May 4, 2006

Why teacher union democracy and process matters

The ed-blogule spat over who represents teachers is expanding, from Leo Casey's original criticism of a NewSchools Venture Fund meeting (held without an actively-serving union officer) to Andrew Rotherham's carping, with rebuttals on each side in the original entries and in another Leo Casey entry. The gist: the NSVF meeting (with the description, "As the seventh annual gathering of hybrid leaders in education reform, NewSchools Summit 2006 will feature timely and critical topics, including emerging district and state approaches to chronically underperforming schools, the role of charter schools in system reform, and the development of performance-driven school systems") has no representatives of teachers unions. It does have former union folks, but no currently-serving officers.

Does this matter?...

There are several issues at stake here. One is the question of leadership raised over a century ago by W.E.B. DuBois in Of Mr. Booker T. Washington and Others, in this case, who chooses who represents teachers? Teacher unions get to be collective-bargaining representatives generally because they win ratification elections or demonstrate majority support within a bargaining unit. And laws mandate that union leaders be elected.* Did anyone elect Leo Gerstner to speak about education as the voice of Commerce? I understand that self-selected groups often start inviting others by a casual form of snowball sampling—whom do you know who might be interested?—but there are often limits to the inclusiveness of such social networking. Worse yet is the experience in many cases of "reform" groups who deliberately exclude any teacher voices or who engage in cherry-picking certain voices. And so I understand Leo's sensitivity and principle.

* So you wonder about the effectiveness of union democracy? Good! Because a subsidiary issue here is one of accountability. Only through union democratic processes can you be sure that someone speaking as a teacher representative really is a teacher representative. As Joe Williams notes in his recent book, union democracy can be a wonderful and terrifying thing to watch. The NEA Representative Assembly refused to endorse the proposed merger with AFT several years ago, despite then-President Bob Chase's best efforts (and they did so because of their concerns about... surprise! ... union democracy). I was in a sizable minority at the last Florida Education Association delegate assembly when debating and voting on a bargaining-strategy resolution supported by the state leadership. I understand that, many years ago, my own local (the United Faculty of Florida) left the AFT when Al Shanker's underlings railroaded through a resolution supporting defense-spending increases, and one of the local's officers was unsubtly warned that retaliation would follow any dissent. Okay, so teacher union democracy isn't perfect. But it's better than in some other unions (ask the Teamsters), its failure and not its working is what promotes corruption (ask teachers in Miami-Dade about Pat Tornillo), and anyone who criticizes it sure better support fair redistricting initiatives or be rightfully tagged as hypocritical. It's the way we can hold teacher representatives responsible.

Finally, there is a disappointing pattern in education politics of judging union leaders primarily based on political posturing. That's why Shanker shortcut the democratic process to push through resolutions in AFT that were unrelated to education, to gain political capital. But such judgments ignore other important skills involved in union leadership, from communications with the membership to managing the organization's assets and negotiations. To be honest, some part of that is internal and private (bargaining strategies and tactics often are), but you don't always have to be an insider to see the leadership skills. A case in point is the Denver union's working with the school board on ProComp. Not suprisingly, the Education Sector's interview with Brad Jupp portrayed the issue as one of union flexibility and "thinking outside the box" smarts. (The interview didn't use that phrase, but my inference allows me to give a pointer to readers: the phrase "outside the box" is now inside the box.)

I will certainly grant Jupp and the whole Denver teacher leadership credit for enormous skills in managing negotiations and message, because I could almost guarantee that there was another political calculus behind ProComp: getting more money for salaries in Denver. The teachers and administrators realized that they could convince voters to pop for a tax increase if it was tied to something new and visibly accountable—thus, ProComp. In addition, the union had experience with the pilot, which assuaged several of the common concerns with merit-pay policies. The two issues (political calculations over funds and concrete experience) converged. The reason why Florida's unions have been fighting our state politicians' merit-pay policies over the past seven years has nothing to do with the relative savvy of Brad Jupp and Andy Ford (FEA's president). The difference is because Florida didn't see the convergence Denver had. In Florida, there has been no extra money in the pot at all, and the unions have been cut almost entirely out of the policy loop since January 1999, leaving no confidence that merit-pay plans will work fairly.

To borrow from Winston Churchill, union democracy is the worst form of worker representation, with the exception of all the others we've tried.

Update: The AFT's NCLBlog has additional commentary.

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Posted in Education policy on May 4, 2006 8:08 AM |