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School Management and Teacher Unions: The Capacity for Cooperation in an Age of Reform

by Samuel B. Bacharach, Joseph B. Shedd & Sharon C. Conley - 1989

Education bargaining in the future is unlikely to be marked by the absence of conflict or by the declining use of power tactics, but by an increased capacity for cooperation and a more sophisticated use of power that is inherent in the structure of educational systems. (Source:ERIC)

An increasing number of policymakers, practitioners, and scholars are suggesting that a new form of collective bargaining is emerging in American public education. That new form of bargaining, they argue, will be characterized by the inclusion of teachers, collectively and individually, in the formulation of the educational policies of their schools and school districts.1 We agree with this line of speculation, but maintain that the new system of bargaining that is emerging in public education is likely to look more like the ‘old” system than some observers expect. Much of the speculation about what “new” teacher unions will be like seems to be based on the conviction that they will not be like the old ones. Rather than being adversarial and concerned with preserving its own power, the new teacher union will be cooperative and nonconfrontational. Rather than opposing efforts to improve the quality of teaching, the new union will assume responsibility for the quality and quantity of its members’ efforts. Rather than negotiating rules that restrict flexibility, it will look for ways of relaxing restrictions on teachers and administrators alike. Rather than insisting that teachers’ rights and benefits be allocated equally or else on the basis of seniority, it will insist that they be based on differentiated responsibilities and/or indicators of professional competence.

Some of these contrasts will prove to be accurate simply because people expect them to be. No doubt many policymakers, school board members, administrators, and teachers and their leaders believe that traditional unions are necessarily adversarial, that they are invariably opposed to efforts to improve their members’ performance, and so forth. As active metaphors or “institutional myths,“2 such convictions have played an important role in shaping the behavior of unions and employers in public education, even if the evidence to support them has been ambiguous. There is no reason why a new set of myths should not have similar influence. It is also likely, as Kerchner and Mitchell have argued, that the level of conflict in education bargaining will diminish once a new system of bargaining takes hold.3 It is well documented that the most serious conflicts in labor-management relations tend to occur when one or the other party attempts to change the structures and processes of bargaining itself.4 It is altogether likely that at least some of the acrimony of education bargaining is not so much characteristic of “traditional” bargaining as it is characteristic of the transition between two approaches, as one party struggles to reconstruct a relationship along lines that the other still refuses to accept. If and when the parties agree on the ground rules of a reconstructed relationship, conflict is bound to diminish.

These arguments would apply to bargaining and changing relationships in any setting or sector of the economy. To go -further, and to suggest that labor-management-relations in public education will be especially cooperative and nonconfrontational is, in our judgment, misleading. To the extent that it may generate expectations of labor-management harmony that are impossible to satisfy, the suggestion may even discourage the gutsy experimentation and tolerance for disagreement that are necessary for reconstruction to occur. We suggest in this article that education bargaining in the future is not likely to be marked by the absence of conflict or by the declining use of power tactics, as some observers expect, but by an increased capacity for cooperation and a more sophisticated use of power that is inherent in the structure of educational systems.


Perhaps the most frequent charge leveled at collective bargaining in education is that it has generated an adversarial relationship between school boards, administrators, and teachers—an adversarial relationship that undermines the effective administration of public education and prevents cooperative efforts to improve the system’s performance. Advocates of bargaining have tended to accept the “adversarial” label, although they argue that bargaining more often serves to reveal, rather than generate, sources of conflict in the employment relationship. As appropriate as that label may sometimes seem, other evidence suggests that it is misleading. One of the most distinctive features of collective bargaining is that it combines elements of conflict and cooperation, providing incentives for the parties to cooperate by posing conflict as an alternative.5 It is a mistake, even in traditional private-sector settings, to assume that threats of strikes or similar coercive tactics are the basic source of leverage in collective bargaining. In fact, the trade-off—the offer to accommodate another party’s interests in one area in return for accommodation of one’s own interests in another-is usually a much more effective source of power in bargaining.

Much of what appears (to outsiders) to be senseless maneuvering and bargaining ritual often represents the careful search for just such sources of bargaining leverage. The process is not reassuring to those who equate cooperation with orderly discourse or a willingness to sacrifice personal interest for the common good. Those who are prepared to look beyond the messiness of the process, however, can hardly dismiss the fundamentally “cooperative” nature of an arrangement that encourages self-interested parties to search for ways of accommodating each other’s concerns. As several scholars of American collective bargaining have pointed out, the argument that structural arrangements can turn potentially divisive interests into sources of cooperation is not unique to industrial relations. It is essentially the same as the argument on which our constitutional system of government is based.6 The “catch” in this argument is that it assumes that each party has something the other party wants.7 Until recently, we would argue, that has been the real source of weakness in the system of collective bargaining employed in public education: Structural arrangements and legal principles that have served the interests of both labor and management in the private sector, by providing each with “something the other party wants,” have undermined opportunities for trade-offs in education bargaining. With little to offer each other, it is not surprising that education bargainers would so often find themselves using threats of conflict, rather than offers of accommodation, as their principal source of leverage.

Except for restrictions on the right to strike and the substitution of various third-party impasse procedures, most of the features of collective bargaining in public education were borrowed from the private sector: districtwide bargaining units, the periodic negotiation of comprehensive agreements that last for fixed periods of time, legal restrictions that limit bargaining to so-called bread-and-butter issues and that require the parties to negotiate “in good faith,” multistep grievance procedures for the resolution of disagreements that may arise during the life of an agreement, and the use of binding arbitration to resolve such mid-contract disputes, if the parties are unable to resolve them on their own. These features are so common in the private sector today that it is easy to forget that most of them are products of bargaining in the industrial sector of the economy. Bargaining in craft and transportation settings was (and to some extent still is) considerably different. Craft unionism, which was the traditional form of unionism before industrial unions won their organizing victories in the 1930s, was based on four principles: (1) that workers had to be members of a union before they could be hired, (2) that it was the union’s responsibility to train workers and to certify when they were ready to be employed, (3) that foremen or immediate supervisors had to be members of the union and subject to union discipline, and (4) that the union would control the work process through its unilateral specification of work rules. All of these features were logical reflections of the strategic relationship that craft unions occupied vis-a-vis employers. Craft unions, for the most part, dealt with employers who had no permanent work forces. In fact, they provided employers with their workers, using hiring halls, restrictions on membership, and apprenticeship programs to guarantee that those workers would be qualified to perform the work for which they were temporarily hired. In their dealings with an employer, craft unions exercised the power of a seller of labor; their basic “deal” was an exchange of skilled labor for money.

The unions that represented factory workers never occupied such a position. Industrial workers were permanently employed, were given any necessary training after they were hired, and were usually employees before they were members. Because the employer’s products were standardized, were produced in enormous quantities, and required relatively little decision making by the workers who produced them, the employer could afford to separate the planning of work from its execution, giving managers and technical staffs the responsibility for planning the work and giving each line employee a relatively fixed set of duties to perform. The seller of labor, in such a setting, is the individual employee. The control of labor is a management function. The craft union’s two sources of leverage were never accessible to the industrial union. What a unified industrial union could control (or could prevent the employer from securing) was the authority to make the whole elaborate system work. As Chester Barnard, one of the seminal theorists on the functions of the executive, noted in the mid-1930s, authority is always delegated upward.8 The right to direct workers, to give orders, and to insist on obedience must be acknowledged and respected by those workers or else it is an empty fiction. Managers, of course, prefer to speak of authority being delegated downward. When they give credence to Barnard’s assertion at all, they assert that individual employees “gave” management the authority to direct them when they accepted employment; if workers want to revoke that authority, they can quit.

Industrial unions proved that workers need not accept that assertion. They took advantage of the fact that the effective operation of factory systems depended on the willingness of workers to voluntarily accept direction from their supervisors. The systems were simply too complex, and their dependence on large numbers of workers was too great, to pretend that obedience could be coerced from each individual, particularly if workers were prepared to act collectively in the fact of coercion. The benefits and guarantees that soon began to fill industrial union contracts were the price an employer had to pay to secure that obedience. The union’s formal acknowledgement of management authority was embodied in several provisions of the parties’ negotiated contract. Discipline procedures established the principle that a worker’s basic obligation to his or her employer was obedience: Insubordination (not incompetence) was the primary ground for discipline and/or dismissal. Grievance procedures provided top management with information about shop-floor problems and first-line supervisory behavior that top managers would never have gotten through their own management hierarchies.

The key to these arrangements, however, was contained in the arbitration and no-strike provisions of the parties’ negotiated agreements, and in the often-overlooked provision that specified that the terms of their agreement would remain in place for a fixed period of time. Together, these provisions helped establish the central principle of labor-management relations in the industrial setting, namely, that it is management’s right to manage and that any rights an employer has not given up, either by express contract language or by mutually acknowledged past practice, remain rights the employer is free to exercise unilaterally for the duration of the agreement.9 For purposes of our argument here, what was important about these arrangements was that they provided industrial unions with opportunities to “tap” sources of bargaining leverage that were inherent in the labor and product markets, work processes, and management hierarchies of the employment settings in which their members worked.


It is not surprising that education unions embraced industrial union principles when they first won recognition in the 1960s. The prevailing logic of education management was itself patterned on the top-down industrial model.10 Nor is it surprising that boards of education and central administrators found that logic attractive: Until recently, it offered the only coherent explanation of how school systems might coordinate the extraordinary volume of activity and movement of people and resources that occur in the typical school system. Two sets of features, however, undermine the same logic: one that has always made for a less-than-perfect fit between industrial unionism and public education, and another that is now rendering the two thoroughly incompatible.

The first set of features concerns the nature of teaching. American teachers, for the most part, are expected to be decision makers.11 They are individually responsible for making most of the decisions concerning what work they and their students will perform, how that work will be carried out, and how the results of their students’ day-to-day efforts will be evaluated.12 Often they are expected to make those judgments and exercise their responsibilities with little direction, support, or supervision from their administrative superiors.13 Teachers are responsible for translating general policies and overall goals into particular objectives; planning, supervising, and adjusting work activities; securing needed resources; and evaluating both individual performance and the overall success of their work plans. In functional (if not technical or legal) terms, teachers are managers, even if their superiors and their unions have been reluctant to acknowledge that fact. There is nothing incongruous about a union of managers bargaining with an employer, particularly if their “subordinates” are not employees but students and the decisions they make are not, strictly speaking, “personnel policies.” There is something incongruous about such a union patterning its policies (and an employer its policies) after those of the industrial sector, where a sharp distinction is assumed between employee and management interests and where no distinction is drawn at all between management and employer interests.

Industrial unionism, by private sector tradition and law, dictates that working conditions are negotiable, while decisions concerning the nature of the employer’s product and the design of the work process are employer prerogatives. Such a distinction, altogether reasonable in most production settings, is virtually impossible to draw in service settings like public education, where (1) the system’s clients are physically present, (2) the most important working conditions are those (like class size or adequacy of resources) that affect a person’s ability to do his or her job effectively, and (3) the work of employees is the product the organization provides. Yet, hemmed in by industrial-sector precedent and by court decisions declaring educational policies to be outside the mandatory scope of bargaining, teacher unions have often found themselves unable to address those school and district decisions that have the greatest impact on their members’ work lives.

