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New Labor Models for Teachers

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At the dawn of the 20th century, America needed workers for the industrial revolution that was sweeping the nation. The American education system today is the result of those century-old economic and political influences.

Sometimes referred to as “Taylorism,” our education system was “reformed” to create a steady supply of industrial labor. The labor-management model for teachers and administrators is also decades old.

Most American labor law is based on the Wagner Act of 1937 and the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947. The system we have now was originally designed to protect teachers from arbitrary administrative decisions, ensure a basic level of pay, offer limited protections for academic freedom and assure minimum working conditions.

These goals remain important, but the economy has changed in the last century, the teaching field has become more professionalized and education reforms have altered the pedagogical landscape. Like all industries and professional fields, managers of our educational system must re-examine age-old practices and be open to new ideas that may be more compatible with today’s reality and offer better results.

This is particularly true of current teacher and administrator labor-management models. Although the current system has some  advantages, it often fails to offer teachers representation choices, professional empowerment and basic wage fairness.

The dominant labor-management model for teachers in the United States in one in which a single union, having gained the support of a slim majority of teachers, earns monopoly bargaining power for all teachers. Once “certification” has taken place, individual teachers or groups of teacher that have a similar “community of interest” lose all choice over labor representation.

A union monopoly, like any other monopoly, tends by its nature to be inefficient and unresponsive and to deter innovation. Further, monopoly unions confine all teachers within a single bargained contract. By enforcing a “one-contract-fits-all” mentality, many superlative teachers are unfairly limited in terms of salary and professional development.

In short, like any profession,  there are good teachers, average teachers and poor teachers. Schools and school districts—like the  neighborhoods and communities they serve—face different challenges in widely varying environments.  Unfortunately, we have a labor relations model developed in the 1930s that treats all teachers and often all schools and districts the same.

This paper offers alternatives to the almost century-old, cookie-cutter labor  relations model that no longer benefits all teachers. After briefly describing the current bargaining models in the 50 states, three alternatives are offered: the Competitive Representation Model, the Community of Interest Model and the Free Agency Model. Each represents a departure from the traditional bargaining model and each teacher or district should decide which, if any, might work best for them.