We Need a New Vision of Teacher Unionism

It's not unusual for harsh words to be exchanged among union members but what happened this spring is extraordinary.

By Bill Bigelow

How best can teacher unions become involved in professional issues impacting on the quality of education?

Shortly after a major policy speech by National Education Association (NEA) President Bob Chase, the presidents and executive directors of the four largest Wisconsin Education Association locals blasted Chase 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-management antagonisms, take seriously community and parental concerns about public schools, and collaborate with school boards and administrations to promote school reform. Perhaps most important, Chase said that teacher unions must take responsibility for the quality of teachers and for the learning environment in 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.” (See Rethinking Schools, Vol. 11 #3 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 (one of the largest NEA locals in the country), Madison, Racine, and Green Bay NEA affiliates sent a joint letter to Chase strongly criticizing his speech. They argued that by encouraging labor/management cooperation and by calling on unions to take responsibility for the quality of its members, Chase is playing into the hands of those who wish to destroy public education. “The very foundation of our union is threatened by those who will capitalize on your remarks as an expression of weakness,” they wrote.

About two weeks later, Terry Craney, president of the statewide NEA affiliate, the Wisconsin Education Association Council (WEAC), sent a letter to Chase with additional criticisms, albeit more muted than 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 the stage for a much-needed discussion on the future of teacher unionism. The letters also demonstrate the weaknesses inherent in the old-style unionism still 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, and for each issue there is an array of potential responses. The 2.2 million-member National Education Association and the 907,000-member American Federation of Teachers have held differing views on issues ranging from teacher strikes to union involvement in educational reform. Within each of the unions, there is a wide range of views and vast differences in local and state political situations. 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 of unionism and elect leaders who will implement such a vision. Chase is arguing that teachers unions need to take responsibility for improving the performance of teachers, students, and schools. Such a perspective stands in sharp contrast to that of the four union presidents in Wisconsin, who defend current union practices and the emphasis on bread-and-butter issues such as wages and working conditions. There is also a third perspective which adopts the call for union involvement in school reform but takes it further. This perspective emphasizes the need for union collaboration with community interests and calls 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 models can not be applied rigidly. Not only do they sometimes overlap but individual union members may hold views that don’t neatly fit into just one of the three models. Nonetheless, if viewed as three points on a spectrum, these categories may help clarify debate around teacher unionism.

Industrial Unionism

The old industrial-style teacher unionism can best be described as a bread-and-butter unionism that has been dominant since the late 1960s and early 1970s. In 1959, with Wisconsin’s passage of the first public employee collective bargaining law in the nation, teachers saw increased opportunities to enter into collective bargaining agreements with their employers.

The AFT initially was more willing to go on strike and was more successful in convincing teachers from large cities to join its union. This helped propel the NEA toward a more militant industrial-union model. For the NEA, this meant a huge change; until the mid-1960s, its national leadership was dominated by superintendents and administrators who tended not to see teachers as “workers” in the traditional union sense of the word.

By the late 1960s and early 1970s, both the AFT and 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 size and strength and in many ways held “dual power” with local school authorities in determining a wide range of policy. Such relationships tended to be antagonistic, with teacher unions and school authorities viewing each other as adversaries. Unions gave priority to protecting the rights of teachers and subordinated what might be in the best interests of school children.

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

The breach with community interests occurred most vividly during the 1968 Ocean Hill-Brownsville strike in New York City. This bitter strike pitted New York City’s United Federation of Teachers under the leadership of Albert Shanker against the African-American community, including African-American teachers. The conflict centered on the extent to which local communities could control their schools, particularly with respect to staffing. Shanker’s UFT, which had cut its teeth fighting the centralized New York City school authority, became that centralized authority’s biggest advocate in order to ensure that community control would not impinge on what he and many teachers saw as fundamental teacher rights. The teachers union won, and “community control” was lost forever in New York City. In ensuing years, school policy was determined in large part through bilateral negotiations between a highly centralized administration and a highly centralized union. This mirrored the labor-management model of private industry and didn’t take into account the public, quasi-democratic nature of schools.

To this day, professional matters have been subordinated to protecting teachers’ rights as workers, particularly in issues involving teacher competency and assignment by seniority. The protection of union members through lengthy evaluation and dismissal processes has made the firing of even the most incompetent of teachers an overly cumbersome and almost impossible process. As for the issue of staff assignment, in most districts teachers are assigned by seniority rather than on the basis of compatibility with a school’s programs, philosophy, and needs. While all three union models recognize the need to protect teacher rights, the industrial union model often fails to distinguish between legitimate bread and butter, and the moldy bread and rancid butter of protecting incompetence and narrow privilege in the name of teacher rights.

