even vice principals, are all links in a bureaucratic chain that reaches all the way up to the governor's desk.

They constitute a transmission belt from the political decision makers to the schools, setting forth the agendas of the governors, legislatures and so forth, and getting teachers to realize them into practice. Their positions as managers within the educational hierarchy are thus de<->fined as implementing the policies handed down from above.

While they may vary in political, educational or pedagogical philosophy, they are all united in their unwillingness to “buck the system.” Whether they agree or not with a given directive, their jobs depend on compliance.

Simon thinks that school principals, in contrast to higher administrators, are somehow immune from the imperative to conform to the demands of the bureaucratic hierarchy. As if they were a thing of the past, he labels as “dinosaurs” principals who attempt to undermine contract language won by unions seeking social justice in the schools.

But the fact is that most principals, whether or not they are operating under some sort of shared decision making arrangement with teachers, continue to use their positions to curry favor with upper management. Both genuine collaboration and the struggle for social justice suffer as a result.

The System Isn't the Solution

Transforming Teacher Unions includes a working draft on social justice teacher unionism developed by some 30 NEA and AFT activists in 1994. The draft makes clear that only a “massive social movement similar to the civil rights movement and the movement against the War in Vietnam” can adequately address the “growing racial and class divisions . . . threatening not just our schools, but the very foundations of our society.” (130-131)

The draft goes on to call on teacher unions to ally with parents, the community and other unions to help build that movement on a militant, grassroots basis. This is of course all to the good. But can we really expect school principals to foster such a movement?

To ask such a question is to answer it. As long as their jobs are dependent upon an upper management that is, in turn, serving state and local government, we must expect the opposite: No matter how many hours are spent on training and consensus building, most principals can never become truly collaborative, unless, of course, it is on their terms.

They are, after all, part of the system.

“Reform” and Social Justice

To see just how counter-productive is the approach of the “new,” “non-adversarial,” “professional” unionism advocated by Transforming Teacher Unions, one has only to take a look at how it confronts the program of “reform” that is being foisted upon the schools by governors, state legislators, and local school boards across the country.

As they are being implemented, the two main planks of this program -- standardized testing and the imposition of “standards” on teachers -- could not go more directly against the needs of quality education and social justice. Yet the “new unionism,” preaching the commonality of interests of administrators and teachers and itself seeing teacher professionalization as the heart of the answer to quality education, is disarmed from the start in standing up to either.

Indeed, “the new unionism” approach not only downplays and undercuts what has long been the main struggle -- to provide sufficient resources to students and teachers in the schools to make quality public education possible -- but implicitly joins politicians and administrators in holding ostensibly poorly trained and unmotivated teachers responsible for our schools' problems, and justifies making them work even harder than they already do.

Standardized Testing

Throughout the country, states are forcing school districts to administer standardized tests to students that determine whether or not they go on to the next grade or graduate. These tests particularly discriminate against low-income students and students of color, who are much more likely to drop out of school as a result of being left back.

Teachers, meanwhile, are under tremendous pressure to “teach to the test” utilizing “drill-and-kill” direct instruction. Since low-income schools are obviously the ones that will have the most difficulty making the “standard,” their students are the ones who must make the greatest sacrifice of meaningful learning to scoring high.

The implementation of standardizing testing today obviously goes flat against the interests of social justice. But it is equally self-evident that the school administrators from top to bottom, almost universally, are running as hard as they can to impose it.

Whatever they actually think about these tests, they are all in a race to make sure their schools are not embarrassed by low scores. Their careers depend upon it. Under these circumstances, “shared decision making” can only be about pressuring teachers to do whatever they can to “raise test scores.”

In many school districts, teachers are already obliged to work on weekends, after school, and during vacations to bring up test scores. Indeed, in some localities, teacher unions are collaborating with management to “reconstitute” or close down so-called low performing schools, almost always in low-income communities, and reopen them with a new principal and a new staff.

While the Rethinking Schools newspaper has featured articles by teachers victimized by such “stretch-out” or speedup and particularly by such reconstitution of schools, Transforming Teacher Unions seems to approve of such oppressive practices. (See 35, 38)

In any case, it is impossible to see how teacher unions can militantly oppose these practices and at the same time continue to cooperate with school administrators whose jobs are defined by the need to implement them -- and equally difficult to see how they can pursue the necessary struggles for the massive increase in resources that would be needed to improve education in most low income areas, when they have already agreed to the idea that the key to better learning is holding schools to “standards.”

Accountability and Professionalization

The authors of Transforming Teacher Unions, along with Bob Chase, Sandra Feldman, and TURN, buy into the notion that teachers must take responsibility for the profession, including holding teachers “accountable” for their performance in the classroom, or else more draconian forces will fill that role.

The professional accountability “reforms” most favorably reviewed in this book thus include peer review, whereby experienced teachers not only coach, but evaluate, struggling and/or new teachers, as well as “reconstitution.” Another related innovation is the introduction of hierarchy in the teaching ranks, in particular the creation of a “lead teacher,” who plays a quasi-administrative role in the school, supervising other teachers, developing curriculum, heading up committees, etc.

When they include union participation and collaboration, such reforms lead, almost inevitably, the adoption of “merit pay” or “pay for performance” schemes. In fact, the leadership of the Cincinnati Federation of Teachers, a “reform” local lauded in this book, recently proposed a plan, which was narrowly approved by teachers, to institute the most far-reaching merit pay proposal in the nation.

Under this plan, seniority is all but eliminated as a basis for teacher pay. Instead, teacher salaries will be determined on the basis of a joint evaluation by an administrator and a lead teacher.