The principle that the employer retains the right to exercise any management rights that are not specifically ceded by contract or past practice and the related principle that what employees owe their employer is blind obedience also fit imperfectly in public education. Although most teachers have little say over management policy decisions made at the school or district levels, their control over their individual classrooms actually makes them responsible for most of the day-to-day management of a school system. What their employer needs from them is not blind obedience, but active cooperation in translating general policies into specific objectives, plans, and activities. Boards of education and school administrators are thoroughly dependent on teachers to cooperate in this respect. That dependence gives teachers collectively a potential source of enormous leverage in the employment relationship—leverage that resembles that of industrial unions in some respects, that of craft unions in others. Yet adherence to industrial-sector principles has, until recently, prevented either school districts or teacher unions from acting on that dependence—the employer by using bargaining to secure more active teacher cooperation, or the union by offering it in return for other concessions.

There has always been an imperfect fit, therefore, between collective bargaining and the more fundamental structures and processes of public education itself. There was always some logic to patterning teacher union strategies after those of industrial unions, however, so long as school managers continued to assert, even haphazardly, the prerogatives of industrial managers. A second set of more recent developments seems to be undermining even this justification for traditional bargaining. New and more complicated public expectations, articulated in a tidal wave of blue-ribbon reports and “reform” legislation, are forcing educators to reassess how schools should be managed.14 Not only are state policymakers, boards of education, and administrators showing increasing respect for the roles played by individual teachers in their separate classrooms; they are also more willing to include teachers collectively in school and district decision making. The notion that teachers should be at least somewhat “involved” in school and district decision making is not new, but the rationale for such involvement has changed.15 For many years involvement was considered something that boards and administrators gave or allowed teachers to have, to improve their morale or to win their support for management initiatives. The most recent wave of reform reports has turned that reasoning on its head, arguing that school systems need the advice and information that teachers can offer concerning client needs and the educational process. Rather than something that boards and administrators give to teachers, involvement in educational policymaking is now being redefined as something that they get from teachers.

That redefinition, we would argue, represents a crucial turning point in the evolution of collective bargaining and unionism in public education. So long as teachers were the only ones with a reason to want involvement, boards and administrators were in a position to dictate the form and scope of their involvement (assuming, that is, that they were prepared to allow any involvement at all). With employers now having reasons of their own to seek teachers’ genuine involvement, teachers and their representatives are no longer placed in the role of suppliants.


All members of our educational systems now face the challenge of increasing their capacity for cooperation with each other. The fact that boards of education, administrators, and teachers all have reasons to seek greater teacher involvement in educational policymaking does not mean, however, that an era of permanent harmony is in the offing. Teachers, we expect, will always be more sensitive to their own needs for flexibility and resource support, while system managers will continue to be more sensitive to the need for coordination of programs and to the flow of students through the system. The parties will continue, in other words, to have different perspectives on what their clients need as well as different interests and priorities in their dealings with each other on educational issues. Indeed, to the extent that dealing openly on such issues will expose differences of interest and opinion that have hitherto been concealed behind assertions of union indifference and management prerogative, the “normal” level of conflict may even increase in some school systems in the coming years.

If boards and administrators were thought to be the sole guardians of the interests of the public and children (as industrial managers were once thought to represent the interests of the consumer at the bargaining table) such developments would raise serious questions about the extent to which private deals might compromise public interests. Our own conviction is that the interests of the public and of children in particular are represented equally well, perhaps better, but certainly differently by the perspectives, expertise, and information that teachers can bring to educational decision making. Different perspectives, interests, and priorities are not necessarily incompatible or even antagonistic, either with one another or with the public’s overriding interest in providing students with a high-quality education. Indeed, as we have argued here, such differences are often the source of interdependence and accommodation in bargaining relationships. Different perspectives, interests, and priorities do, however, require constant reconciliation, and different configurations of interests require the development of new structures, ground rules, and processes.16 The fact that collective bargaining is well suited to such tasks is one reason it is likely to assume increasing prominence in the overall management of school systems.


Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 91 Number 1, 1989, p. 97-105
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 424, Date Accessed: 5/17/2022 4:20:47 PM

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