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A Union of Professionals
Authors: Charles Kerchner and Julia Koppich


[The following is a summary of the book and is not taken directly from the book's text.]

Teacher unions, which are frequently viewed as part of the problem with American education, need to be seen-and to see themselves-as part of the solution. A new model of unionism is emerging that puts unions at the center of improved schools. These unions embody the characteristics of flexibility, commitment, and high standards, which we call professional unionism.

Professional unionism is a powerful idea, as different from industrial unionism as industrial unionism was from the older craft and guild traditions. We believe industrial unionism has had a powerful effect on the organization and management of public schools and expect that professional unionism can have an effect of similar magnitude.

The story of professional unionism is an unfinished one. The changes in labor-management relationships that illustrate professional union characteristics exist in no more than a few hundred of the nation's 15,300 public school districts. Despite the headlines about breakthrough contracts and the academic interest in new labor-management arrangements, the institution of labor relations has changed little in the past decade. Most unions and school districts still negotiate over a relatively narrow package of items. Most act as if the consequences of collective bargaining are somehow divorced from the problems of school operation and student achievement. Most simply follow patterns established by state union organizations on the one hand and management associations on the other, both of which often support the old order. The old order is being threatened by heretics, but resistance to change slows the momentum. So when we describe professional unionism, we engage in social forecasting.

America's Bureaucratic Schools

Teacher unions as we know them materialized within complex bureaucracies that have characterized public education for the last century. Constructed from a mix of industrial-style scientific management and Progressive Era governmental reforms, U.S. public schools have become a maze of rules and hierarchies. Labor law and practice add to this rule-bound atmosphere. Unions take their form and function from the school districts where their members work. Even though unions and management are adversaries, unions are utterly dependent on school districts for meaning and purpose. Neither schools nor unions can change without the other changing too.

Unions are capable of empowering teachers to reorganize schools, to impose and monitor professional standards, or to increase student achievement except by working through school districts. Likewise, management are incapable of reorganizing schools, changing their schedules, or altering the duties of employees without also changing the labor relations contracts and work-role definitions of teachers and administrators. Because of our industrial mind-sets and industrial-era labor laws and ideology, we legitimated unions around a very narrowly conceived collective bargaining system associated almost wholly with economic advancement and procedural due process protections for employees. Because unionism has been accepted as a protection for employees, unions have been more successful in preventing things from happening than in getting things done.

Looking at Developing Professionalism

For more than two years, we directly studied more than a dozen school districts that had a reputation for substantial reforms, and we gathered information on many more from Rochester, New York, to Poway, California; from Louisville, Kentucky, to Bellevue, Washington. Individual case studies are available directly from the project. A Union of Professionals, a book containing a collection of the studies is available from Teachers College Press.

Case Study Districts

  • Albuquerque, New Mexico
  • Bellevue, Washington
  • Chicago, Illinois
  • Dade County (Miami), Florida
  • Denver, Colorado
  • Glenview, Illinois
  • Greece, New York
  • Hammond, Indiana
  • Jefferson County (Louisville), Kentucky
  • Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
  • Poway, California
  • Rochester, New York
  • Toledo, Ohio

Other districts to watch:

Pinellas County (St. Petersburg), Florida; Memphis, TN: San Juan Unified, CA; Petaluma, CA; Marshalltown, IA; San Diego, CA; St. Paul, MN; Minneapolis, MN; Appleton, WI; Duluth, MI; Long Beach, CA; Millard Public Schools (Omaha) NE.

As we visited schools, we saw change that was simultaneously radical and conservative, incremental and pattern breaking. New schools were being built, but old schools continued to operate. In several cities, educators used the same words to describe what they were doing. "It's like building the plane as it's rolling down the runway," they said.

These schools are testing the proposition that it is possible to make systemic change gradually. They have not changed their form and function so much as they established processes for continual improvement.

Three Dimensions of Professional Unionism

By the time teachers entered into collective bargaining in the 1960s and 1970s, the word unionism largely meant industrial unionism. Older forms of worker organizations, guilds, artisan associations, and craft unions, had largely been supplanted by a form of unionism designed and fitted to large hierarchies with an atomistic division of labor. It was the worker's counterpart to scientific management. Beliefs, laws, and labor-management practices were transported to public education with relatively few modifications.

