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Teacher Work and Teacher Unionism
Authors: Charles Kerchner
Contact: Charles Kerchner

This theme is most completely developed in United Mind Workers: Unions and Teaching in the Knowledge Society. Although it was published in 1997, more than a decade ago, most of the ideas in the book are still current. Indeed, we argue in Mindworkers that the unions need to change because the whole institution of public education is changing, a topic that we develop in two books that were published in 2008.

For teachers to be organized as mindworkers, their unions need to engage in continuous organizing. Getting a contract and a recognition agreement is never enough. And they need to vastly expand the scope of what teachers are organized around. First, the need to get organized around quality: quality teaching and quality education. Doing so changes the authority/responsibility dimensions of teaching as an occupation.

Second, teachers need to organize around schools as work places. School districts have been the focus of union organizing because public school districts have always been the employer. But as the institution changes, the role of districts change also. Reformers have come to realize that the economies of scale that applied to big industrial organizations, on which school districts were modeled, make huge school districts inefficient and often ineffective. And the desire of students, parents, and teachers to have more variety and flexibility in schooling, makes it more logical to move focus school operations around schools. Doing so, of course, has huge implications for labor relations.

Third, Mindworkers argues that teaching should be organized around careers rather than jobs. Almost all the income and social security teachers now possess requires that they stay in the classroom and in the same school districts. Occupational mobility patterns suggest that teachers need a way to be represented as they move from one job to another and from one place to another. Pensions and medical benefits should be independent of a specific employer, and they should accrue to teachers whether they were in a public school classroom, whether they take a job working for a charter management organization, or whether they work writing curriculum software. They are still teachers.

To read the first chapter of Mindworkers click on Projects and go to the Mindworkers link.

Two earlier books, and a number of other publications, led up to Mindworkers. The first, The Changing Idea of A Teachers Union illustrates how unions undergo "little revolutions" that change their ideology and practice over time, and in typology developed by my co-author Douglas Mitchell, the book points out the important differences between worker organization as industrial workers (laboring work), craft workers, artists, or professionals. This typology has played an important part in my subsequent thinking. To read the chapter click here. Finally, the book illustrates the key role that parents and the attentive community play in labor relations disputes. In virtually every place where the union ideology changes, parent activists line up on the winning side and tip the balance of power.

The Changing Idea... was published by Falmer Press, and is out of print. Try your local library or the used book market at Amazon.

The late 1980s began a period of great experimentation for both national teacher unions. First, the American Federation of Teachers, under the leadership of Albert Shanker, saw that public education was losing both public confidence and the capacity to perform as it should. It was "union work," Shanker argued, to set things right. Several AFT locals and National Education Association locals sought to organize differently. Case studies of these districts--including Rochester, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Miami, Pittsburg and others--can be found in A Union of Professionals, which was published by Teachers College Press. The book has gone out of print, but is available on the used book market, which you can get to by following the link below.

Although the case histories in A Union of Professionals are dated, the first and last chapters contain summaries of the difference between how teachers are organized as industrial workers and how they can be organized as professionals. For a summary of the differences between industrial and professional union organization Click here or click on Projects and then on a Union of Professionals.

In two articles published in 2007, we take up the issue of labor relations statutes for teachers. In "Negotiating What Matters," Julia Koppich and I advocate for making student achievement goals a mandatory subject of collective bargaining agreements. Click here or click on projects and then the title.

In "Charter Schools and Collective Bargaining: Compatible Marriage or Illegitimate Relationship," Martin Malin and I advocate specifying the mechanisms for employee voice and participation in the charter itself. Click here or click on projects and then the title.

Additional teacher labor relations articles can be read by clicking on Projects.


Date submitted: 09/01/2009
Date approved: