Guest Post: A Comprehensive Union

A guest post by Robert Barkley, Jr., Retired Executive Director, Ohio Education Association, Author: Quality in Education: A Primer for Collaborative Visionary Educational Leaders and Leadership In Education: A Handbook for School Superintendents and Teacher Union Presidents, Worthington, Ohio –

As employee organizations, whether one prefers the term association or union, come under severe attack from many angles, it is time once again to reflect upon exactly what is our duty. Or, to put it in terms I discovered as I worked for several years with a coalition of management and labor, what would it mean to be a “comprehensive union.”

My work in that period of studying such collaboration led me to understand the parallel need for transforming our local associations/unions in tandem with the changes we seek in the school districts with which, and in which, we work.

Unions, like all organizations, go through life cycles. We are at a time in education where the pure trade unionist approach to representing education employees is at least understandable to most, and still appealing to many. Elsewhere this acceptance of even a traditional role for unions is fragile at best. There is a great deal of antipathy toward a union in any form, even among the union's own membership.

Against a backdrop of serious threats to public education as an institution, unions must walk a difficult line between the traditional expectations of many veteran school employees about what their union should be, internal union critics, and the changing expectations represented by many of those entering teaching today. In this climate, those who purport to represent school employees find themselves needing a more comprehensive perspective about what they offer.

Typically employee organizations seek, or should seek, to attend to three aspects of our members work: 1) the labor they engage in, 2) the contribution that labor makes to the community, and 3) the performance level attributed to those efforts.

Consistent with those three aspects a truly comprehensive union must engage in four distinct but interdependent functions. First, the traditional union role has not, probably should not, and cannot go away. At this point in its evolution, the comprehensive union needs to maintain its historic role. But what is that role? From conversations with many members, it seems to boil down to protecting members from the vicissitudes of the systems in which they work. More specifically it is protection from the consequences of out-dated, inadequate, and/or dysfunctional systems.

The second historical and essential role for our organizations is to assure that our members are appropriately rewarded for their labor, contributions, and performance. [Yes, there’s that word performance mixed in with setting compensation. It’s real and must be addressed both intelligently and fairly.]

This leads to the third role for a comprehensive union -- accepting responsibility, in collaboration with others, for the design and continuous improvement of the systems in which our members work. It's not a matter of giving up one for the other. It's a matter of accepting simultaneously the responsibility for protection, system redesign, and accountability.

For decades, designing the systems in which people work has been thought of as the purview of management. In fact, based upon the wording of many "management rights" clauses in bargained contracts, designing the systems and maintaining the quality of work has been essentially off-limits to unions. This was naïve from the beginning and certainly is today.

If one asks members or potential members if they would join for protection, many say yes. Ask them if they would join and support efforts to improve the system in ways that would reduce the need for protection, the response is usually some mix of three replies. One, they don't believe the need for protection would ever go away completely. Two, they never thought of the union as doing that sort of thing. And three, they like the idea, but they're worried that doing the second would compromise doing the first.

Taking on these dual challenges is further than many are ready to go. Yet there appears to be an even more attractive prospect for a transformation to comprehensive unionism. Once fundamental survival needs are met, the greatest service anyone can give workers is the fourth aspect of a comprehensive employee organization: an opportunity for its members to realize joy and satisfaction in their daily work.

I opened by suggesting that all organizations have life cycles. Moving from one established life cycle to the next is never easy nor is the road clear. We are often sustaining one cycle while designing the next. We find ourselves in that dilemma today -- torn between the continuing need for protection and the growing responsibility for improving the system. I have found this concept of the comprehensive union useful in conducting the reflection and dialogue necessary to grow and learn.