SAEE : Policy Watch : Barriers to New Unionism in Canadian Teacher Unions

Research and Policy Issues

Barriers to “New Unionism” in Canadian Teacher Unions

Wendy L. Poole, February 2002

Considerable attention, during the 1980s and 1990s, has been directed to the issue of teacher union involvement in educational reform. Both Canada and the U.S. have experienced significant educational reform, including centralization, curriculum standards, accountability measures, state or province-wide student achievement measures, and school choice. A marked difference is apparent between the response of teacher unions in Canada and in the U.S. In the U.S., the AFT, the NEA, and networks of teacher unions such as TURN have embraced educational reform and are contributing to the development of a ÙNew UnionismÚ among teachers. In contrast, teacher unions in Canada are highly critical of educational reform. From the Canadian union perspective, educational reform is a cloak for fiscal restraint, the abandonment of the purpose of education to concentrate on the interests of business in a global economy. In their view, educational reform, as conceived by government, undermines the quality of education in Canada.

If we assume that educational reform is necessary and that union participation would enhance the implementation and sustainability of reform, what are the barriers for union participation in school reform in Canada? This paper addresses two major barriers to the adoption of ÙNew UnionismÚ in Canada³acrimonious relations between teacher unions and governments, and philosophical differences about the purpose of education. First, a brief description of New Unionism is provided, followed by a discussion of the two major barriers to New Unionism in Canada.

The Context of New Unionism in the United States

Following the publication of A Nation at Risk in 1983, education experienced increasing pressure to raise standards for teachers and students, increase accountability, and improve student achievement. The 1980s and 1990s ushered in an era of rapid and radical reform in education. raised the bar for entry into the teaching profession, implementing state tests for academic and pedagogical knowledge, requiring new teachers to obtain a Master’s degree within five years of employment, requiring teachers to renew their certification periodically, and tying certification renewal to ongoing professional development.

In addition to increased standards for teachers, states implemented standards for students and implemented statewide tests to measure student achievement at various grade levels, usually beginning with the fourth grade. Most tests were norm-referenced standardized tests that compared each student’s results against those of other students at the same grade level. More progressive states, such as Connecticut, implemented criterion-referenced performance tests that measured each student’s results against a set of standard criteria for achievement at a particular grade level. Whatever their form, school test results were published in local and state newsletters and the public judged schools on the basis of their comparative test results.

Movements for school choice, charter schools, and privatization of schools gained rapid ground.

Many states passed legislation permitting experimentation with vouchers, charter schools, and contracting for-profit companies to run schools.

At the federal level, George Bush developed a series of ambitious educational goals called Goals 2000 and created special funds to encourage schools to work toward these national goals. Subsequently, Bill Clinton targeted funds aimed at achieving basic literacy for all students by the third grade.

American Teacher Unions Respond to Increased Pressure

Faced with the educational reforms of the 1980s and 1990s, teacher unions experienced increasing pressure for reform. They embraced some reforms, such as raising standards for certification, especially in those states where they successfully negotiated higher salaries in return. Other reforms, such as charter schools, vouchers, and privatization met strong opposition from teacher unions. Teachers objected, but ultimately accepted, the increased emphasis on standardized testing.

Educational reformers, school boards, and district-level administrators criticized teacher unions for obstructing reform. Collective agreements, critics argued, created inflexibility that hindered the ability of school systems to respond to changing conditions. Seniority clauses prevented appropriate redeployment of staff to areas of greatest need. A one-size-fits-all approach to establishing rules governing teachers’ working conditions, made it difficult for individual schools to innovate. For the first time in decades, teacher unions faced serious challenges to their relevancy in a postindustrial era.

Teachers found it increasingly difficult to counter arguments that higher standards for student achievement were necessary to maintain America’s competitive edge in the face of increasing global competition. Patriotic fervor to maintain America’s status as the world economic, political, and military leader spurred public interest in educational reform. The rhetoric of standards, accountability, and student results quickly dominated educational publications and professional conferences. Teachers began to think in these terms. A new generation of teachers, entering the profession under increased professional standards, questioned the relevancy of the teacher union to their professional lives. Teacher unions faced an internal relevancy problem among members who increasingly focused on student learning issues.

