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Posted at 9:37 AM ET, 03/ 1/2011

Column: How unions can be more than a legacy institution

By Ezra Klein

It looks increasingly likely that organized labor will manage to cheat death in Wisconsin. But where does that leave unions? Merely near death, that's where. Only 7 percent of private-sector workers are unionized, down from about 25 percent in the 1970s. Public-sector unions are doing better, but a movement restricted to public employees is one that has lost its soul. I'm not going to join the chorus of pundits dismissing the need for public-sector unions - there is no reason a group of janitors at city hall should not be able to join together and demand better wages and working conditions - but they're clearly less necessary than private-sector unions.

So the fact remains: A win in Wisconsin does nothing to reverse the decades of losses that unions have suffered everywhere else. Andy Stern, former president of the Service Employees International Union, put the problem to me bluntly. Unions "seem like a legacy institution and not an institution of the future," he said. "And legacies get shed."

Here's an example of what he means: State budgets are in worse shape than Charlie Sheen. With federal aid running out and local economies still struggling, the next few years will require deep cuts in spending. And where do states spend much of their money? On education - which is to say, on teachers.

The prospect of firing tens of thousands of teachers is bad enough. But, as a chilling report (pdf) from the New Teacher Project explains, about 40 percent of the nation's teachers work in states where their contracts don't allow administrators to take performance into account when making layoffs (graphic here). That is to say, they cannot try to lay off the bad teachers while saving the good ones. Instead, they're forced to use the "last-hired-first-fired" mechanism. The newest teachers get the pink slip, no matter how good they are. This will turn a crisis into a catastrophe. And let's be clear, it's the fault of the teachers unions.

That's not just a problem for schools, children, taxpayers and teachers. It's also a problem for the labor movement as a whole. Americans don't care what most unions are up to. But Americans do care, a lot, about what their child's teacher is up to. And if they think that teachers unions - which are public-employee unions, for the record - are standing in the way of good schools and good teachers, then their verdict will be much worse than "not an institution of the future." They will see unions as hurting our future - and their children.

That puts the fate of organized labor in the hands of Randi Weingarten. Elected to head the American Federation of Teachers in 2008, Weingarten has systematically worked to put her organization on the right side of the school reform wars. That November, she pledged that "with the exception of vouchers, no issue should be off the table." In January 2010, she set out five principles that should govern teacher evaluation - a necessary precursor to a better process for firing bad teachers and rewarding good ones. On Thursday, during a speech in Washington, she laid out the AFT's opening bid for that process. Teachers rated as "unsatisfactory" by administrators would be given a detailed improvement plan written by their supervisors and other teachers. If a year later they were still rated as unsatisfactory, then termination proceedings would begin within 100 days.

For teachers, this creates a clear and transparent process for evaluation. It ensures that instructors will know why they've been rated poorly and be given a supervised opportunity to improve. It means that decisions about hiring and firing will have to fit into some clear definition of what good teaching is and how it can be achieved - an important comfort at a time when ambitious school supervisors with budgets to balance see a political upside in doing something, anything, that makes it look like they're improving schools without spending money.

That isn't to say the AFT's proposal goes far enough. "It's still cumbersome, and it doesn't offer the accountability we need," says Andy Rotherham, co-founder of Bellwether Education Partners, a reform-minded education consultancy. And it's many, many years overdue. But it's a start. "There is value when the president of the AFT recognizes that these things are actually problems," Rotherham says. "A few years ago, the debate was about whether these things were problems."

If unions are to not just survive, but to actually flourish again, they need to create an identity beyond being a protection service for people who aren't very good at their jobs. For too long they've been defending individuals at the expense of the collective. Every time an incompetent teacher or overly aggressive cop hides behind a union, unions in general become a bit less attractive to everyone else. Next year, when a slew of beloved and decorated teachers are fired not because they were worse than the teachers who kept their jobs but because they were younger, good people everywhere will find themselves that much less sympathetic toward organized labor.

Scott Walker's overreach in Wisconsin has done unions a great favor. The public may not hold them in the highest esteem, but it doesn't want to see them destroyed. That is, however, a low bar to clear. The question now is whether unions can persuade the public of something altogether more difficult: that it has reason to want to see them thrive. If in five years the words "education reform" make you think of teachers unions rather than the people who tangle with them, my guess is organized labor will be well on its way to making a comeback.