We are now witnessing departures from three of industrial unionism's most cherished assumptions and central organizing concepts, which are gradually being replaced by an emerging set of beliefs about what unions should do and be. First, unions are discarding beliefs about the inherent separateness of labor and management, teaching and administration. Emphasis is moving toward a collective mode of operation exemplified by site decision making, team teaching, and district-level councils and committees. Second, unions and managements are questioning the necessity of adversarial relationships. They have come to realize that educational improvement depends on care, dedication, and commitment rather than the observance off rules and the execution of preplanned routines. Third, ideas about teacher protection are being rethought. Unions are beginning to recognize that the quality and integrity of teaching need protection, as well as the due process rights of individual teachers. Managements see that unions have a legitimate role to play in the protection of teaching and that evaluation and assessment are not administrators' exclusive prerogative.

Working Together

Where industrial unionism emphasizes exclusive domains and a relationship centered around negotiating and administering a limited economic agreement, professional unionism develops wide areas of joint operations. It defines education as a collective and shared enterprise.

The simple phrases "opening up the classroom doors" or "breaking down the isolation of teaching," which are at the heart of much of the teaching reform literature, become radical prescriptions when carried into organizational life. Teaching as we know it is isolated work. Both work rules and school curriculum support a division off labor that atomizes the school. Teachers may bargain collectively, but they work separately.

Working collectively means deciding collectively what should be done and how to do it. The admonition to work together inherently challenges centralized control and hierarchical authority. Rules that previously provided order and distributed fairness become impediments to change. Instead of providing rationalization they are seen as promoting rigidity. Unions and managements have sought ways to keep orderly development and continue to promote equity and fairness while allowing teachers the flexibility to invent their own solutions, including:

Joint Committees. Almost all locations we have seen set up joint union-management operating committees to plan, strategize, and implement reform. In Pittsburgh, more than 300 staff have been involved in the Professionalism in Education Partnership. Under Glenview, Illinois' unique labor-management constitution, much of the district's decision making on instruction, personnel, and finance takes place in three joint committees.

Decentralization to Schools. School systems are devolving authority over budgeting, scheduling, and curriculum to individual sites. This departure from centralized control challenges the union as much as management, for unions have to trust workers to make intelligent variations from work rules and job definitions.

Changing the Central Office. Decentralization is often matched by changes in union and school district central offices. In some cases, such as Louisville, school central offices change dramatically. Louisville's 155 principals report directly to the superintendent through an ingeniously crafted system of lead principals and staff designed to respond quickly to problems. Cincinnati has cut its central office staff in half; in other cities economic recession is hastening decentralization.

Training and Development. Giving permission to change is not enough. Most teachers and principals have little experience in exercising direct authority. Greece and Glenview, among others, devoted substantial time and attention to the basics: how to hold meetings, how to make decisions, how to think about new ideas. Pittsburgh and Louisville started training and development centers. Both the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association increased their efforts at school restructuring and change.

Redefining Leadership. Participatory decision making and management requires stronger, not weaker, leaders. But the process of redefining leadership is filled with tension. Principals fear teacher empowerment as a threat to their authority; teachers become uncomfortable with the ambiguity and time overload associated with group decision making.

Bargaining for the Same Goals

Industrial unionism assumes permanent adversaries. It organizes around vigorous representation of the differences between teachers and managers. In conventional labor relations, one of the damning charges made against superintendents or union leaders is that they "old out" or "got soft on management." Unionists and managers engaged in rhetoric of mutual deprecation. Permanent conflict was the strategy; cooperation was only a temporal tactic.

However, the assumption of constant conflict, which is part of the structure of industrial unionism, underestimates the fragility of the institution of public education. It was never believed that school districts themselves-as opposed to the regime of a particular superintendent-might be vulnerable. It was never anticipated that large numbers of people would abandon the public schools or that private alternatives would be endorsed politically. Events of the last decade prove otherwise.

Unfortunately, organizations cannot be improved when the perception is that the people surrounding them are ill-intentioned or inept. Moving from a unionism built around diffidence and antagonism to one built around cooperation requires mutual respect; the vehicle for antagonism must be converted into a vehicle for getting things done. Toward this end, collective bargaining changes its function and meaning in two ways:

Bargaining Changes. Techniques and practices change to allow for problem solving and mutual gains. In Cincinnati and Greece, bargainers schooled themselves in new techniques; in other cities, bargaining evolved a new tone.