Albert Shanker, President of the AFT through the 1980s and part of the 1990s, was the first prominent union leader to embrace a new unionist stance, although the term New Unionism was popularized later by Bob Chase, President of the NEA. Shanker achieved national and international attention with his column in the New York Times that called for educational reform. Shanker envisioned a professional teaching force that focused on student learning outcomes and the improvement of educational quality. He endorsed standardized test scores as a legitimate measure of student achievement and he called upon teachers and schools to use test scores as diagnostic data to inform instructional improvement initiatives. He urged teachers to take accountability seriously and assume responsibility for student outcomes and the competence of teachers.

New Unionism, as advocated by the NEA, calls for collaborative bargaining that assumes a problem solving, versus a confrontational, approach to collective bargaining. New Unionism also encourages local teacher unions to engage in peer review and peer assistance as means of enhancing the quality of the teaching profession. Teacher unions in several large cities such as Cincinnati, Toledo, and Rochester embraced these reforms and brought increasing attention to the new unionist movement. The Teachers Union Reform Network (TURN), formed by Adam Urbanski in Rochester and Helen Bernstein in Los Angeles in 1996, functions as a national study group of 24 NEA and AFT local leaders who practice new unionism.

The initiatives of TURN districts include policy trust agreements (agreements on educational policy developed outside of the traditional collective bargaining process), shared decision-making, performance-based pay, career ladders, peer review, and collaborative bargaining. Collective agreements in TURN contracts generally place less emphasis on seniority as the basis for hiring and assigning teachers, provide incentives for teachers to pursue national certification by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards (NBPTS), stipulate that student achievement will be measured by certain standardized tests, and, in some cases, tie professional development to student achievement results.

Few unions in the United States have embraced the new unionism, and the movement is even weaker in Canada. No Canadian teacher unions openly endorse the reforms undertaken by their American counterparts. A report to the Society for the Advancement of Excellence in Education (SAEE), a Canadian non-profit education research agency, raises questions about whether TURN would be possible in Canada and whether Canadian teacher unions could Ùbecome constructive players in education reformÚ (Litzcke, 2001, p. 51).

The SAEE report identifies differences between the Canadian and U.S. contexts that may influence the differential response to educational reform in the two countries. First, more ubiquitous thrusts toward school choice and accountability, through the administration of standardized tests. There are few charter schools or voucher programs in Canada. Although standardized test use has grown in Canada so that they are now administered in every province and results are published in several provinces, test results carry no direct rewards or repercussions for teachers or schools as they often do in the US. Initiatives such as monetary rewards for schools with high test scores, or reconstitution of schools that fail to improve test scores are not utilized in Canada.

Another significant difference is governance. Control of American education resides primarily at the local level. Most American school districts have local taxation authority, and collective agreements are negotiated at the local level. In contrast, most Canadian school districts rely almost entirely on provincial taxes to fund operational expenses. Collective bargaining in some Canadian provinces happens at the provincial, as well as at the local, level. Cases of new roles for unions and more collaborative union-management relations in the United States have almost always occurred at the local level where union leaders, administrators, and school trustees work most closely together and understand the local educational context. The trend toward centralization of control over funding, curriculum, student assessment, and standards in Canada make it less likely, but not impossible, that new labour-management relationships will develop.

At least two other differences between the Canadian and American contexts are important: acrimonious relations between teachers and provincial governments, and philosophical differences about the purpose of education. These themes are explored in the following sections.

Acrimonious Relations between Teachers and Provincial Governments

Litzcke (2001) states that Ùthe tighter fiscal conditions in Canada relative to the US may partially explain why Canadian teacher unions are more apt to perceive themselves as targets, rather than agents, of reformÚ (p. 48). By the 1990s, market-oriented approaches to political governance had captured the imagination of many provincial governments. The agenda of provincial (as well as federal) governments during the 1990s emphasized fiscal responsibility and the creation of economic environments that would enable Canadian business to compete in increasingly competitive global markets. Many provincial governments had accrued large deficits that, in some cases, negatively impacted their credit ratings and their ability to lower taxes to attract new businesses. To achieve a more business-friendly environment, provincial governments designed policy to eliminate deficits, balance budgets, cut taxes, and stimulate economies. The results were deep cuts in funding for education, health care, and social services.

Educational reforms were implemented; designed to cater to business needs for a highly skilled and productive labor force. The rhetoric of efficiency, accountability, and standards quickly dominated policy. Fiscal restraint led to school closures, amalgamation of school districts, reductions in the teaching force, mostly through attrition, and cuts to educational programs. Most teachers across Canada faced larger class sizes, increased assignment loads, and diminished support services. Reforms such as site-based decision making, school improvement programs, and inclusion of special needs children in the regular classroom led to increased workloads for teachers. Introduction of core curricula and standardized testing reduced teacher autonomy and increased accountability. Overall, fiscal restraint and educational reform resulted in the intensification of teachers’ work.

The pressure experienced by teachers and teacher unions goes beyond fiscal restraints and educational reform, however. Teacher unions, themselves, have been targeted by provincial governments since the early 1990s. In Nova Scotia, the Savage government violated the teachers collective agreement by freezing salaries during the last year of the contract. The same government attempted to pass legislation that would make the collective agreement subordinate to Ministry of Education regulations, thereby allowing the Ministry to override collective agreements at will. The proposed legislation would have given school principals the power to require teachers to assume non-teaching duties. If passed (and it did, but with most of the offending provisions removed), the bill would have seriously undermined teachers’ rights to a voice in negotiating their working conditions through collective bargaining. Contract provisions would have become meaningless if decisions by principals and the Ministry could override the contract. Ministry officials no longer consulted with Nova Scotia Teachers Union (NSTU) officials when drafting new curriculum or new regulations as they had in the past. When NSTU leaders asked why they had not been consulted on matters of policy, more often than not the response was ÙWhy do we need to talk to you?Ú This attitude, on the part of government, marked a departure from a long tradition of consultation and cooperation between the Ministry and the NSTU.

In Ontario, Bill 160, passed by the Harris government, attacked teachers’ collective bargaining rights. The legislation resulted in a reduction in the scope of collective bargaining to exclude teacher preparation time, pupil-teacher ratios, and the length of the school day. On the other hand, extracurricular activities, formerly considered voluntary services, were included in the definition of teachers’ duties. The legislation excluded principals and vice-principals from the bargaining unit, imposed mandatory arbitration to settle contract disputes, and provided protection from union reprisals for teachers who crossed picket lines. Bill 160 called for a longer school year, and the use of differentiated staffing, meaning that non-certified teachers could be hired to assist in teaching specific subjects. Teachers’ control over their working conditions eroded considerably under Bill 160.

In British Columbia, teachers enjoyed relatively positive relations with the provincial NDP government throughout the 1990s. Cuts to education funding and the introduction of accountability through school accreditation and standardized testing, though, did cause increasing friction by the late 1990s and into 2000. Conditions changed dramatically in 2001, however, with the election of Gordon Campbell’s Liberal government that, like other governments across Canada, embraced an agenda of cost cutting, efficiency, and accountability. The Campbell government enjoys a huge majority in the Legislature. There is no official opposition, since the Liberals control all but two seats. Campbell’s government has readily passed whatever legislation they have introduced. Making good on a campaign promise to introduce sweeping reforms within the first 90 days of his leadership, Campbell passed legislation making teaching an essential service. The legislation left the definition of Ùessential serviceÚ in education to the Labour Relations Board, but it was clear that Campbell intended to reduce the power of the British Columbia Teachers Federation (BCTF).

