Sunday, January 1, 2012

Teacher Unions: Dying dinosaurs or co-drivers of Democratic Decision Making?

A.    William Place
Director of Doctoral Studies and Associate Professor 

Department of Educational Leadership

The University of Dayton

Ohio’s governor and state legislators believed the time had come to move past employee unions, signing legislation which would have effectively done away with unions for teachers, police, firefighters and other public employees in the state.  However, the voters signed a petition to have the law placed on the ballot and it was defeated 61 percent to only 39 percent. While many administrators felt Ohio’s law is too favorable to unions and was in need of some revisions, the attempt to totally do away with unions went too far.  New Jersey also has moved to limit the unions in terms of pensions and healthcare benefits.  Other states appear to be taking similar steps Olson (2011) notes “many states have taken swift action to limit the power of organized labor in public schools.  Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana, Idaho and Michigan were the first, and Tennessee added itself to the list” (para. 3). 

Personally, I find this to be incongruent with concepts of empowerment and democratic leadership that many educational leadership programs espouse.  Murphy (2002) proposed reculturing the field using “three key concepts that provide new anchors for the profession—school improvement, democratic community, and social justice” (p. 66).  Furman and Starratt (2002) place even more emphasis on the concept when they note,
In considering democratic community as the center for educational leadership, we make these claims:
·         Democratic community is not a “marginalizing center for the field because it is based on acceptance and appreciation of difference.
·         Democratic community “recultures the profession” by focusing on what leadership is for—serving the common good in a multicultural society and world.
·         Democratic community is the most appropriate focus for school leadership in the “postmodern” world of diversity, fragmentation and cross-nationalism.  p. 129
Furman and Sheilds (2005) caution that “democratic community is an ideal, a moral purpose toward which educators strive, one that is never fully realized; thus, democratic community is not a specific structure to be reified, defined, reduced, observed, and replicated” (p. 120).  These conceptualizations of democratic community would move educational leadership far from the traditional authoritarian approach used in schools for most of the 20th century (the approach which these movements to kill teacher unions seem to be reverting).

While these scholars of educational leadership do not address the role of teacher unions, I find it hard to imagine a real democratic community without an important formal structure involving unions.  Employees must have a voice in the work place.  I believe there is an important place for unions as we forge a new way for education in the twenty first century.  Some have suggested that the role of unions should evolve.  For example, Barnett Berry (2011) states “unions must be transformed into results-oriented guilds in which teaching and learning are paramount” (p. xiv).

Teachers have a long history of caring deeply about students and the teacher unions, despite what their critics claim have often, but not always demonstrated that they are focused on improving education for all children.  Administrators get frustrated when traditional negations seem to move us away from improving education for all children, but that, I argue, would be a reason to push for alternatives to traditional barraging, rather than doing away with teacher associations altogether.

Berry, B. & the TeacherSolutions 2030 Team.  (2011).  Teaching 2030.  New York, NY:
Teachers College Press.
Furman, G. C., & Shields, C. M. (2003, April). How can educational leaders promote and support social justice and democratic community in schools? Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Association, Chicago, IL.
Furman, G. C. & Starratt, R. J. (2002). Leadership for democratic community in schools. In J. Murphy (Ed.),  The Educational Leadership Challenge: Redefining Leadership for the 21st Century (pp. 105-133).  Chicago, IL: National Society for the Study of Education.   
Murphy, J. (2002). Reculturing the profession of educational leadership: New blueprints.  In J. Murphy (Ed.),  The Educational Leadership Challenge: Redefining Leadership for the 21st Century (pp. 65-82).  Chicago, IL: National Society for the Study of Education.
K Olson.  (2011, June 5).  Tennessee trumps Wisconsin:  Kills teacher collective
bargaining. Dead. [Web log post]. Retrieved from

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