Your Unions: Harmony or Strife?

By Del Stover

When striking teachers display a giant inflatable rat outside a school—and name their new mascot after the superintendent—it’s clear that relations between school leaders and the teachers union are not good. Another clue: Teachers are spitting on cars crossing the picket line.

Name calling, rumor mongering, nails spread across the driveway of a teacher who chose not to strike, intransigence at the bargaining table—school officials saw it all during last year’s bitter, four-week strike in Richmond Heights, Ohio. “It got particularly nasty,” recalls Superintendent Walter Calinger. “The methodology was to attack unmercifully. Don’t worry about the truth of the matter. Attack. Attack. Attack.”

Thankfully, most school boards never confront such brass-knuckled tactics when dealing with their union. Last school year, there were only a score of teacher strikes, hardly a noteworthy figure given the nation’s nearly 15,000 school systems. If anything, the numbers suggest the National Education Association (NEA) and American Federation of Teachers (AFT) have decided to forsake militancy in favor of singing “Kumbaya” with school boards.

Not ready to buy that? Then let’s try another explanation: Decades of contract talks have resolved the most divisive labor-management issues, and no-strike laws in many states are keeping teachers at the bargaining table. A new generation of teachers is less interested in bread-and-butter issues and more focused on educational and professional matters. And the standards movement, coupled with inadequate school funding and a growing at-risk student population, has given teachers and school boards even more incentive to make common cause.

Today, the relationship between the school board and the union generally can be described as mature and well-established. But it’s seldom comfortable—or predictable. Thus we see the union in Denver collaborating with the school board in a partnership on performance pay that would have been inconceivable a few years ago. Meanwhile, in Quincy, Mass., we watched the teachers’ union go on strike in defiance of state law—the first teacher walkout in a decade in that state. 

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