By Ezra Klein  | March 1, 2011; 9:37 AM ET
Categories:  Articles, Unions  
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Next: Unions polling well, Scott Walker polling poorly

Comments

I don't disagree that it would be better to fire the worst teachers and keep the best, but I'm afraid in the absence of unions with administrators holding all the power we will find that mysteriously all the "worst" teachers will be the oldest and best paid ones. In other words, administrators will have a strong incentive to lay off the best paid first, as we see all over the private sector.

Posted by: AuthorEditor | March 1, 2011 10:05 AM | Report abuse

Yes , wouldn't it be lovely if unions were more than "a protection service for people who aren't very good at their jobs."

They quite obviously are more than that and the public knows that which is why they are getting support in the polls. They aggregate the power of labor where capital is more mobile than labor. They protect workers from abuse by management in an employer's market.

And it would be lovely if there was a binary distinction between protecting lousy workers and protecting workers from management abuse but there isn't.

We can thank our post-modern conservative rent-seekers at Fox for exploiting that fact to portray all union workers as lousy. Saying they only have an identity as a protection service for the worst workers is simply taking the GOP/Fox framing as a given.

Posted by: BobFred | March 1, 2011 10:19 AM | Report abuse

Tough for the unions to justify all their extra labor given the history of the MASSIVE increases in educational achievement!

http://nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d09/tables/dt09_116.asp


Oh wait....the reading scores for 17 year olds are the same.....

Posted by: krazen1211 | March 1, 2011 10:22 AM | Report abuse

Thanks Ezra,

I think you're right: it's crucial to unions' image (especially teachers' unions) to show they are dealing honestly with bad eggs. Perhaps that is the key ingredient for winning public support moving forward.

But in all fairness, teachers and their unions have long worked for needed reforms to improve their classrooms, and are even now working to do so, making sacrifices. But these are being underreported because lobbying for more funding for smaller class sizes just isn't as sexy as big confrontations regarding the small handful (and it is a small handful) of wayward teachers in those rubber rooms:
http://www.thenation.com/article/154986/grading-waiting-superman?page=full

Here's a great example of how teachers unions in LA have been working to do so in recent years. It's called "social justice unionism":
http://www.labornotes.org/node/3191

Posted by: Trogdorprof | March 1, 2011 10:27 AM | Report abuse

I was a steward for a public sector union back in the 1980s, working for a department in state government where the biggest issue was parking. I don't think our particular department needed a union. But then I met people in my union who worked in the mental institutions, with their draconian work rules and deplorable conditions. THOSE people needed a union desperately. Having solidarity with the rest of the professional workforce helped them immeasurably. Sometimes, public sector unions are just as important as private sector unions.

Posted by: mikeshort1 | March 1, 2011 10:27 AM | Report abuse

I think you're going way over the top in thinking the LIFO form of layoffs will be so destructive.
First, most teachers don't teach very long anyway. A lot of young people become teachers out of college, do it for a few years and move on, either because pay is too low or the career isn't what they expected.
I think the picture of a lazy tenured teacher is the 21st Century equivalent of Reagan's old welfare queen. I think they exist, but not nearly in the numbers that it would take to seriously defray our schools.
Second, you are assuming that there is a method of successfully selecting the best employees. I've been on both ends of layoffs and can tell you there isn't. Two years ago I was laid off with half my staff. Had I been the one conducting the layoffs, half the people laid off (excluding myself) would have been retained, and half the people retained would have been laid off.
There is simply no good system - anywhere - of detecting quality in employees, and anyone who tells you there is has gone into the soap-selling business.

Posted by: RZ100 | March 1, 2011 10:27 AM | Report abuse

"On Thursday, during a speech in Washington, she laid out the AFT's opening bid for that process. Teachers rated as "unsatisfactory" by administrators would be given a detailed improvement plan written by their supervisors and other teachers. If a year later they were still rated as unsatisfactory, then termination proceedings would begin within 100 days."


So what happens to the 2-3 years of students who are being taught by an unsatisfactory teacher? They're screwed?

Posted by: krazen1211 | March 1, 2011 10:29 AM | Report abuse

I spent most of my 35 year IT career in the private sector. People are not always hired, fired, promoted or demoted according to performance or competence. I have little faith in the integrity and competence of many school administrators and management in general. The seniority system has historically been used to protect workers against capricious and personal reasons for dismissals etc. It did not appear magically just for spite. It was anecessary reform at the time. Randi Weingarten is right that teachers have to be part of process to come up with ways to evaluate teachers. Any rating process designed without the input of the teachers unions will be suspect and fail.