Scope Enlarges. The scope of interactions drastically increases either directly in the contract or through the use of agreements outside the contract. In all the districts, educational reform policy became a legitimate and expected subject of collective bargaining. However, the accords are commonly agreements to work on the problem rather than answers that convey a property right or dictate an organizational practice. In Miami, the contract-making process has been changed to allow easy revision. In Glenview, the contract has become a statement of mission and principals. In Poway, Rochester, and Toledo, the contract serves as an anchor for reform, but nearly all the details are covered in other documents.

Agreements Outside the Contract. Although practices vary widely, there is a general trend to use the conventional labor contract as an anchor for reform and to develop details in other settings and other documents. The peer review program in Toledo, for example, is triggered by a single contractual sentence; the essence is developed elsewhere. Several California districts have experimented with what is called an Educational Policy Trust Agreement to hold resources "in trust" for educational purposes.

Contract Waivers. Almost every district we visited allowed individual schools to seek waiver of portions of the district-wide contract.

Balancing Public Good and Teacher Interest

Industrial unionism arose to protect teachers from the whims of managerial and political behavior and to advance teachers' interests. Professional unionism is called upon to balance teachers' legitimate self-interests with the larger interest of teaching as an occupation and education as an institution.

Just as political scientists and economists have increasingly recognized the necessity of institutions that act beyond self-interest, unionists and managers have come to recognize that they hold public as well as private-interest responsibilities. As Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers president Albert Fondy notes, "If there are problems in the school system, and the union is strong, then the union is responsible either for the fact that the problems exist in the first place, or at least responsible for the fact that they are not being addressed."

Peer Review. Nowhere is the movement toward representing both teachers and teaching seen more clearly than in the union's embrace of peer review and other forms of teacher participation in the evaluation of other teachers. Peer review is still controversial, although it is well accepted in the schools that are using it.

In Toledo, Poway, Miami, and Rochester, peer review is connected to assistance and intervention. Teachers are responsible for assisting new teachers or veterans who are having difficulty. The record of those interventions becomes admissible evidence in disciplinary or dismissal hearings, showing that attempts at remediation have been made.

Rules for Conflict. Managing conflict and decision making within a new relationship requires departing from old modes of behavior that have been particularly beneficial to unions. Using confrontation as a means of troop-rallying becomes a dangerous undertaking because continuing support for school reforms requires a public belief that progress is being made.

None of the districts we visited has had a strike during the reform period. Although we do not believe that professional unionism makes strikes impossible, actions that get in the way of educational reforms become politically suspect.

Changing the Mold

Professional unionism does not break the mold of existing schools so much as it changes its contours from within. Teachers and administrators are building schools that are less centralized and more democratic. They are becoming more conscious of the need for continued assessment of learning and teaching. They have invested themselves in the infrastructure of educational change, and in the process they are reconstructing their own work lives.

A Comparison of Industrial and Professional Unionism

Old Industrial Style Teacher Unionism

The Emerging Union of Professionals

Emphasizes the separateness of labor and management:

  • Separation of managerial and teaching work
  • Separation between job design and its execution
  • Strong hierarchical divisions

Motto: "Boards make policy, managers manage, teachers teach."

Emphasizes the collective aspect of work in schools:

  • Blurring the line between teaching and managerial work through joint committees and lead teacher positions
  • Designing and carrying out school programs in teams
  • Flattened hierarchies, decentralization

Motto: "All of us are smarter than any of us."

Emphasizes adversarial relationships:

  • Organized around teacher discontent
  • Mutual deprecation-lazy teachers, incompetent managers
  • Win/Lose distributive bargaining
  • Limited scope contract

Motto: "It's us versus them."

Emphasizes the interdependency of workers and managers:

  • Organized around the need for educational improvement
  • Mutual legitimation of the skill and capacity of management and union
  • Interest-based bargaining
  • Broad scope contracts and other agreements

Motto: "If you don't look good, we don't look good."

Emphasizes protection of teachers:

  • Self-interest
  • External quality control

Motto: "Any grievant is right."

Emphasizes protection of teaching:

  • Combination of self-interest and public interest
  • Internal quality control

Motto: "The purpose of the union is not to defend its least competent members."

An extensive bibliography in the published book.


Date submitted: 06/19/2008
Date approved: