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Shifting the power balance

Changing laws weaken unions and give districts more control
  • Above, the Metropolitan School District of Warren Township discusses union issues. Left to right, Chad Hunter, Uniserv director; Kate Miller, union president; Dena Cushenberry, superintendent; Brian Simkins, human resources director; and Tony Mendez, school board president.
  • The Central York School District administrators recently discussed union issues. From left to right, Shelly Eaton, teacher union president; Bobbi Billman, director of human resources; Kevin Youcheff, principal of North Hills Elementary School; and Robert Grove, assistant superintendent.

It was compromise that prevented a major teacher’s strike in February, as Portland Public Schools and the local union struck a bargain during an intense 24 hours of negotiating that ended months of deliberations.

The district and the Portland Association of Teachers agreed on a new contract that includes 2.3 percent pay increases each year for the next three years. The district also committed to hiring at least 150 new teachers in 2014-15 to reduce workloads. The union conceded to the administration in allowing district leaders to consider competence over seniority when placing teachers in new positions.

Maintaining a constructive dialog with union members, even when negotiations get tense or take unexpected turns, is important for effective union/district relationships, says Portland Public Schools Superintendent Carole Smith. In this case, both sides made concessions.

“It can be challenging, especially when much of the public is urging you to just make a deal,” Smith says. “But it’s your obligation as an administrator to keep the long-term best interests of the district in mind. We had a very clear understanding of what our top priorities were. Now we have a balanced contract.”

Union-district relationships are historically tense. District leaders facing budget cuts and pushing reform must negotiate contracts with unions that are protecting the salaries and benefits of members. But in many areas, this negotiation process is changing as new legislation shifts the balance of power from unions to districts, giving administrators more freedom to pass reforms without collective bargaining.

Some districts are adapting to this change by working more collaboratively with unions, while others are leveraging the control to enact policies independently.

Rising Right to Work States

Legislative blows to unions and collective bargaining continued in Indiana and Michigan in 2012, when the two became the first new right-to-work states in a decade. In unionized states, workers cannot be forced to join a union, but many sign contracts that require them to pay dues to the union for collective bargaining.

Right-to-work laws state that no union can require membership as a condition for employment. If a teacher chooses not to join a union in one of these states, the teacher is still covered by the collective bargaining agreement between the district and union. Twenty-four states have become right-to-work since the 1940s, and most of them are located in the South. Indiana’s right-to-work law is now under Supreme Court review after legal battles.

The nature of union/district relationships in right-to-work states varies, says Michelle Exstrom, education program director at the National Conference of State Legislation. But areas with more collaboration tend to have more trusting relationships between teachers and administrators, which is important for keeping the most effective teachers in the classroom, she says.

This shift intensified when more Republicans gained majorities in state legislatures and won governorships in the 2010 election. There was an effort to weaken unions and the role of collective bargaining to give school administrators more flexibility with funds amid post-recession budget cuts, says Michelle Exstrom, education program director at the National Conference of State Legislation, a bipartisan research organization.

This was most notable in Wisconsin, where the passage of Act 10 in 2011 ended collective bargaining statewide for everything other than base wages.

“In areas where we see more collaboration between unions and districts, there seems to be a larger sense of trust between teachers and administrators—and if that breaks down, it can be extremely detrimental,” Exstrom says. “If you start losing effective teachers, that will begin to impact student achievement. The consequences of those relationships are very real, and trickle down to students.”

Union losses

Support for unions among teachers has fallen in recent years. Whereas 58 percent of teachers had a positive view of unions in 2011, only 43 percent did so in 2012, according to a national survey from the journal Education Next.

The National Education Association lost more than 100,000 of its 3.2 million members between 2010 and 2012, the organization’s Secretary-Treasurer Becky Pringle announced in 2012. The loss is the result of mass teacher layoffs, changes in collective bargaining and the rise of non-unionized charter schools, according to the union’s 2012-14 strategic plan.

NEA is expected to lose 308,000 members by the end of the union’s 2013-14 budget year. The NEA has also lost about $65 million in revenue between 2010 and 2014.

The American Federation of Teachers had grown slightly by 2012, and now represents 1.5 million workers. But, according to federal records, its revenue fell last year by nearly $6 million, a drop due in part to an increase in retirees and part-time workers who pay lower dues. Union dues go in part toward professional support services, disciplinary representation, and media advertisements, according to the AFT’s website.

Despite these losses, teacher’s unions still play a prominent role in state policy and how it impacts teachers, Exstrom says. Union members have an important stake in how states implement new standards and assessments, and how those policies affect teacher evaluations. In addition, union members in nearly every state often testify at legislative hearings about the impact these new policies have on their work.

The AFT and the NEA have pushed to develop collaborative working relationships with districts amid changing laws that may no longer require districts to do so.

Avoiding Strikes

Despite legal changes in some states, district/union collaboration is key to avoiding the “nuclear option” of teacher strikes, which disrupt education and parent schedules. Seattle Public Schools teachers threatened a strike last August over contracts, but the union reached a compromise with the district in September to avoid it.

At the time of this writing, Philadelphia teachers had been working without contracts since September, as the cash-strapped district tried to cut salaries, increase health care contributions and lengthen the school day. And tensions remain high in Chicago, where budget deficits have led to layoffs and school closures since the 2012 strike.

Most strikes aren’t just about compensation—they often revolve around disagreements over class size or policies and programs for students, says National Education Association President Dennis Van Roekel.

Federal reforms such as the Common Core—which will overhaul classroom instruction—have increased tensions. “As a unionist, a strike is the last step,” Van Roekel says. “The secret is to sit down and solve the problem, and collective bargaining is a great way to do that.”