Posted by: marvyT | March 1, 2011 10:29 AM | Report abuse

@ RZ100:

Good call on the welfare queen/public union employee stereotype. Jon Cohn recently made that exact point here:
http://www.tnr.com/blog/jonathan-cohn/76884/why-your-fireman-has-better-pension-you

Posted by: Trogdorprof | March 1, 2011 10:36 AM | Report abuse

" But these are being underreported because lobbying for more funding for smaller class sizes just isn't as sexy as big confrontations regarding the small handful (and it is a small handful) of wayward teachers in those rubber rooms:"


That would be because smaller classroom sizes has failed to improve aggregate educational outcomes.

The public is done being looted! Only government can demand twice as much real spending per pupil as 1970 and claim they are 'underfunded'.....

Posted by: krazen1211 | March 1, 2011 10:50 AM | Report abuse

Tweak it here. Tweak it there. The government school system is still a failure, and getting worse.

"The three-yearly OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) report, which compares the knowledge and skills of 15-year-olds in 70 countries around the world, ranked the United States 14th out of 34 OECD countries for reading skills, 17th for science and a below-average 25th for mathematics."

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/12/07/us-falls-in-world-education-rankings_n_793185.html

It's my contention that one could shut every government K-12 school in the country, return all the money spent on them to their rightful owners, and within two years test scores would be higher than they are now.

Posted by: msoja | March 1, 2011 10:55 AM | Report abuse

I think that the methodology of the "polling" we are being inundated with should be suspect. It seems that almost anything reported in the blogosphere takes on a life of it's own as poorly researched or poorly reasoned "facts" become pillars of the daily moutain of journalistic typing.
There was a poll last November called the Wisconsin 2010 election, it's results were pretty clear.
I just don't see how nationwide "polls" of a few hundred people can be raised up as facts in the face of a recent resounding national election thumping of the democrats.
It seems like mass self-delusion of the folks who support the status quo.
I think that the people of Wisconsin will only be more pissed off by this dilly-dallying on the part of the Wisconsin Senate dems.
There are, by everyone's numbers I have ever seen, few public union employees in Wisconsin relative to the mass of tax paying people who do not have perks, pay, pensions anything like those enjoyed by these public employees.
We have been exposed to all manner of grandiose theories from dem "intellectuals" telling us that the public employees already "own" these future benefits because they already "paid" for them.
The obvious foolishness of the unions forcing most school districts to buy insurance from a union controlled insurance "company" seems to little or no notice from the folks who rush to defend the union bosses.
The passion of media folks from New York and California to deny average folks in Wisconsin the right to elect representatives and run their state as they wish is troubling.
Could it be that they see bell tolling in Wisconsin as the end of special perks for government types everywhere? Just look around the mall in Washington D.C., look at all those buildings full of bureaucrats sipping coffee and planning lunch dates, any fool can see that they have become part of the problem rather than part of the solution.
The cost of all these bureaucrats falls on folks who have no real hope of ever joining the big bureaucratic party. The cost, thoughtlessly charged up on the national credit card for future generations to deal with, will fall on today's school children.
I read posts from bloggers who snicker about the "trickle down theory" while loudly proclaiming that cutting government spending "will cost jobs and destroy the economy".
It seems as though Scott Walker has touched a raw nerve in the sweet tooth of the bureaucracy.
There is no voice here for the real people of Wisconsin, the folks paying the bills, just a lot of psuedo-intellectual belching emanating from folks with umbilical cords attached to the bureaucracy.

Posted by: Cheesy1959 | March 1, 2011 11:06 AM | Report abuse

Yesterday on National Publc Radio the interviewed some woman who wrote a puff piece defending union teachers...
I think that anybody listening to her reasoning, her arrogant tone and the silly calls from teachers "my class sizes are expanding exponentially!" woud have to say "what are you guys smoking?"
When a teacher called in and said she would prefer to not be in the union... they show's host virtually hyung up on her.
The guest went on to say that the problem of "bad teachers" could be addressed through further training and besides ...it's not much of a problem because there are "very very few bad teachers"...
Local school bhoards need to be empowered to run the schools, the school janitor should be cleaning floors not making school policy decisions and arguing about his or her work rules.
Poorly perfoming teachers should be out, right now, no student should be sacrificed to the teacher's union.
No school district should be buying it's health insurance from the union bosses, that should be illegal, plain and simple.
Any teacher who walks oput of school and leaves the students and parents twisting in the wind should be fired.
There are good teachers, great teachers working in the schools but the teacher's union is distorting the schools. Imagine it, Union bosses can call the teachers right away from their desks and leave the children and their parents hanging... why didn't we see a general media outcry regarding that foolishness, that dangerous union tactic?
Now we see a lot of stories regarding the "mistake" that Walker is making.... hummm?
I guess we shall see soon enough.