Professional Unionism

Partly in response to these weaknesses in the industrial union model and partly because of intense pressure on schools to reform, in the last decade there has been a move among some teacher unionists, particularly at the local level, to move toward a professional model of unionism. This perspective, as Kerchner and Koppich explain, views teachers as professionals who uphold high teaching standards and who understand the interdependency of workers and local school authorities. This perspective foregoes the confrontational “them versus us” style of traditional unionism and adopts a shared commitment to work on areas of mutual concern. Several leaders within the AFT, 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 others in Toledo and Columbus, OH, and Dade County, FL, have used negotiations to promote educational reforms such as career ladders and peer evaluation.

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

TURN describes itself as a “union-led effort to restructure the nation’s teachers’ unions to promote reforms that will ultimately lead to better learning and higher achievement for America’s children. …The primary goal of TURN is to create a new union model that can take the lead in building and sustaining high performing schools for all students in an increasingly complex and diverse world.”

Social Justice Unionism

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

In a 1994 statement calling for internal union democracy, education reform that serves all children, collaboration with community organizations, and a concern for broader issues of equity, a group of 29 teacher union activists issued a “working draft” of social justice unionism.

The draft argued that “reform should be driven by standards of equity and social justice, including high expectations and educational excellence for all. The ideals that led us to organize our unions and fight for economic justice indeed, that led many of us to enter teaching in the first place are no less compelling than in the past: a desire to help children; hope for the future; service to community; and a conviction that public education is a cornerstone of society’s commitment to equal opportunity, equity, and democratic participation. But these ideals cannot be 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 some of the shortcomings of industrial-style unionism. The four presidents argue that to admit past mistakes or to help get bad teachers out of the classroom is not only wrong but dangerous to the future of teacher unions. They argue that “members pay dues for us to promote their interests” and ask, “Why should we accept the responsibility for poor quality teaching in light of inadequate teacher preparation programs at schools of education or the inept or politically expedient hiring decisions of administration and school boards?”

There is one major problem with their perspective. Reality. Public education is at a crisis point: attacked and criticized from many sides and steadily losing public support, its very survival is in jeopardy. Many attacks are by people opposed to the very idea of a public education or of the right of teachers to organize. But teachers unions need to recognize that there are serious shortcomings and inequalities within the public schools. Yes, we should criticize inadequate teacher education programs and lousy hiring practices, but we can’t stop there. Chanting mantras about the rights of teachers and the value of public education are meaningless if teachers and unions don’t accept some responsibility for problems in our schools.

Chase has described a different approach, encouraging teachers unions to flexibly and creatively experiment to solve the problems confronting public schools. Such an approach is similar to the examples of professional unionism outlined by Kerchner and Koppich, although Chase is more explicit in his statements that he wants the NEA to fulfill both the 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 actions of those who appeased the Nazis in the 1930s and 1940s. But the four presidents fail to demonstrate how cooperating with local educational authorities (administrations and school boards) in any way accommodates those who wish to privatize education. In fact, one could argue that local union intransigence to school reform strengthens public support for circumventing the unions by privatizing public schools. For example, the Milwaukee union’s opposition to modifications in staffing formulas for two African-American immersion schools in 1991 contributed significantly to anti-teacher and anti-public-education sentiment within Milwaukee. Such union rigidity also has been cited in the media as an example of why the “public school monopoly” must be broken.

I have reread Chase’s speech several times and am unable to find any example of appeasement toward “privateers.” The closest one might conceivably argue is that Chase said to the business community that the “NEA pledges to work with you to raise and enforce standards for student achievement, to ensure that high school graduates are at a minimum literate, competent in the basic skills, equipped for the workplace.” Are the four local union leaders arguing that it is appeasing privateers to acknowledge criticisms of insufficiently prepared students?

At the same time, it is important to acknowledge the very real threats faced by teacher unions. None of the three schools of unionism argue that a union should abandon its vigilance in protecting wages, working conditions, pensions, and basic job security. One can’t forget the arbitrary dismissals of thousands of teachers that took place during the McCarthy era before union protection, nor dismiss the problems still faced by gay and lesbian or politically active teachers particularly in view of the religious right’s strategy of imposing its morals on the public schools. Likewise, there is strong bipartisan support for privatizing public institutions and responsibilities, not just in education but in a range of social services.

In Wisconsin, for instance, collective bargaining rights are severely compromised through the mechanism of the state-imposed caps on school district spending and on teachers’ wages and benefits. Elsewhere, as in New Jersey, courts are putting many issues of educational policy beyond the reach of negotiation, classifying even issues such as class size and teaching loads as “management prerogatives.” This affects not only bread-and-butter issues but teacher professionalism and the quality of education. Teachers unions clearly need to take a confrontational, activist stance against such policies.

