Labor Pains: Because Being in a Union can be Painful

Shanker Biographer Responds

After yesterday’s forum on Albert Shanker, education reformer and president of the American Federation of Teachers from 1974 to 1997, I asked Rick Kahlenberg, author of the Shanker biography “Tough Liberal” and main presenter at the forum, a little bit more about the father of modern teachers unionism. I asked him for his response to this anecdote from a review of Kahlenberg’s book:

Education writer Thomas Toch has written that Shanker gave up on reforming the teaching profession by the early 1990s. Kahlenberg disputes this, but Shanker himself told Toch, “Convincing people to change has been a damn difficult thing to do. I would go into a state, talk up reform, and as soon as I left, the union attorney would come in and say, ‘We’ve got a great tenure law, let’s keep it.'” 

Our conversation carried over into e-mail, reproduced here:

Berry: Are quotes like Shanker’s words to Toch evidence that Shanker’s reform-minded iconoclasm was not widely shared by leaders in his own union movement? Kahlenberg: Al Shanker was an innovative thinker who was sometimes ahead of other union leaders, but he leaves a strong legacy at the AFT. Under Ed McElroy’s leadership, the AFT remains more open to reform than the NEA. The AFT’s Toni Cortese, for example, is working hard to expand the number of districts that consider peer review. And local leaders like Randi Weingarten (UFT, New York City) and Adam Urbanski (Rochester) are open to lots of innovations. Rather than flatly opposing all charter schools, for example, Weingarten started two UFT-run charter schools. And Urbanski is a codirector of the Teacher Union Reform Network (TURN), which is open to well constructed pay for performance proposals. They are all clearly following in Al Shanker’s tradition.Berry: What did he understand as the reasons why “convincing people to change has been a damn difficult thing to do”? Did he foresee any way around those obstacles?Kahlenberg: Clearly, some local union leaders have not followed Al Shanker’s lead on issues like peer review. It’s highly controversial for a union to be involved in recommending termination of its own members, so the pushback is not surprising. Al Shanker wasn’t a dictator, so he couldn’t simply decree that local unions adopt his positions on education policy, but he tried to use the power of persuasion to say it was in the interests of unions to come up with a credible response to the charge that they protect incompetent teachers. Today, the AFT’s efforts to back peer review plans is very Shankeresque.

It is definitely true, as Kahlenberg writes, that there are some union leaders actively working for reform more sophisticated than “give us more money.” What’s a little more debatable, however, is the extent of such reformist sentiments throughout the teachers union movement as a whole; how far does it go beyond Shanker (ten years deceased) and his protégés? Check out this story from education wonks Frederick Hess and Martin West, “Collaborative Union Leaders Get Lauded–and Unseated,” for a different perspective on the fortunes of reform unionism.

Categories: Teachers Unions