2001 happened to be a provincial bargaining year for teachers, and contract talks stalled for months. Teachers tested the essential service legislation beginning in September of 2001. Following rulings by the Labour Relations Board, teachers withdrew a number of ¶non-essential’ services, including supervision of students outside of class time, attendance at staff meetings and staff development programs outside of the school days, and meeting with parents outside of the school day. The BC Public School Employers Association (BCPSEA), representing provincial school boards at the bargaining table, refused to budge from their demands to roll back class size limits and language guaranteeing staffing levels for specialty teachers such as special education teachers, counselors, and teacher librarians. Teachers were equally determined not to lose, and possibly to improve upon, what they had gained in the last contract. Teachers stepped up the pressure in January, 2002, when, again following a ruling by the Labour Relations Board, teachers withdrew from extracurricular activities. Campbell threatened to legislate an end to the contract dispute and the BCPSEA seemed content to wait for the government to intervene.

On January 25, 2002, Campbell recalled the legislature and pushed through new legislation over the course of a weekend. Bills 27 and 28 ended the contract stalemate by legislating an agreement largely in favor of management. The legislation removed class size, staffing of specialist teachers, and the level of services for special needs children from the collective agreement. Teachers would no longer have a voice in these matters. The legislation significantly reduced the scope of collective bargaining for teachers.

The events I’ve described illustrate a trend toward changing the labour-management relationship between teachers and management in Canada. The means used are not the collaborative, problemsolving techniques associated with the American experience. Governments in Canada are using their legislative might to bully teacher unions, to curb collective bargaining rights, and to win back management rights where teachers had developed a shared voice through decades of collective bargaining. Canadian governments have declared war on teacher unions. Government rhetoric declares that teacher unions’ power needs to be curbed because the unions’ pursuit of self-interested gains is the enemy of efficiency, accountability, and educational reform.

Is this a fair assessment of the unions’ stance toward educational reform? In the following section,

I argue that it oversimplifies a complex issue and attempts to limit to the economic domain a discussion that actually encompasses the political-philosophical domain.

Differences in Political Philosophy between Teacher Unions and Governments

Education in Canada is influenced by social and political ideas, and as these ideas shift over time, conceptions of the good society and a good education reflect changes in values and beliefs. Manzer (1994) argues that beliefs about the purposes of education and their manifestation in educational policy have been influenced by the evolution of liberal thought. Liberal thought, he argues, has changed significantly over the past 120 years and has divided into disparate, and sometimes conflicting, doctrines. Kuchapski (1998), whose work I also draw upon, developed Manzer’s framework to illustrate how the issue of accountability in education has evolved along with the politics of education.

In the 1880s, as public education became normative, the purpose of education was to provide basic, practical education and to cultivate a sense of patriotism that would assimilate diverse cultures into a common culture. This political liberalism held public schools accountable for teaching the political liberties and political obligations of democratic citizens, and for providing equal access to a uniform education as defined by provincial regulations.

Early in the twentieth century, as Canada industrialized, economic liberalism gained ascendancy.

The purpose of education was to provide access to jobs and Ùequal opportunity came to be understood as equal access to different educationsÚ (Kuchapski, 1998, p. 534). General and vocation education supplemented academic education. The province retained ultimate authority over education, but gave school boards considerable latitude to develop local policies.

According to Manzer (1994), beginning in the 1930s and culminating in the 1960s and 1970s,

Canadian educational policy demonstrated Ùan ethical liberal commitment to public schooling as individual developmentÚ (p. 148). A child-centered and holistic learning philosophy dominated educational rhetoric and policy. Ethical liberalism recognized the importance of culture in individual development and, therefore, religious and linguistic accessibility became important issues. Education became more individualized through individual timetables and promotion on a subject by subject basis. Accountability meant designing instruction to meet individual needs and Ùdemocratizing relationships in the classroom by using a discursive pedagogy and more holistic teaching stylesÚ (Kuchapski, 1998, p. 539).