“There is a high value by AFT and our elected leadership for working in partnership with district administrators at all levels, starting at the superintendent level and the building level, which is where the greatest impact can occur to influence student achievement,” says Francine Lawrence, AFT’s executive vice president.

The impact of Act 10

Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Texas, Virginia and, more recently, Wisconsin ban collective bargaining in education. Even before Act 10 passed in Wisconsin, legislators wanted to push back against union power and give administrators the option to use funds as they saw fit, Exstrom says.

A federal court judge ruled in 2012 that Act 10 violated workers’ constitutional rights to free speech, free association and—by capping union workers’ raises but not those of non-unionized employees—equal representation. A Wisconsin Supreme Court ruling is expected later this year.

AFT-Wisconsin lost about 30 percent of its members statewide after Act 10 passed. “Because Act 10 did so much to restrict all aspects of having a union present, it’s hard for members to see the value,” says Kim Kohlhaas, president of AFT-Wisconsin.

The union plans to join with the Wisconsin Education Association Council in 2015, pending a member vote, to act as one voice for teachers statewide. Districts that have good relationships with unions are more liable to get buy-in from teachers when implementing new federal and state initiatives, Kohlhaas says.

“Having a collective bargaining agreement made it very clear what the conditions were going to be in order for teachers to advocate for positive change,” she says. “We have to do it differently now, and make sure we hold administrators and school boards accountable,” for fair working conditions and expectations for teachers.

Post-Act 10, Wisconsin districts, including the School District of Janesville, have implemented many changes. In Janesville, a district of 10,400 students, these changes include new health insurance plans and fewer retirement benefits.

“The budget can no longer sustain things that had been bargained for over 20 years ago,” says Janesville Superintendent Karen Schulte.

Janesville’s retirement policy currently allows a teacher to retire at age 57 with full insurance coverage through the age of 65, which is very expensive for the district. Administrators are working with an actuary to determine the costs for different plans.

For the 2013-14 school year, teachers received a 0.75 percent salary increase, compared to past years, when it had been around 1.5 percent. The district is also moving to a performance pay system, which will be fully implemented by 2015-16.

“We would not have done these things if collective bargaining were still in place,” Schulte says, adding that the changes will save money and increase student achievement over time.

Schulte says she doesn’t believe the administration has more power now, but that the school board does, since it votes to approve reforms. In the past, a policy would be negotiated with the union, and arbitration might start if the board turned it down. Now, boards can pass policies independently. Unions are still included in board meetings as new policies emerge and they can provide input.

Collective bargaining laws arise

After Act 10, about a dozen other states introduced measures to limit collective bargaining. Ohio passed a similar law cutting bargaining rights for all state employees in 2011, but it was repealed later that year. Idaho, Indiana and Tennessee also passed laws that same year to specifically restrict collective bargaining for teachers, all of which survived legal challenges.

In Indiana, collective bargaining is limited to wages and wage-related benefits. Items including school calendars, class size and teacher evaluations were taken off the bargaining table. Some districts in the state deleted the bargaining agreement language from their policy books after the legislation was passed.

And they do not consider union input on topics unrelated to wages, says Brian Simkins, director of human resources at the Metropolitan School District of Warren Township, a district of 11,500 students in Indianapolis. But Warren administrators updated the policy with union input to maintain consistent discussion.

The union and district leadership teams now meet once a month to discuss any important issues, even though this is no longer mandated.

“To some extent, as an administration, we have a free hand and we don’t want to abuse that,” Simkins says. “We’re willing to talk about working conditions even though we don’t have to, and issues like classroom management and student discipline.”

Any proposal that will be implemented districtwide, such as new teacher evaluations, is discussed with the union, either to get input or to at least provide members with advanced notice of modifications, Simkins says.

When unions can frame a policy change—such as new evaluation systems—as a compromise with the administration, teachers are more likely to support it, says Kate Miller, president of the Warren Education Association.

Tips for collaboration

A 2011 Center for American Progress report, “Reforming Public School Systems through Sustained Union-Management Collaboration,” examined six districts selected by the AFT that have established long-term collaborative partnerships with the local teachers union. The districts ranged from small to large and rural to urban, in California, Florida, Virginia, New York, Minnesota and Ohio.

Most of the district leaders began to develop a more collaborative relationship with their union representatives after a strike occurred or the possibility of a strike arose. Each district—including those with high percentages of students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch—reported high levels of student achievement and improved performance over the course of the partnership.

Common themes among these collaborative districts include:

  • Working with the union on teacher evaluations, professional development, and mentoring programs
  • Examining all student data and developing improvement plans at the district and school levels with both teachers and administrators
  • Giving union leaders input on curricula, textbook selection, school calendar and schedules

NEA President Dennis Van Roekel suggests that administrators discuss goals and solutions, rather than just the problems, with union members.

“Talk about what you’d like to create together for students, and out of that conversation you will find common ground and get great ideas,” he says. “It hinders relationships when you start with putting something on the table and asking the other side to support or oppose it.”

About five years ago, Central York School District in York, Pa., began collaborating more with the Central York Education Association, just as new union and district leadership came in and wanted to establish a better relationship. The suburban district has 5,600 students, 25 percent of whom are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch.

Today, Assistant Superintendent Robert Grove includes the union president in all emails to the district leadership team, and the two meet privately to share information before meetings so both know what’s on each other’s mind.

“We do get gritty, but we work under the premise that they have to do what they have to do, as we do, but there is no disrespect,” Grove says. “We try to never misrepresent ourselves, and to live up to everything we say we’re going to do."

Alison DeNisco is staff writer.