In June, Ron Matus introduced a short series of entries responding to his question, “Can teachers unions adapt?” Responses came from anti-union writers Gary Beckner and Terry Moe, from DFER staff member and former journalist Joe Williams, and from former Pinellas County Teachers Association head and current SUFS president Doug Tuthill.
I am a current member and former officer in the United Faculty of Florida (Florida’s college and university faculty union), but I think the most useful approach I can suggest comes from my role as an education historian. The reality is that teachers unions (or any organizations tied to schooling) have a long record of varied change in response to circumstances.
Despite occasional crass claims about an educational status quo and “industry-era education,” rough stability is a more useful concept for education history than absolute fixedness. As David Tyack and Larry Cuban argue in their wonderful history of school reform, Tinkering toward Utopia, change often happens through long-term trends rather than through the more visible and cyclical rhetoric of the reform du jour.
More importantly, the sources of relative stability derive more from shared values and long-term social dilemmas than come from either self-interest (as Joe Williams claims) or from bureaucracy. Bureaucracy has its influences and people include material self-interest as part of their identity and their role in organizations like unions. But schools have social scripts for all sorts of reasons, including our country’s bundling of education with citizenship and the common experiences adults remember from their time in schools.
Understanding that mix of change and stability requires that we give up slogans about both schools and teachers. For example, rural schools both face concrete difficulties in managing their workforce because of local labor markets and also have changed in significant ways despite the stability of some conditions. The Hendry County Education Association is not the main reason why it would almost always be difficult to hire and retain physics teachers in that rural Florida county, or the reasons why a principal of Clewiston High School (or any rural high school) might be unable to offer physics or be hesitant to fire a poor science teacher. Hiring and keeping good science teachers would be a challenge even if the Hendry schools paid science teachers more than other teachers: fewer than 10% of Hendry County adults have a bachelors degree, let alone one in science or science education.
Yet rural high schools still change across years and decades, and pretending they do not is not accurate history. For example, Clewiston High School serves around 1,000 students, not only much larger than rural high schools 50 years ago but a larger population than many suburban high schools today or in the past. Despite its rural nature, Hendry County’s school system parallels other county schools in Florida as much as it can, including schools larger than one would have found in the vast majority of Florida’s school districts 50 or 60 years ago. That parallel structure has helped Hendry County address the shortage of teachers in general, if not making principals’ hiring or retention decisions easy in a rural area.
So too with teachers unions: Change in many areas, stability in others. While some individual locals may be remarkably stable in character and priorities, many state affiliates and both national teachers unions (the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers) have changed significantly over the long term, and they change in response to both external conditions and internal debates. The existence of public school choice and private-school voucher policies change the external conditions but not the fact that national unions respond to them. The interesting question for an historian is what factors shape changes in unions, not whether they change.
Williams is wrong to identify material self-interest as the primary factor tying teachers to unions. Material self-interest is part of what teachers find valuable in unions, in the same way that Williams appreciates being paid for his work in DFER. But I know Williams works for DFER not just for money but for the values he is persuaded he shares with other staff and donors. Similarly, teachers and other works join unions for much more than bread-and-butter issues. As Doug Tuthill’s story of his early activism points out, teachers join and stay in unions as much for dignity and respect as for salaries and benefits. Teachers generally see recent attacks on collective bargaining as at least partly motivated by disrespect for teachers and publicly-employed women. To ignore either the perceived disrespect or the gender issues involved in recent attacks on teachers unions is to misunderstand unions and their members.
How the common values of union members play out will shift by local conditions and by the politics of state and national affiliates. Both national affiliates have a concrete interest in organizing more teachers into collective-bargaining units, but they differ in terms of organizing charter-school teachers. While the NEA has locals that organize charter-school teachers into bargaining units, the NEA has been less aggressive in organizing charter-school teachers than the AFT. Part of that difference derives from the AFT’s historical concentration in major cities (where charter schools are more prominent than in suburbs) and also from the fact that the AFT has some history of organizing in private industry, primarily hospital nurses but more recently including day care workers in New York City.
In addition, both national teachers unions will in general support the organizing and bargaining decisions taken by leaders at the local level. For example, Toledo’s local union pushed the school system to create a peer evaluation/review policy long before it was considered in other districts. In other cases, local unions may have resisted the urging of state or national leaders to consider changes in teacher evaluation procedures, but that tension is generally not public. That tension arises because there is a legal obligation of a local union to consult with and work with members in its bargaining unit, and contracts will generally reflect local priorities even if the majority of union members in the state or national affiliate feel differently. Thus, how local leaders respond to changing external conditions will also depend on internal debates about union values and strategic priorities. And even within a local union or state affiliate, responses can exist in multiple tracks, addressing some issues through bargaining while addressing others through ordinary direct action or through the courts.
The last constraint on union behavior is in terms of where unions have authority: in relationships with school districts. In general, beliefs that private competition for students will directly push teachers unions in certain directions is magical thinking, not because the composition of schools in a city is irrelevant but because the primary legal relationship is between a union and that school district’s leadership. If the management of a district believes they need to respond to circumstances with changed negotiating priorities, it is in that bargaining context where the local union leaders must respond, both from legal and from political pressures. With the exception of organizing charter-school teachers, the effects of charter-school expansion and private-school voucher policies are indirect at most.
How will teachers unions respond to charter-school expansion or the creation of voucher programs? In many places, unions respond directly by selective organizing campaigns in charter schools, by continuing a regular bargaining relationship with the local district, and by arguing in public or in the courts against specific policies that union leaders judge to be the greatest threat to the shared values and long-term priorities of members. In other words, “it depends,” which is probably a frustrating answer for those who prefer to stick to preconceived ideas about unions. It just happens to be the truth.
Editor’s note: Sherman Dorn is the chair of the Department of Psychological and Social Foundations in the University of South Florida (Tampa) College of Education. He is the author of Accountability Frankenstein (2007) and coeditor of Education Reform in Florida (SUNY Press, 2006), among other works, and former USF chapter president of the United Faculty of Florida (the faculty union in Florida). Read his blog at: http://shermandorn.com/nas/content/live/redefined/