Tess Sanchez Grzesiak, a young Spokane teacher, chafes at being a union member.
She’s fresh from a career in public relations, a competitive, non-union field. Less concerned about bread-and-butter issues of pay and fairness, she’s more interested in the toast and jam of professional development and high standards.
Grzesiak is glad to hear her union, the Spokane Education Association, is moving away from defending every bad teacher.
“I never had the need for that type of shield,” she said as she sat in her Chase Middle School classroom. “If I wasn’t doing a good job I might feel differently.”
While teachers like Grzesiak bristle at old-style union tactics, a rising chorus of outsider criticism also pushes teachers unions to re-examine their defense of bad teachers.
With political trends threatening their influence, union pragmatists talk about changing for self-preservation’s sake. One clear sign of change will be whether the union pulls back from its no-holds-barred legal defense, an approach that drives up the cost for taxpayers and the union.
In Washington, the political currents threatening teachers unions include a ballot initiative in November, I-173, that would divert money from public schools by giving parents tax-supported vouchers to pay for private schools.
Also on the November ballot, a second initiative, I-177, would allow tax-supported charter schools. Those schools could choose to junk contracts, pay scales and unions.
Meanwhile, in other states, lawmakers have tried, but few so far have succeeded in rewriting teacher tenure laws.
Struggles between unions and school districts only play into critics’ hands, union leaders acknowledge. Instead, unions are trying to shore up support for public schools while still defending teachers who are treated unfairly.
“I think the unions are coming to the realization that public education is at risk,” said Lynn Jones, new SEA president. “We have a professional responsibility that may be bigger than the one for which we were created.”
Dealing with problems
Jones’ predecessor, Jerry Hopkins, grew tired of problem teachers draining union money and time.
“Some of them call the office daily, send long letters to us daily about how wronged they have been,” he said. “In the past we just flat-out hanged in there and tried to save that person.”
In a union newsletter last February, Hopkins called on teachers to face the problem.
“Our present process provides defense no matter how many years the member has been in trouble for the same problem,” Hopkins wrote. “We cannot continue sweeping this issue under the carpet and hope no one will see the lumps.”
Other members felt the same and voted to make a change after hours of debate during the Washington Education Association annual convention in Spokane last May.
The union now will set guidelines for when it will pull its financial and legal power from defending chronically troubled teachers.
It’s not clear what the guidelines will be. A WEA group examining the issue earlier this year recommended training union leaders on how to say no to members who want unlimited help.
The group also suggested streamlining a teacher’s appeal rights when the union denies help. It further recommended reminding union leaders they are obligated only to defend a teacher’s rights, not bad teaching.
The WEA group also suggested union leaders ask themselves how representing any member would affect “the reputation of the association with other members” and “the value of the association’s good name.”
Some doubt the union will change.
“Don’t you believe it,” said John Binns, a Tacoma school attorney, who battles regularly with unions on teacher firings.
“Don’t believe those people for a second. They are absolutely untrustworthy. … It’s labor against management, the idea that they must protect the least worthy and competent among them for fear any of them could be unjustly treated by management.”
Spokane School District Superintendent Gary Livingston believes unions can change. “We’ve seen it happen here locally,” he said.
In Spokane, the district and union work together to help schools set up decision-making councils to give teachers more involvement. That led to sharing more information on teacher performance cases and more cooperation during contract talks, Livingston said.
When Dolores Humiston, district employee relations director, was hired recently by the SEA, the district hardly flinched.
“That could never have happened in the old style,” Livingston said. “She left with the entire knowledge of our district, our negotiation strategies. And we weren’t uncomfortable with that.”
Members want change
The WEA surveyed 450 of its members in March 1994 on their reactions to a list of association goals.
The top two priorities were “increasing members’ professional status and job satisfaction” and “forging partnerships with parents, business and community.” More than eight of every 10 teachers listed both as their top goals.
Feedback like that encourages unions to act more like guide dogs than bulldogs, reaching out to parents, bargaining to give teachers more say in reforming schools, even easing some bad-apple teachers out of the profession.
WEA attorney Kathy O’Toole says because schools are strapped for money they can’t give teachers the additional training they want.
“They want to get it from the union, and the only way we can do that is to shift time and money away from the person in trouble to the person who wants to do the job better.”
The SEA once spent 70 percent to 80 percent of its money and time on bargaining, grievances and arbitration, Jones said.
Now that portion of union spending goes to develop leadership, get parents involved in school governing councils and work with the district to change schools. The union’s annual revenue from dues is about $331,000, Jones said.
O’Toole, who has seen the union change during her 15 years with it, sees irony in the WEA’s shift to professional issues.
“The dinosaurs used to be those who wanted the union to do professional development,” she said. “Now the dinosaurs want us to concentrate on bargaining and arbitration.”
Nationally, a coalition of 21 local teachers unions, including those in Bellevue and Seattle, is working through the University of California at Los Angeles to provide a new vision for unions.
“We may be hearing the creaking and grinding and groaning of a new teacher-union template,” said UCLA professor Buzz Wilms, an adviser to the group and author of a forthcoming book on industrial unions.
Wilms sees parallels with changing labor-management relations in industries that need to respond quickly to competition. In both, reformminded union leaders face challenges from the old guard.
“The problem most of them are concerned with is: How do you start to alter the historic traditional upagainst-the-wall union attitudes to become more collaborative and at the same time not get yourself voted out of office?”
In Spokane, SEA’s Jones isn’t worried. He pledges to continue working with the district to improve schools.
“If we get voted out of office, we get voted out of office. It’s not a great concern of mine.”
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The following fields overflowed: BYLINE = Carla K. Johnson Staff writer Staff writer Julie Titone contributed to this report.