Posted by: Cheesy1959 | March 1, 2011 11:23 AM | Report abuse

"I don't disagree that it would be better to fire the worst teachers and keep the best, but I'm afraid in the absence of unions with administrators holding all the power we will find that mysteriously all the "worst" teachers will be the oldest and best paid ones. In other words, administrators will have a strong incentive to lay off the best paid first, as we see all over the private sector."

In other words, administrators will have a strong incentive to lay off the "over" paid first. Administrators might not have a good sense of what the correct compensation is, because they don't know parents' willingness to pay for a given teacher's services, so of course mistakes might be made.

In general, if compensation is based on seniority, and one does not have a good measure of value added, firing the highest paid will often be the correct decision.

Posted by: justin84 | March 1, 2011 11:39 AM | Report abuse

I agree with those above who worry that leaving layoff choices in the hands of administrators could end up being either capricious or solely aimed at the older and thus higher paid teachers. So while it's nice to think that all the "good" teachers would be retained and all the "bad" ones fired, I don't think this would happen in practice. In the absence of defined standards, the "last hired first fired" rule is at least not one that can be second-guessed.

Posted by: JJenkins2 | March 1, 2011 11:47 AM | Report abuse

so if the union polling is up do you think we'll see an end or a slowing of the needed reforms that Randi Weingarten has been alluding to for years but has never done??

Posted by: visionbrkr | March 1, 2011 11:54 AM | Report abuse

There are good reasons why teachers' unions have fought for strong employment protections:

1) Older teachers, with their credentials and experience, are expensive. These teachers benefit schools and students by their skill at classroom management, their well-developed curricula, their institutional memories, and their ongoing relationships with families and community members. However, in a context of severe budget cuts, it becomes very, very tempting for administrators to fire the 45-year-old veteran in order to keep two 23-year-old rookies.

2) As with any large and diverse group of enterprises, some schools and districts are well-run, while others are not. Just as teachers can be bad at their jobs, principals and administrators - many of whom have never actually taught a class of their own - can be bad at theirs. Unions help protect teachers from administrators who play favorites, who want to punish people they perceive as "troublemakers," who have racial or gender biases, or who emphasize testing to the exclusion of real education.

3) School administrators often face pressure from parents and community members. Sometimes, this pressure is beneficial, and raises educational standards. In other cases, parents explicitly seek standards to be lowered for their own children (arguing that a B should be an A, or that a sports practice schedule precludes doing homework, or that effort should count as much as accomplishment).

Administrators are also pressured on ideological grounds. After a principal has fielded a dozen complaints about the biology teacher who teaches about human evolution, or the history teacher who discusses the role of slavery in the Texas Revolution, it can be tempting to consider replacing that teacher with someone who will kick up less fuss.

4) Finally, it's hard to evaluate teaching skill without in-depth observations and a nuanced understanding of the environment in which a teacher works. Test scores are one aspect of evaluation, but they don't come close to telling the whole story. Standardized tests aren't designed and graded in a manner that allows for a holistic assessment of learning - they're simplified, stylized snapshots of certain aspects of student performance, and can instill bad habits in student writing and thinking if overemphasized. Using test scores for teacher evaluation also requires care and thought - did new students join a teacher's classroom shortly before the tests were given? Did students score in the 99th percentile last year and this year, and thus "show no improvement"? Does the state test ask 7th graders about world history, while the school district mandates that 7th graders learn American history? Without looking closely at specifics, it's easy to slap labels on teachers, particuarly when budget shortfalls loom.

Posted by: Coatlicue | March 1, 2011 12:10 PM | Report abuse

The difference between public education and all the tweaks that are so popular like magnet schools are that the public school teacher teaches the kids and the tweaked teacher kicks the trouble-makers and under-performers out of her class. It is easy to toss sand in the face of government workers and brag about how much better the bully would be except we have never seen these bullies do anything except brag especially in the south with the most underfunded and poorest rated schools in the US. Workers need the right to collective bargaining.

Posted by: LillithMc | March 1, 2011 1:24 PM | Report abuse

"However, in a context of severe budget cuts, it becomes very, very tempting for administrators to fire the 45-year-old veteran in order to keep two 23-year-old rookies."

If compensation is linked to experience and credentials, and value creation isn't easy to measure, your best bet is to fire the expensive teacher. Particularly if the choice is firing two cheap teachers or one expensive teacher.

If you could introduce prices into the system (perhaps via class-specific tuition), we would have a measure of value creation. Then it would be hard to justify firing *effective* veteran teachers.

"As with any large and diverse group of enterprises, some schools and districts are well-run, while others are not. Just as teachers can be bad at their jobs, principals and administrators - many of whom have never actually taught a class of their own - can be bad at theirs."

Sure, that can be true anywhere, including the nonunionized private sector. They should be accountable to someone else, and fired if they perform poorly.

"School administrators often face pressure from parents and community members... parents explicitly seek standards to be lowered for their own children (arguing that a B should be an A, or that a sports practice schedule precludes doing homework, or that effort should count as much as accomplishment)."

Sure, and administrators should inform parents that school policies and grading scales exist for a reason and can't be adjusted on an ad-hoc basis for their child's benefit. If administrators consistently undermine teachers in this regard, teachers should be able to leave for another school (and union ladders / credentialing make this difficult).

"After a principal has fielded a dozen complaints about the biology teacher who teaches about human evolution, or the history teacher who discusses the role of slavery in the Texas Revolution, it can be tempting to consider replacing that teacher with someone who will kick up less fuss."

The principal can explain that at his/her school, teachers will teach facts, and that if parents don't like it they can take their kids elsewhere. In a free market, there would be competing schools, and this would depoliticize education. Granted, you'd have some schools teaching creationism, but conversely a parent that doesn't want his kid to learn intelligent design doesn't have to worry about conservatives hijacking the local/state school board.

"Finally, it's hard to evaluate teaching skill without in-depth observations and a nuanced understanding of the environment in which a teacher works. Test scores are one aspect of evaluation, but they don't come close to telling the whole story."

Who is pushing standardized testing? Various politicians who want to gain points with voters. I would agree that standardized testing is far from everything, and in a free market many schools probably would choose not to rely on it.

Posted by: justin84 | March 1, 2011 1:56 PM | Report abuse

"This will turn a crisis into a catastrophe. And let's be clear, it's the fault of the teachers unions."

Ezra, if you ever wonder why some of us call you a member of the veal pen, remember that when teachers' unions were attacked, you joined in against them.

Posted by: stonedone | March 2, 2011 11:32 AM | Report abuse

After nearly 40 years practicing labor law (in government and representing management), my experience is that incompetent managers, not unions, are usually responsible for the retention of poorly-performing employees.

Whether employees are protected by a union contract, by civil service rules, or merely by the no-discrimination laws applicable to virtually all employers, a competent manager can effectively discharge a poorly-performing employeee by following the simple -- albeit sometimes time-consuming steps -- taught in basic management training programs. Notify the employee of the poor performance; document the poor perforamnce in writing, issue written warnings including a "final" warning, and discharge; ideally, involve a second manager in the process to refute potential bias allegations; if the employee is union-represented, keep the union informed at each step in the process.

In my experience, when managers follow these steps, there is often no challenge to the discharge and, when there is a challenge, management usually prevails.

In organizations where the union challenges virtually every discharge, incompetent or inconsistent management is probably to blame. Challenging a discharge -- either in court or in arbitration -- is expensive for the union and, relative to available resources, is more expensive for the union than for management. Therefore, the union will not take frivolous cases to court or arbitration unless the employer's prior conduct forces the union to do so -- that is, the employer has often discharged for bad or arbitrary reasons, thereby leading the bargaining unit employees to question every discipline or discharge. In that situation, the employer has placed the union in the position where the union's only politically-feasible option is challenging every discipline action.

For these reasons, if one believes that a school system is retaining poorly-performing teachers, one should question management's competence and diligence rather than blaming the problem on the teachers union. Indeed, in the DC area, there is little difference in the discharge-for-cause rate between the MD school systems (where teachers are represented by relatively strong unions) and the VA school systems (where union-representation and collective bargaining is prohibited by law).

Posted by: LaborLawyer | March 2, 2011 4:47 PM | Report abuse

what about when experienced good teachers are fired because they make the most money? when a budget crisis hits, people look for the most bang for their buck and sometimes good teachers get sacrificed because they make more money than less experienced teachers.

Posted by: FLchic | March 2, 2011 5:53 PM | Report abuse

I agree with most comments that letting administrators have leeway might lead to discriminatory practices. However, LHFF is CERTAIN to lead to discriminatory practices.

Posted by: someguy100 | March 2, 2011 8:51 PM | Report abuse

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