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We Need a New Vision of Teacher Unionism

By Bob Petersen

Chanting mantras about the value of public education is meaningless if teachers and unions don't accept some responsibility for the problems in our schools. Originally published in Rethinking Schools Volume 11, No.4 -- Summer 1997.

It's not unusual for harsh words to be exchangedamong union members but what happened in the spring of 1997 is extraordinary.

Shortly after a major policy speech by NationalEducation Association (NEA) President Bob Chase, the presidents and executivedirectors of the four largest Wisconsin Education Association locals blastedChase and called his remarks "appalling."

Chase spoke before the National Press Club on Feb.5 on the topic "The New NEA: Reinventing Teacher Unions for a New Era."Chase argued that the NEA had to move beyond the traditional labor-managementantagonisms, take seriously community and parental concerns about publicschools, and collaborate with school boards and administrations to promoteschool reform. Perhaps most important, Chase said that teacher unions musttake responsibility for the quality of teachers and for the learning environmentin schools.

"Above all else, we must broaden our focus," Chase said. "... We must devote as much attention to the quality of the product we produce as we do to our members' wages, benefits, working conditions, and security." (Click here for major excerpts from the speech.)

Negative Reaction

Reaction to Chase's speech by Wisconsin teacher union officials was swift.On Feb. 20, the presidents and executive directors of the Milwaukee (oneof the largest NEA locals in the country), Madison, Racine, and Green BayNEA affiliates sent a joint letter to Chase strongly criticizing his speech.They argued that by encouraging labor/management cooperation and by callingon unions to take responsibility for the quality of its members, Chase isplaying into the hands of those who wish to destroy public education. "Thevery foundation of our union is threatened by those who will capitalizeon your remarks as an expression of weakness," they wrote.


About two weeks later, Terry Craney, presidentof the statewide NEA affiliate, the Wisconsin Education Association Council(WEAC), sent a letter to Chase with additional criticisms, albeit more mutedthan the locals' letter.

Chase responded in writing to WEAC that he welcomed the criticisms and said such dialogue is good for the NEA. "The NEA simply cannot afford to continue standing along the sidelines of the education reform debate," he wrote. (Click here to see excerpts from the letters from the union leaders, as well as Chase's response.)

The exchange of letters is revealing and sets thestage for a much-needed discussion on the future of teacher unionism. Theletters also demonstrate the weaknesses inherent in the old-style unionismstill popular among many teacher union officials.

Getting a handle on the controversy isn't easy.There are a number of educational issues that unions must deal with, andfor each issue there is an array of potential responses. The 2.2 million-memberNational Education Association and the 907,000-member American Federationof Teachers have held differing views on issues ranging from teacher strikesto union involvement in educational reform. Within each of the unions, thereis a wide range of views and vast differences in local and state politicalsituations. Moreover, even when policy is promulgated on the national level,its implementation can vary greatly on the local and state levels.

The fundamental question facing teacher unions,however, comes down to whether teachers will unite behind a new vision ofunionism and elect leaders who will implement such a vision. Chase is arguingthat teachers unions need to take responsibility for improving the performanceof teachers, students, and schools. Such a perspective stands in sharp contrastto that of the four union presidents in Wisconsin, who defend current unionpractices and the emphasis on bread-and-butter issues such as wages andworking conditions. There is also a third perspective which adopts the callfor union involvement in school reform but takes it further. This perspectiveemphasizes the need for union collaboration with community interests andcalls upon teachers to take up issues of equity and social justice.

In this essay, I refer to three kinds of unionism that articulate these various perspectives: "industrial-style," "professional," and "social justice." "Industrial-style unionism" and "professional unionism," are identified by Charles Kerchner and Julia Koppich in their book A Union of Professionals: Labor Relations and Educational Reform. "Social justice unionism" is based in part on the statement Social Justice Unionism: A Working Draft, issued by 29 AFT and NEA activists who attended a Rethinking Our Unions Institute in Portland, OR, in 1994.

