A Crossroads: Does the Demise of the UAW Offer Lessons for Teacher Unions? What Path Will Obama Take? Who Will Define “Change?”


It is both sad and depressing to watch the disintegration of the United Automobile Workers (UAW) union before our very eyes. The once proud union did what unions do … they negotiated with management as well as working with management, unfortunately, management made a host of decisions that created an inviable business model
Two years ago, Ron Gettelfinger, president of the United Automobile Workers union, offered a grim prognosis for the auto industry to union members at the group’s convention in Las Vegas.

“This isn’t a cyclical downturn,” Mr. Gettelfinger told the silent crowd. “The kinds of challenges we face aren’t the kind that can be ridden out. They’re structural challenges and they require new and farsighted solutions.”

Now, The New York Times’s Micheline Maynard writes, Mr. Gettelfinger and his union, representing 139,000 workers at the Detroit carmakers, are under pressure to find more drastic solutions that even he could not have anticipated. Since the U.A.W.’s 2006 convention, Detroit automakers have lost more than $80 billion, including one-time charges, and shed more than 119,000 workers.

It is a fair question to ask: are teacher unions on the UAW path?

Teacher unions are under assault, from their enemies as well as their “friends.” No Child Left Behind (NCLB), the law that has been attacked since passage by both the National Education Association (NEA) and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) is not a Bush/Republican bill, it is a law created by Senator Kennedy and Representative Miller, both staunch supporters of labor.

The blogs and the media have focused on the upcoming Obama choice for Secretary of Education while the real battle is the direction of the Obama administration.

Some teachers argue that unions should stand firm, after all they played a major role in the Obama election campaign. The “enemies” are clear: the Klein/Rhee Educational Equity Agenda folk, as well as the business community. Don’t give an inch! Hold rallies, demonstrations, fight back … draw a “line in the sand” and make it clear to electeds, they’re either for us or against.

For others the situation is more nuanced, i.e., school-wide bonuses were negotiated in NYC, avoiding the issue of individual teacher bonuses. The conflict over the ATR pool was also negotiated, maybe creating a plan to diminish the pool. Spar, retreat, avoid, buy time and create coalitions.

Younger teachers, Teach for America types aver the union and the Klein/Rhee reformers should engage in direct negotiations, rather than pay scales based solely on seniority, “teacher value-added” should play a role in teacher remuneration.

We must remember that there are 16,000 or so independent schools districts, where required by law, each negotiates separate collective bargaining agreements.

The Klein/Rhee “reformers” are making a major push to set the agenda on the national scene. Rhee is on the front page of the current Time magazine. The Wall Street Journal carries an interview with Joel Klein and Louis Gerstner, former CEO of IBM. Gerstner proffers,

 The first thing I want to ask the president-elect to do is to ask the important question: Why? Why have we failed to reform the public schools after all this time?

The first possibility is that we don’t know what to do. Well, let me assure you, we know exactly what to do to fix the public schools. We need high, rigorous standards, we need great teachers supported by high compensation for the very best teachers.









We need more time on task, we need a longer school day, we need a longer school year, and we need accountability and measurement in the system so we can constantly adjust what’s going on. That’s it, it’s all we need.

  I’m going to say to the president-elect that the fundamental thing we have to do is change the governance model and accountability and execution model for education in this country. And what I’m going to suggest is that he convene the 50 governors, and the first thing they do is they abolish the 16,000 school districts we have in the United States. Sixteen thousand school districts are what we’re trying to cram this reform through.Now, the governors could decide, we’ll keep them as advisory, we can keep them as community support, but they will not be involved in the fundamental direction of public education in America. Second, this group of governors will then select 50 school districts, plus I’d say 20 major cities, so we got 70 school districts. Seventy instead of 16,000.

They will within one year develop a national set of standards for math, science, reading and social studies. Twelve months after that they will develop a national testing regime, so that there’ll be one day in America where every third, sixth, ninth and twelfth grader will take a national test against a national curriculum.

Third, these governors and mayors will come together and develop a program of national certification for teachers. Teachers must have the capacity to teach, they must prove that they can teach, they must be tested that they can teach, and then we’re going to put a program in to pay the best teachers incredibly higher salaries — $40,000 to $50,000 more than they currently can make for the very best teachers.

Is this an attractive agenda? Should the President, the Congress, the Governors and Unions sign on?

And finally, we’re going to then allow all the school systems in the U.S. to innovate, to go out and figure out how to get it done. Let those principals and teachers in those schools figure out all the possible ways that they think they can meet those standards, and stop choking them with regulations and requirements. And so, we will do what we would do if we were trying to create a change in an organization. We would set very clear goals, and then we would free up our people to go and deliver, and if they don’t deliver we change them.

Wait a minute, if he saying, in a roundabout fashion, that teacher contracts are part of the problem rather than the solution?

The communards in the teacher unions are ready to fight to the bitter end. The newest, youngest, and, probably among the brightest are attracted by the Gerstner agenda. Can the unions, the NEA and the AFT be nimble? Can unions create consensus among their members?

And, how much does Obama care? A recession edging toward a depression, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, India/Pakistan, a health care crisis, maybe education is so far down the list that it may be easier to punt …to avoid making any significant changes in the first presidential term.

Then again, who knew a few years ago that the UAW and the auto industry was being sucked into a black hole?

2 responses to “A Crossroads: Does the Demise of the UAW Offer Lessons for Teacher Unions? What Path Will Obama Take? Who Will Define “Change?”

  1. There is no one who can define change for sure. This is what it is. I know it.


  2. You say that the new, the young, and the best and brightest are attracted by the Gerstner agenda. What’s your evidence? This doesn’t sound like anything I’ve heard teachers support and I’ve worked a number of schools with all different types of teachers.


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