Organizing Principals


The Teacher Unions: How the NEA and the AFT Sabotage Reform and Hold Parents, Students, Teachers, and Taxpayers Hostage to Bureaucracy, by Myron Lieberman, New York: The Free Press, 305 pages, $25.00

February 1997 ended an era in education. Albert Shanker, 20-year president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), passed away after a long fight with cancer. He began as a teacher in the early 1950s and quickly became aware of the deplorable professional status of his colleagues. Poor working conditions, minuscule pay, lack of trust by administrators, random hiring and firing without due process, and length of teachers' work weeks were his main concerns.

Inspired by the experiences of his family with unions in the garment industry, Shanker joined the local teachers guild and within a couple of years quit teaching to become a full-time representative of the guild. After merging with the neighboring United Federation of Teachers in 1960, the AFT fought for collective bargaining rights, a standardized pay schedule with incremental promotions, better working conditions and work hours, and direct union dues deductions from paychecks–all typical of the union demands of that era. And to back up those demands, the AFT was unafraid to use the mother of all labor union tactics, the strike. Shanker won the nation's first collective bargaining agreement and was jailed twice for leading violence-riddled strikes in New York City.

Thus began the transformation of teachers unions from professional teacher organizations such as the National Education Association (NEA) to the more traditional, industrial-style union model. After much internal debate and conflict, the NEA soon followed the AFT's lead by adopting the same tactics. Through their combined efforts, the NEA and AFT, with a combined current membership of over 3 million, made public school teaching the nation's most unionized occupation.

And who would argue against the motives for the two unions' actions? The unions, through the leadership of Shanker, raised pay dramatically, improved teachers' hours and the conditions in which they worked, and obtained due process in hiring and firing.

But Shanker himself realized early on that the influence and tactics of the teachers unions as traditional labor organizations would eventually bring down the quality and status of public education. And it is the influence and tactics of the teachers unions on which Myron Lieberman focuses in The Teacher Unions: How the NEA and the AFT Sabotage Reform and Hold Parents, Students, Teachers, and Taxpayers Hostage to Bureaucracy.

Lieberman, chairman of the Education Policy Institute in Washington, D.C., provides an insider's view of what may be the most powerful forces in public education today: the NEA and the AFT. His experience as a longtime union activist, collective bargainer, member of the NEA, and former candidate for president of the AFT offers a unique view of the inside workings of the unions, one denied to many lay observers. He provides information on how the unions came to be, their evolution over time, and their agendas and activities.

Most important, though, Lieberman concentrates on how these organizations stand in the way of effective change in public schooling. He scrupulously details the effects collective bargaining has had on administrators and school boards. Because many union contracts meticulously spell out do's and don't's in the everyday functioning of the school, writes Lieberman, "the inevitable tendency is to consult the contract before taking action, a mindset that leads inexorably to union control." And where there is ambiguity in the contract, "principals often defer to the [union] representatives even when they would not be contractually required to do so." This helps explain why so few principals seem able (or perhaps even willing) to provide leadership and guidance when their schools are in trouble.

Union influence does not stop with the school board and administration. Consider the interactions between unions and the National Congress of Parents and Teachers, more popularly known as the PTA. Most outsiders view the PTA as a bake-sale sponsoring, fund-raising organization that primarily represents the interests of parents. Yet, notes Lieberman, "the PTA's legislative representative in Washington, D.C. could not cite a single instance of PTA disagreement with the NEA." And at its 1994 California state convention, "the PTA took credit for defeating Proposition 174," California's school voucher initiative, and "proudly asserted that the teacher unions provided the dollars, but the PTA provided the bodies that defeated the initiative." How could a group that claims to represent parents take such a stand?

Indeed, the national PTA has set guidelines to follow during teacher strikes. If PTA members, whether teachers or parents, fill in for striking teachers in the classroom, they are considered strike breakers. And if the PTA is asked to support either the school district administrators, the elected school board members, or the union in a contract dispute, the PTA is not permitted to officially support the district. By threatening to withdraw its members from the PTA if its positions are opposed, the NEA effectively controls the organized voice of parents and will continue to use the PTA to further its own agenda. By its actions and inactions, the PTA is covertly involved in both bargaining and policy making.

Lieberman dedicates a fascinating chapter to Al Shanker's skills as a political operator. Conservative opponents of the teachers unions often found themselves praising or even defending Shanker and the AFT. Shanker accomplished this by embracing certain "conservative" issues, such as "back to basics" curricular changes, implementing and raising standards for graduation and promotion, and public school choice, while denouncing the NEA's positions. But these were areas that had no impact on his union's power or its privileges.

So successful was this strategy that Shanker was applauded by Ronald Reagan, who spoke at the 1983 AFT national conference. By turning negative attention away from himself and his union, Shanker successfully demonized the NEA as the obstacle to change and portrayed the AFT as the champion of successful, reform-minded schools. By paying attention to Shanker's actions rather than his rhetoric, Lieberman unmasks him as a wolf in sheep's clothing.

For instance, the AFT officially considers privatization of the provision of school services "a violation of democratic principles since it places in the hands of private industry the responsibility the public has entrusted to its public officials thereby lessening the degree to which voters can hold these officials accountable for the proper administration of public services. Therefore, we are committed to keeping school services in the public sector by fighting efforts toward privatization." This pertains not solely to educational services but to all school operations, including cafeterias, busing and other transportation, and custodial services.

The NEA publication "Contracting Out" outlines how employees can sabotage operations when school districts contract services to private providers. In Hartford, Connecticut, for instance, the school district arranged to have its operations run by the private management company Education Alternatives Inc. Yet EAI had to employ union teachers and had to follow all previous collective bargaining agreements to the letter while facing continuous, hostile advertising and propaganda campaigns funded by the unions.

Under the circumstances, it's no surprise EAI could not operate profitably and its contract was terminated. Lieberman says an important lesson was learned: "[I]t is much easier to terminate an independent contractor than highly paid, but unsatisfactory, tenured teachers protected by a union willing to engage in sabotage if need be." He then notes that less than a year after EAI lost its contract, the state of Connecticut took over the Hartford district.

Despite all the controversial stands and policies the two major teachers unions have taken, do they effectively represent teachers? Lieberman repeatedly argues that teachers are not getting their money's worth. Teachers with skills that are in high demand–such as those who teach math and science–must accept the one-size-fits-all salary schedule negotiated by the union. Many find better opportunities outside of teaching, which causes a shortage in the areas where the most skills are needed. And the unions refuse to allow merit pay for the best teachers, arguing that high salaries for a few teachers would necessarily lead to low salaries for most. If this is the case, are the unions conceding that most teachers could not reach some modest, objectively determined goals in order to receive higher salaries? If so, why are they still in the classroom?

The teachers unions' influence in education policy is pervasive. That this control is obtained through political means is often overlooked, but not by Lieberman: "The fact that negotiations exclude other parties in interest does not transform political activity into nonpolitical activity; it only means that we have a political process from which various parties in interest are excluded." By controlling the process, the unions control the pace of change while dictating what those changes will be, whether or not they are in the interest of the teachers they represent.

Lieberman's criticisms of charter schools, however, are less convincing. He argues that the unions–which will be inextricably involved in the process of designing charter-school legislation–will make sure any new schools aren't much different than the ones they replace. Perhaps. But by calling it "wishful thinking to assume that hordes of teachers chafing under bureaucratic restrictions are eager to teach in charter schools, or that large numbers of entrepreneurial teachers are awaiting opportunities to demonstrate how schools should be run," Lieberman ignores the more than 700 charter schools already operating, almost all of which are less than five years old. He fails to distinguish between union activists and education scholars who are wedded to the status quo and classroom teachers who have shown they're willing and able to meet the needs of students abandoned by the public school establishment.

Albert Shanker's legacy has been clouded by his passing. He was eulogized as the union leader who pushed for reform, urging his organization to concentrate on issues other than wages, work conditions, and tenure, such as improved teacher training, higher academic standards, and more innovative school structures. At the same time, the machine that Shanker developed, the hard-nosed, industrial-style labor union, resists systemic change. Through control comes power, and that is what Shanker made sure the teachers unions had.

Richard C. Seder (rseder@earthlink.net) is director of education policy studies at the Reason Public Policy Institute.