As with any schematic classification, these modelscan not be applied rigidly. Not only do they sometimes overlap but individualunion members may hold views that don't neatly fit into just one of thethree models. Nonetheless, if viewed as three points on a spectrum, thesecategories may help clarify debate around teacher unionism.

Industrial Unionism

The old industrial-style teacher unionism can bestbe described as a bread-and-butter unionism that has been dominant sincethe late 1960s and early 1970s. In 1959, with Wisconsin's passage of thefirst public employee collective bargaining law in the nation, teacherssaw increased opportunities to enter into collective bargaining agreementswith their employers.

The AFT initially was more willing to go on strikeand was more successful in convincing teachers from large cities to joinits union. This helped propel the NEA toward a more militant industrial-unionmodel. For the NEA, this meant a huge change; until the mid-1960s, its nationalleadership was dominated by superintendents and administrators who tendednot to see teachers as "workers" in the traditional union senseof the word.

By the late 1960s and early 1970s, both the AFTand NEA were conducting strikes to ensure better wages, benefits, and pensions,as well as job protection from dictatorial principals and school boards.This forced most school districts in the country to bargain collectively(with the South being the notable exception). The two unions grew in sizeand strength and in many ways held "dual power" with local schoolauthorities in determining a wide range of policy. Such relationships tendedto be antagonistic, with teacher unions and school authorities viewing eachother as adversaries. Unions gave priority to protecting the rights of teachersand subordinated what might be in the best interests of school children.

The weakness of this model was that its visionwas narrowly trade unionist, with wages, working conditions, and job securitydefined as the outer boundaries of appropriate concern. Industrial modelsof collective bargaining agreements are not sufficient in education, however.Teachers are not building widgets or processing beef but teaching childrenwho have a broad range of social and cultural needs. The failure to understandthis meant, in practice, that professional concerns such as the qualityof learning were minimized, and relations with the broader community suffered.

The breach with community interests occurred mostvividly during the 1968 Ocean Hill-Brownsville strike in New York City.This bitter strike pitted New York City's United Federation of Teachersunder the leadership of Albert Shanker against the African-American community,including African-American teachers. The conflict centered on the extentto which local communities could control their schools, particularly withrespect to staffing. Shanker's UFT, which had cut its teeth fighting thecentralized New York City school authority, became that centralized authority'sbiggest advocate in order to ensure that community control would not impingeon what he and many teachers saw as fundamental teacher rights. The teachersunion won, and "community control" was lost forever in New YorkCity. In ensuing years, school policy was determined in large part throughbilateral negotiations between a highly centralized administration and ahighly centralized union. This mirrored the labor-management model of privateindustry and didn't take into account the public, quasi-democratic natureof schools.

To this day, professional matters have been subordinatedto protecting teachers' rights as workers, particularly in issues involvingteacher competency and assignment by seniority. The protection of unionmembers through lengthy evaluation and dismissal processes has made thefiring of even the most incompetent of teachers an overly cumbersome andalmost impossible process. As for the issue of staff assignment, in mostdistricts teachers are assigned by seniority rather than on the basis ofcompatibility with a school's programs, philosophy, and needs. While allthree union models recognize the need to protect teacher rights, the industrialunion model often fails to distinguish between legitimate bread and butter,and the moldy bread and rancid butter of protecting incompetence and narrowprivilege in the name of teacher rights.

Professional Unionism

Partly in response to these weaknesses in the industrial union model andpartly because of intense pressure on schools to reform, in the last decadethere has been a move among some teacher unionists, particularly at thelocal level, to move toward a professional model of unionism. This perspective,as Kerchner and Koppich explain, views teachers as professionals who upholdhigh teaching standards and who understand the interdependency of workersand local school authorities. This perspective foregoes the confrontational"them versus us" style of traditional unionism and adopts a sharedcommitment to work on areas of mutual concern. Several leaders within theAFT, including Tom Mooney, president of the Cincinnati Federation of Teachers,and Adam Urbanski, president of the Rochester, NY, Teachers Association,have been leaders within this trend. The locals they lead, along with othersin Toledo and Columbus, OH, and Dade County, FL, have used negotiationsto promote educational reforms such as career ladders and peer evaluation.