Political reality suggests, however, that local school boards and administrations can often be allies in such battles. They understand the educational harm of the state-imposed spending caps and other threats to public education. The question is, how can unions cooperate with those local authorities so that together we can fight off such threats to a 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 accountability as external (i.e., enforced by principals and supervisors, not teachers), according to Kerchner and Koppich. This model believes that the union must not only defend the legal rights of even the most incompetent of teachers but must take a hands-off approach in trying to do anything about such teachers, claiming that such responsibilities belong solely to management. The professional union model tries to look beyond the self-interest of individual teachers and consider the broader needs of schools and children. It looks for internal controls on quality, through mechanisms such as peer evaluation. Under a social justice union model, the scope of accountability goes even further and includes parents and community. Here one confronts a potential problem with the strictly professional union approach, a problem that in many urban districts has distinct racial overtones. Is peer evaluation the exclusive province of teachers and administrators or should parents and community members play a role? Some schools, such as Hi-Mount Elementary School in Milwaukee, have experimented with peer evaluation that includes not only school staff but parents. Other schools have parents and community members exercising authority around issues of accountability by playing significant roles on local school councils.

A social justice union perspective would also argue that teacher unions should promote accountability and equity on a district level. For example, the Cincinnati Federation of Teachers conducted a survey to determine which high schools were offering calculus and advanced language courses. The survey found that predominantly lower-income neighborhood schools were not offering these classes while specialty schools and the college prep high school were. The union’s subsequent organizing around the issue caused a major policy shift in the Cincinnati Public Schools, which instituted a special allocation to schools to ensure the availability of advanced classes at all schools.

Issues of Race

The most glaring differences among the three models of unionism involve issues of race. As welcome as was Chase’s speech before the National Press Club, it is disconcerting that Chase did not once mention race. Yet among the many issues the NEA must confront is the reality that the teaching profession is predominantly white in a public school system that is increasingly populated by children of color.

How to deal with racism and race relations is a daunting problem for any institution in this country. It is particularly difficult for schools and teachers. Advocates of professional unionism have called on unions to promote staff development on issues such as school restructuring and child-centered curriculum, but multicultural, anti-racist training is rarely mentioned.

In contrast, a social justice union approach would directly take on issues of race. The British Columbia Federation of Teachers, for instance, runs an education program for members which deals with race on personal, political, and pedagogical levels. Through a combination of workshops, training sessions, policy statements, and youth organizing, the provincial 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 organizations of color; and the social/professional relationships schools and teachers develop with students, parents, and community members.

The Ocean Hill-Brownsville strike is the clearest example of how a union has seriously damaged its relationship with the African-American community. A stark contrast to this was the strategy used by the Cleveland Teachers Union in their 1996 collective bargaining struggle against the state-controlled Cleveland Public Schools. At the height of the struggle the state government brought in hundreds of uniformed security police in anticipation of a possible strike. However, the alliance that the CTU had created with the NAACP and Black Elected Democrats of Cleveland helped win support in the community against such state intervention, and a strike was prevented.

Relations with the community have also been harmed by union intransigence on issues of seniority. In Milwaukee and Boston, teacher unions have gone to court in recent decades to overturn programs that attempted to maintain the number of teachers of color by a system of “super-seniority” in lay-offs in other words, foregoing the traditional system of “last hired, first fired” in favor of maintaining a percentage of teachers of color, regardless of how many years those teachers had worked in the system.

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

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

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

In many districts, unions have negotiated guarantees that teachers will be a majority on local councils. A social justice union perspective places more emphasis on parent and community participation even to the extent of arguing that unions should consider supporting an equal number of parents and teachers on school-based councils and should fight for money to recruit and train parents so that they can come to the table as equals. The bottom line in judging such structural changes, however, is the extent to which they promote genuine parent participation in all aspects of school life.

Ultimately, the teachers union’s relationship to students, parents, and community is at the heart of school reform. It is also central to the success and the survival of teachers unions. The question confronting the NEA is not so much whether it will succumb to calls for a return to industrial-style unionism. The issue is whether teacher unions will promote social policies and movements that help our public schools, our children, and our communities.

Bob Peterson (REPMilw@aol.com) teaches at La Escuela Fratney in Milwaukee and is an editor of Rethinking Schools. He served on the MTEA executive board for six years and currently is on the NEA’s Emergency Commission 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 copy send $1 to NCEA, PO Box 679, Rhinebeck, NY 12572.