Leading the Local: Teachers Union Presidents Speak on Change, Challenges

Reports & Briefs | June 27, 2007
Related Issue(s): Teachers Unions
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This report was co-authored with Morgaen L. Donaldson, Mindy Sick Munger, John P. Papay, and Emily Kalejs Qazibash. They are advanced doctoral students at Harvard and research assistants with the Project on the Next Generation of Teachers.

Teachers unions are among the most powerful organizations in American education today. At the state and national level, the National Education Association (NEA) and American Federation of Teachers (AFT), the two largest, have long exerted tremendous influence over education policy. But it is the leaders of the thousands of local NEA and AFT affiliates who hold the greatest sway over the educational lives of public school teachers and students.

Unlike many other countries, the U.S. has no national teachers union negotiating a single contract for the country’s entire teaching force. Instead 45 states permit or require collective bargaining and, within those states, local teacher representatives negotiate contracts one by one with their local school boards. These agreements define local policies and practices ranging from class size and the length of the school day to textbook selection and teacher evaluation.

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.

Critics contend that teachers unions are antiquated, obstructionist organizations that promote the interests of their members at the expense of students and stand in the way of reforms needed to attract new teachers, compete successfully with charter schools, and meet state and federal accountability demands. Union supporters counter that teachers unions defend and strengthen public education through improved wages and working conditions, innovative programs, and constructive labor-management relationships. However, we seldom hear the views of local union leaders about the role that their organizations do and should play in public education and school reform.

To learn about these key public educators, their priorities as union leaders, and their views on teacher unionism, the teaching profession, and education reform today, we conducted intensive interviews with the presidents of 30 local unions in six states: California, Colorado, Florida, Maryland, Massachusetts, and Ohio. We sought to understand the thoughts and approaches of the newest generation of local union leaders, rather than those of leaders whose views were forged three or four decades ago when bargaining began and industrial style unionism prevailed. As a result, we included in our study only presidents elected to their posts in the last eight years. Nearly all, however, were long-time union members, closer to the end of their career than to the beginning (See sidebar, "The Study").

An Expanded Agenda

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. “Today [your vision] has to be more than just working conditions, benefits, and salary. You have got to have more than that,” Marietta English, president of the Baltimore Teachers Union, told us. 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. Cincinnati Federation of Teachers President Sue Taylor said she has been direct with her members about the challenges posed by charter schools: “What I say constantly in our membership meetings is that we, first and foremost, have got to find a way to raise student achievement. … And 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.”

Many presidents have sought to promote teachers’ active role in change both within and beyond school districts. 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.

Leading Two Generations of Teachers

The presidents reported that their agenda has expanded in part due to pressure from their members. The local presidents described their efforts to lead two groups of teachers—veterans and novices—who had different and often competing needs, interests, and beliefs about the appropriate role of teachers unions. Veterans, many of whom helped to found teachers unions in the late 1960s and 1970s, rarely questioned the importance of unions. In general, they wanted to preserve traditional approaches to pay and protections and maintain autonomy in their classrooms. The presidents said, however, 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. Rhonda Johnson of the Columbus (Ohio) Education Association observed, “We’re running a couple of parallel organizations.”

Many presidents explained that the future of their local union depended on attracting new members and developing new leaders. They expanded their local agenda, in part, to meet the expectations of new teachers. They said they often had to persuade veteran teachers that there were important gains to be made in venturing beyond the traditional union agenda. And doing so, they said, was not without risk: misjudging their members’ readiness to embrace nontraditional goals and activities could result in failed reforms and lost elections.

Reforming Teacher Compensation

Presidents said it was essential to improve pay and benefits, not only to meet the needs and support the interests of their members, but also to ensure that their district could attract and retain the best possible new teachers. In addition, many were working with local school systems to pilot alternatives to the traditional practice of paying teachers on the basis of seniority and teacher credentials, including stipends for specialized roles or extra time, career ladders, pay incentives for teachers in hard-to-staff schools or subjects, and rewards for teachers certified by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards.

Although many of these pay reforms affected small numbers of schools or teachers, they were notable in their departure from traditional, standardized pay scales used in virtually all of the nation’s school districts. Most presidents doubted that individualized merit pay could be implemented fairly and effectively, although many supported school-based awards. The most ambitious compensation reform was in Denver, where labor and management had replaced the standardized salary scale with a system that included rewards for a variety of skills and accomplishments.

Addressing Teacher Quality

Although teachers unions are often charged with stifling efforts to improve teaching, these presidents thought that teacher quality was union business and that such criticisms were overstated. Most reported that seniority played little role in teachers’ assignments, which was confirmed by our analysis of the districts’ collective bargaining agreements. In most of these districts, principals had substantial discretion to choose their teachers.

The presidents acknowledged that sometimes unions defend ineffective teachers, but they argued that this would not occur as frequently if principals evaluated teachers correctly and awarded tenure carefully. Most reported that they did not defend weak teachers unless individuals’ due process rights were violated. Notably, three districts had adopted Peer Assistance and Review (PAR) programs in which expert teachers assisted and evaluated their peers, making recommendations about re-employment. In recent years, many of these unions had worked alone or with administrators to develop programs to support new teachers and provide ongoing professional development.

Reconceiving the Labor-Management Relationship

In the current climate of accountability and competition in American education, labor and management have many common interests. If the public schools fail, both sides lose. Industrial-style bargaining, which pits one side against the other, is of little use in solving difficult problems or developing new programs. With few exceptions, the presidents said that their districts had experimented with more collaborative interest-based or “win-win” approaches to collective bargaining.

Over time, however, most had adopted a hybrid approach, combining elements of adversarial and interest-based bargaining. Some said that they were engaged in continuous bargaining, which allowed them to amend the contract when needed, rather than waiting several years for the opening of formal negotiations. Day to day, most tried to resolve problems informally or through standing committees, rather than resorting to the formal grievance process.

There was wide agreement that such collaborative approaches depended on a respectful and open relationship between superintendents and local union presidents. Although a few presidents were wary of working closely with management, most said that a collaborative relationship did not require them to abandon union principles and priorities. Instead, they believed that such interaction was probably the only way to maintain and expand the union agenda.

This report describes and discusses the responses of these local union presidents to the challenges of leading two generations of teachers, reforming compensation, addressing teacher quality, and building new relationships between labor and management.

The Joyce Foundation provided funding for this report. The findings and conclusions are those of the authors alone and do not necessarily represent the opinions of the foundation.