This professional approach has also been adoptedby a new organization known as the Teacher Union Reform Network (TURN).Comprised of 21 local teacher union leaders from both NEA and AFT affiliatesand funded by the Pew Charitable Trust, this grouping has regular meetingswhich focus on how to get local unions to take a more active role in educationalreform.

TURN describes itself as a "union-led effortto restructure the nation's teachers' unions to promote reforms that willultimately lead to better learning and higher achievement for America'schildren. ...The primary goal of TURN is to create a new union model thatcan take the lead in building and sustaining high performing schools forall students in an increasingly complex and diverse world."

Social Justice Unionism

I believe that relying solely on industrial-style unionism and professionalunionism is inadequate. Neither model satisfactorily deals with key issuesof race, equity, and the relationship between schools and broader socialconcerns. A third model social justice unionism helps to frame the debatemore completely. It draws from the strengths of both industrial unionismand professional unionism but has a consistent commitment to equity. Itsees the need for protection of basic teacher rights and teacher self-interestbut recognizes that the long-term interest of teachers rests in unions becomingmore professional and taking up issues of social justice.


In a 1994 statement calling for internal uniondemocracy, education reform that serves all children, collaboration withcommunity organizations, and a concern for broader issues of equity, a groupof 29 teacher union activists issued a "working draft" of socialjustice unionism.

The draft argued that "reform should be drivenby standards of equity and social justice, including high expectations andeducational excellence for all. The ideals that led us to organize our unionsand fight for economic justice indeed, that led many of us to enter teachingin the first place are no less compelling than in the past: a desire tohelp children; hope for the future; service to community; and a convictionthat public education is a cornerstone of society's commitment to equalopportunity, equity, and democratic participation. But these ideals cannotbe served by business-as-usual in our schools or in our unions."

The Attack on Chase

The letter by the four union presidents critical of Chase exemplifies someof the shortcomings of industrial-style unionism. The four presidents arguethat to admit past mistakes or to help get bad teachers out of the classroomis not only wrong but dangerous to the future of teacher unions. They arguethat "members pay dues for us to promote their interests" andask, "Why should we accept the responsibility for poor quality teachingin light of inadequate teacher preparation programs at schools of educationor the inept or politically expedient hiring decisions of administrationand school boards?"


There is one major problem with their perspective.Reality. Public education is at a crisis point: attacked and criticizedfrom many sides and steadily losing public support, its very survival isin jeopardy. Many attacks are by people opposed to the very idea of a publiceducation or of the right of teachers to organize. But teachers unions needto recognize that there are serious shortcomings and inequalities withinthe public schools. Yes, we should criticize inadequate teacher educationprograms and lousy hiring practices, but we can't stop there. Chanting mantrasabout the rights of teachers and the value of public education are meaninglessif teachers and unions don't accept some responsibility for problems inour schools.

Chase has described a different approach, encouragingteachers unions to flexibly and creatively experiment to solve the problemsconfronting public schools. Such an approach is similar to the examplesof professional unionism outlined by Kerchner and Koppich, although Chaseis more explicit in his statements that he wants the NEA to fulfill boththe traditional trade union role and a more professional function.

The four presidents claim that Chase's approach"accommodate[s] the privateers" and is similar to the actionsof those who appeased the Nazis in the 1930s and 1940s. But the four presidentsfail to demonstrate how cooperating with local educational authorities (administrationsand school boards) in any way accommodates those who wish to privatize education.In fact, one could argue that local union intransigence to school reformstrengthens public support for circumventing the unions by privatizing publicschools. For example, the Milwaukee union's opposition to modificationsin staffing formulas for two African-American immersion schools in 1991contributed significantly to anti-teacher and anti-public-education sentimentwithin Milwaukee. Such union rigidity also has been cited in the media asan example of why the "public school monopoly" must be broken.