While Transforming Teacher Unions does not go so far as to advocate merit pay plans such as were adopted in Cincinnati (in fact, Rethinking Schools has an excellent critique of various merit pay proposals), it is hard-pressed to oppose them, given its support for teacher unions collaborating with administrators to evaluate and possibly dismiss other teachers.

After all, if teachers should participate in getting other teachers fired on the basis of classroom performance, then why not participate in determining their salaries on the same basis?

In Transforming Teacher Unions, teacher union leaders contend that such “reforms” actually lead to social justice unionism. Former Cincinnati teacher union president Tom Mooney goes so far as to claim that “professionalism (accountability to our clients) is the most powerful framework for winning teachers to the movement for meaningful education reform, which may be the key to saving public education.” (32)

Just the opposite would seem to be true: Focusing on teacher accountability and classroom performance under today's conditions is a substitute for and a digression from building a movement for fundamental school reform.

This is, above all, because teachers do not control the conditions of their work, unlike some professionals and workers in the skilled trades. The power to set teachers' working conditions is directly in the hands of state and local government, and indirectly, as we have argued above, big business.

Since teachers have little to no control over the resources that determine class size, books and supplies, safety and cleanliness of schools and classrooms, teacher salary, professional development, etc., putting teachers in a position of evaluating colleagues is a setup for failure. How can teachers truly take responsibility for the quality of teaching, when control over the allocation of resources that fundamentally determine the quality of teaching is out of their hands?

In this context, the demand for teacher “accountability” in general, without reference to the limited resources teachers have at their disposal, can only lead to blaming teacher “incompetence” and “laziness” for the complex problems besetting public education.

In calling for such accountability, progressive educators such as those at Rethinking Schools only encourage the right wing to continue attacking teachers and public schools.

“Typical” Twelve-Hour Day

Monica Solomon's description of two lead teachers who work a “typical 12-hour day” in Cincinnati provides a case in point. Precisely because public education, particularly in urban areas, lacks the resources to provide teachers with adequate salaries, professional development, individual and collegial preparation time, small classes and so forth, the push is on to “make do” with existing, inadequate resources by forcing teachers to work harder and longer.

In labor parlance, this is the stretch-out. No one should have to work a 12-hour day. Yet all over the country, we see efforts by school districts, sometimes with the support of teacher unions, to make the school day longer, the school week longer (Saturdays), and the school year longer, of course without overtime pay.

It is no accident that farsighted district administrators love the direction of such “reform.” In exchange for collaboration (really cooptation), administrators get teacher unions to police their ranks and participate in their exploitation. With such unions, who needs administrators?

But for social justice unionists, this is exactly the wrong direction we should heading. Instead, teachers should be demanding the resources that actually will make a difference in their students' lives -- time to plan, small classes, worthwhile professional development, adequate school maintenance and so forth.

Accepting responsibility to discipline our own ranks, when these resources are absent, only contributes to the anti-teacher sentiments being whipped up by the right wing. While Transforming Teacher Unions raises these and other demands as aspects of social justice unionism, the emphasis put on teacher accountability under existing circumstances undermines their impact, especially when little to nothing is said about how teacher unions should attempt to organize around them.

What is necessary is for teachers and for teacher unions is to form grassroots alliances with their natural allies -- parents, students, and other school workers -- who have no institutional constraints against fighting for a social justice program in education.

How and with whom such alliances are built should have been a central topic for discussion in Transforming Teacher Unions. But instead the book practically avoids the subject -- and what it does say pulls us in the wrong direction by promoting harmonious alliances with our bureaucratic and corporate opponents.

Building these false alliances can only result in teachers becoming absorbed in the bureaucratic morass of daily school administration, rather than taking their rightful place as militant leaders in the fight to transform public education.

Social and Industrial Unionism

The editors of Transforming Teacher Unions would have us believe that militancy has been responsible for narrowing the outlook and program of industrial unions. The truth is quite the reverse. As the industrial unions became increasingly bureaucratized in the 1940s and 1950s, they abandoned both their militancy and their social justice vision.

In this respect, the “new unionism” espoused by Chase and Feldman is nothing more than a continuation of the bureaucratic tradition. Whatever alliances such union officials may enter exist only on paper and/or from the top down; lobbying and media-campaigns and making backroom deals replace waging mass struggles even for the immediate needs of their membership, much less for broader social justice demands.

The fact is that for teachers to amass the power to fight for better education and for their own needs, they have to make broader alliances as a strategic necessity, just as in the 1930s, union support of Black rights and for the struggles of the unemployed was necessary for winning their own demands and militant struggles for union recognition.

Here we can see how alliance building and militancy can be mutually reinforcing. Today, a teacher union<->ism that combines militancy and a broad social justice vision is more needed than ever.

In many urban districts, young teachers, especially of color, are bringing social justice concerns into the unions. It is essential that these and other union activists continue the industrial union tradition of militancy and solidarity in the fight for fundamental school reform and social transformation.

Because of the narrow, bureaucratic tendencies of the trade union leadership, it is more likely that such grassroots alliances will be built by teachers involved in rank and file formations independent of teacher union bureaucracies, particularly in large urban locals, than by teacher union officials.

Indeed, Transforming Teacher Unions, by providing a platform for teacher union officials pressured to promote one or another variant of teacher “accountability,” inadvertently serves to warn us all of the conservative dangers involved in taking union office without the counter pressures of an organized and aroused rank and file and community. That movement remains to be built.

from ATC 96 (January/February 2002)

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