It’s time we redefine unionism for teachers, too

Former teacher union staffer and current Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa made news last week when he slammed the L.A. teachers union for being the “one unwavering roadblock to reform” in Los Angeles. According to the Los Angeles Times, Villaraigosa’s former union colleagues were furious at his “betrayal,” calling him a “turncoat.” But in the words of Harry Truman: “I never gave them hell. I just tell the truth and they think it’s hell.” Villaraigosa is correct. Teacher unions today are too conservative.

In the early 1960s, urban school districts were industrial factories controlled by political machines that were often more interested in maintaining political power than properly educating children. In response, teachers adopted a 1930s industrial model of unionism and began fierce political struggles for the right to collective bargaining. I joined those efforts in 1978 when I was elected president of a local Florida teachers union. I was proud when we finally won the right to bargain collectively in 1980 and I’m still proud of the improvements we achieved through organizing, bargaining and political action. But times have changed and unfortunately my former union colleagues aren’t keeping up.

Industrial-age unionism is no longer appropriate for a public education system that is abandoning the one-size-fits-all assembly line in favor of customized learning options. Teachers need a new unionism that uses collective power to promote individual teacher empowerment and embraces the innovations this empowerment will generate.

Teacher unions should be raising capital to help teachers start and manage their own schools. They should be demanding that all hiring, firing and compensation decisions be made at the school level so that each teacher’s compensation reflects his or her true market value. And as I wrote here last week, teacher unions should learn from professional sports unions and start advocating for free agency for teachers.

Some teachers will still want to trade salary for job security and teacher unions should meet their needs by creating employee-leasing businesses through which unions hire these teachers and then lease them to schools. Every teacher who wants tenure can then have it provided their union is willing to grant it.

Mayor Villaraigosa is neither anti-teacher nor anti-union, but he knows this antiquated model of industrial unionism that teachers are clinging to is bad for teachers, students and public education. Teachers need a new unionism.

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BY Doug Tuthill

A lifelong educator and former teacher union president, Tuthill has been president of Step Up For Students since August 2008.