I have reread Chase's speech several times andam unable to find any example of appeasement toward "privateers."The closest one might conceivably argue is that Chase said to the businesscommunity that the "NEA pledges to work with you to raise and enforcestandards for student achievement, to ensure that high school graduatesare at a minimum literate, competent in the basic skills, equipped for theworkplace." Are the four local union leaders arguing that it is appeasingprivateers to acknowledge criticisms of insufficiently prepared students?

At the same time, it is important to acknowledgethe very real threats faced by teacher unions. None of the three schoolsof unionism argue that a union should abandon its vigilance in protectingwages, working conditions, pensions, and basic job security. One can't forgetthe arbitrary dismissals of thousands of teachers that took place duringthe McCarthy era before union protection, nor dismiss the problems stillfaced by gay and lesbian or politically active teachers particularly inview of the religious right's strategy of imposing its morals on the publicschools. Likewise, there is strong bipartisan support for privatizing publicinstitutions and responsibilities, not just in education but in a rangeof social services.

In Wisconsin, for instance, collective bargainingrights are severely compromised through the mechanism of the state-imposedcaps on school district spending and on teachers' wages and benefits. Elsewhere,as in New Jersey, courts are putting many issues of educational policy beyondthe reach of negotiation, classifying even issues such as class size andteaching loads as "management prerogatives." This affects notonly bread-and-butter issues but teacher professionalism and the qualityof education. Teachers unions clearly need to take a confrontational, activiststance against such policies.

Political reality suggests, however, that localschool boards and administrations can often be allies in such battles. Theyunderstand the educational harm of the state-imposed spending caps and otherthreats to public education. The question is, how can unions cooperate withthose local authorities so that together we can fight off such threats toa quality public education?


A key issue in educational reform is accountability. Looking at this issue,the differences between the three models of unionism are clearer.


The industrial union model views accountabilityas external (i.e., enforced by principals and supervisors, not teachers),according to Kerchner and Koppich. This model believes that the union mustnot only defend the legal rights of even the most incompetent of teachersbut must take a hands-off approach in trying to do anything about such teachers,claiming that such responsibilities belong solely to management. The professionalunion model tries to look beyond the self-interest of individual teachersand consider the broader needs of schools and children. It looks for internalcontrols on quality, through mechanisms such as peer evaluation. Under asocial justice union model, the scope of accountability goes even furtherand includes parents and community. Here one confronts a potential problemwith the strictly professional union approach, a problem that in many urbandistricts has distinct racial overtones. Is peer evaluation the exclusiveprovince of teachers and administrators or should parents and communitymembers play a role? Some schools, such as Hi-Mount Elementary School inMilwaukee, have experimented with peer evaluation that includes not onlyschool staff but parents. Other schools have parents and community membersexercising authority around issues of accountability by playing significantroles on local school councils.

A social justice union perspective would also arguethat teacher unions should promote accountability and equity on a districtlevel. For example, the Cincinnati Federation of Teachers conducted a surveyto determine which high schools were offering calculus and advanced languagecourses. The survey found that predominantly lower-income neighborhood schoolswere not offering these classes while specialty schools and the collegeprep high school were. The union's subsequent organizing around the issuecaused a major policy shift in the Cincinnati Public Schools, which instituteda special allocation to schools to ensure the availability of advanced classesat all schools.

Issues of Race

The most glaring differences among the three models of unionism involveissues of race. As welcome as was Chase's speech before the National PressClub, it is disconcerting that Chase did not once mention race. Yet amongthe many issues the NEA must confront is the reality that the teaching professionis predominantly white in a public school system that is increasingly populatedby children of color.


How to deal with racism and race relations is adaunting problem for any institution in this country. It is particularlydifficult for schools and teachers. Advocates of professional unionism havecalled on unions to promote staff development on issues such as school restructuringand child-centered curriculum, but multicultural, anti-racist training israrely mentioned.

