Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Unions--For Professionals or For "Labor"?

Among conservatives -- and for many others as well -- the teacher unions have long been high on the list of roadblocks to school reform. It's a reputation that's often been richly deserved, particularly by the powerful National Education Association and by many of its state and local affiliates.

At the core of that intransigence lay the vestiges of an industrial unionism that was never a comfortable fit for organizations whose members wanted to be regarded as professionals, not as blue-collar assembly line workers.

And this from a columnist at the left-leaning major Sacramento newspaper. Granted, the thrust of the article was a slight deviation from the California Teachers Association's usual one-size-fits-all plan for increased education spending--instead of all districts' getting the same per cent increase, more will go to underperforming schools this year. The fact that the columnist sees such a small change as a big deal says something about the CTA, something that isn't very complimentary.


David said...

I wonder if blue-collar unions are really a fair comparison for the kind of thing we see in teachers' unions--that is, I wonder if the comparison is fair to the blue-collar union guys.

Suppose that we have an auto plant welder who can't weld properly and won't learn. Would the union really object to firing him, after due notice? I doubt it, or cars would be falling apart all the time.

allen said...

When I was doing my "Detroit guy" stint on the line the general perception was that quality was management's concern and any problems the inspectors missed, well, that's what the dealership mechanics were for.

If a guy wouldn't do the job right the easiest thing to do was reassign him to where he couldn't do as much damage and/or to a less, sometimes much less, desirable work assignment. If he was enough of a screw-up the union tended to let him screw himself out of a job. But that took someone who was exceptionally stupid or obdurate not that there weren't a steady parade of guys like that.

The comparison to most blue-collar unions is too inexact to be useful though. Blue-collar jobs are in competitive industries where, eventually, poor performance will have organizational consequences. Examples Ford, GM and Chrysler. Considerations of quality don't apply in the public education system since the concept is controversial where it isn't being actively opposed and quality, not just the concept, is politically quite contentious. Most important, there's no urgency, as a matter of organizational survival, to give weight to matters of quality control.

There are other confounding factors which make the comparison difficult. How do you factor in tax support and mandatory attendance? What's the effect of the civil service system and oversight by political officeholders?

Where the comparison is useful is in the understanding that, like blue-collar unions, teacher's unions resist any connection between productivity and compensation. Good assembly line workers don't get paid more for being good any more then good teachers get paid more for being good.

Where that comparison falls apart, and is most instructive, is when you move higher up the organization structure. In public education a lousy principal or superintendent doesn't lose their job just because they aren't good at it but in industries associated with trade unions lousy managers do lose their jobs and are ruthlessly measured for and made to account for productivity improvements and quality metrics.