In contrast, a social justice union approach woulddirectly take on issues of race. The British Columbia Federation of Teachers,for instance, runs an education program for members which deals with raceon personal, political, and pedagogical levels. Through a combination ofworkshops, training sessions, policy statements, and youth organizing, theprovincial union has encouraged teachers to discuss and deal with race issues.

The issue of race also involves two other key areas:the political coalitions that unions develop with communities and organizationsof color; and the social/professional relationships schools and teachersdevelop with students, parents, and community members.

The Ocean Hill-Brownsville strike is the clearestexample of how a union has seriously damaged its relationship with the African-Americancommunity. A stark contrast to this was the strategy used by the ClevelandTeachers Union in their 1996 collective bargaining struggle against thestate-controlled Cleveland Public Schools. At the height of the strugglethe state government brought in hundreds of uniformed security police inanticipation of a possible strike. However, the alliance that the CTU hadcreated with the NAACP and Black Elected Democrats of Cleveland helped winsupport in the community against such state intervention, and a strike wasprevented.

Relations with the community have also been harmedby union intransigence on issues of seniority. In Milwaukee and Boston,teacher unions have gone to court in recent decades to overturn programsthat attempted to maintain the number of teachers of color by a system of"super-seniority" in lay-offs in other words, foregoing the traditionalsystem of "last hired, first fired" in favor of maintaining apercentage of teachers of color, regardless of how many years those teachershad worked in the system.

A social justice union stance would promote policiesthat concretely dismantle vestiges of past discrimination and promote equalityfor all. For example, the Cleveland Teachers Union agreed to a settlementwhich created two paths of seniority one Black and one white for summerschool to ensure equal access to all summer school positions.

Some teachers union locals have aggressively supportedprograms to recruit teachers of color, building ties with community groupsin the process. Still others have worked in coalitions with community groupson political campaigns that are not directly tied to the welfare of teachers.For example, the California Education Association's work against last year'santi-affirmative action referendum indicated a willingness to support campaignsthat are not immediately viewed as "teacher connected." Unfortunately,it is easier to find examples where teachers unions have failed to buildmulti-racial, multi-constituency coalitions. Given the racial dynamics inthis country, success in this area will be elusive unless teachers aggressivelywork to build such coalitions.

Proponents of social justice unionism also arguefor increased parent and community participation at the school level throughsite-based management councils, local school councils, and paid parent organizers.Many unionists tend to endorse site-based councils as long as the schoolstaff is given increased input and power. The professional union proponentshave even argued that such councils should have the right to modify certaincontract provisions, in particular those pertaining to hiring, transfers,and scheduling.

In many districts, unions have negotiated guaranteesthat teachers will be a majority on local councils. A social justice unionperspective places more emphasis on parent and community participation evento the extent of arguing that unions should consider supporting an equalnumber of parents and teachers on school-based councils and should fightfor money to recruit and train parents so that they can come to the tableas equals. The bottom line in judging such structural changes, however,is the extent to which they promote genuine parent participation in allaspects of school life.

Ultimately, the teachers union's relationship tostudents, parents, and community is at the heart of school reform. It isalso central to the success and the survival of teachers unions. The questionconfronting the NEA is not so much whether it will succumb to calls fora return to industrial-style unionism. The issue is whether teacher unionswill promote social policies and movements that help our public schools,our children, and our communities.

Bob Peterson (REPMilw@aol.com) teaches at La EscuelaFratney in Milwaukee and is an editor of Rethinking Schools. He served onthe MTEA executive board for six years and currently is on the NEA's EmergencyCommission on Urban Children.


Kerchner, C. and Julia Koppich. "A Union of Professionals:Labor Relations and Educational Reform" (New York: Teachers College Press,1993).

"Rethinking Our Unions Institute of the National Coalition of Education Activists, Social Justice Unionism: A Working Draft" (Washington DC: NCEA, 1994). For a printed copy send $1 to NCEA, PO Box 679, Rhinebeck, NY 12572.