Two theories of democratic governance struggled to dominate educational policy during the 1960s and 1970s (Manzer, 1994). Ethical liberals advocated a participatory style of democracy that included grassroots involvement in policy decisions. Translated into educational governance, this meant greater decision-making power at the local level and the involvement of various stakeholder groups. A system of policy interdependence emerged, whereby, Ùin principle, at least, the various levels of policy and administration were integrated into a harmonious and seamless relationship, facilitating a sharing of power between local educational authorities and central governmentÚ (Kuchapski, 1998, p. 538). Rational management, with its more utilitarian foundation, rivaled participatory management (Manzer, 1994). However, a commitment to the principles of student-centered education united the utilitarian liberals and the ethical liberals. This bond broke during the 1980s when concerns grew over public debt, deficits, unemployment, and high taxes.

During the 1990s and into the early twenty-first century, a fourth liberal doctrine, technological liberalism, developed and gained momentum. Rising deficits, globalization, aggressive competition, rapid technological change, and the evolution of the knowledge economy Ùrenewed interest in the instrumental value of education as the means for collective economic well-beingÚ (Kuchapski, 1998, p. 539). Technological liberalism gives priority to educational excellence as the means to efficient production and competitiveness. Core curriculum, high standards of educational achievement for all students, and life-long learning and retraining are foundations of technological liberalism. Appropriate curriculum includes the scientific, mathematical, and technical knowledge of advanced technological societies. Other principles include the measurement of student achievement through standardized testing and according to international standards. Equal opportunity is defined as Ùequal access to a uniform educational program focused on resultsÚ (Kuchapski, 1998, p. 540).

In terms of governance, technological liberals argue that provincial educational authorities should make policy decisions about Ùoverall resource allocation to public education, content of the common or core curriculum, provincial standards of educational achievement, and mechanisms of accountabilityÚ (Manzer, 1994, p. 230). Management, on the other hand, should be decentralized to school boards, school councils, and teaching staffs, while maintaining accountability to the policy-determining center.

Canadian teacher unions, in contrast to most provincial governments, subscribe to ethical liberalism; they value and promote a broad range of educational goals, including cultural pluralism and social justice (Poole, 2000, 2001). Teacher unions in Canada are skeptical, to say the least, about the prospects for improving the education of students through government-initiated reform. Unions are particularly critical of standardized testing that is often the sole means used to assess student learning in most accountability programs. Standardized tests, unions claim, are unreliable measures of student learning, and only serve to stigmatize children and schools in disadvantaged neighborhoods. The struggle for social justice is a common theme among Canadian union leaders. The BCTF most openly endorses a political platform of social justice, promoting curriculum and sometimes using legal resources to combat racism, poverty, gender bias, and homophobia.

The resulting ideological division between the technological liberalism of government the ethical liberalism of teacher unions serves as another barrier to teacher union participation in educational reform. Teacher unions and governments disagree on the goals of education. Unless a compromise can be reached between the ethical and technological goals of education, there is little likelihood that unions, management, and governments will collaborate on educational reform.

New Unionism in Canada?

Canadian teacher unions may already embrace a new unionism, but one with a marked difference to that of most reformist teacher unions in the U.S. The union reform movement in the U.S. has led to three strands of teacher unionism: industrial, professional, and social justice. Briefly, industrial unionism focuses on defending the rights and working conditions of teachers. Professional unionism Ùincorporates yet moves beyond an industrial model and suggests that unions also play a leading role in professional issues such as teacher accountability and quality of school programsÚ (Peterson, 1999, p. 14). According to Peterson,

the social justice model embraces concepts of industrial and professional unionism, but also is linked to a tradition that views unions as part of a broader movement for social progress. It calls for participatory union membership; education reform focused on serving all children, with special attention to collaboration with parents and community organizations; and a concern for broader issues of equity throughout society. (p. 14)

An increasing number of American teacher unionists advocate moving beyond traditional industrial unionism. However, most endorse professional unionism while few emphasize social justice: ÙThey focus on improving the quality of the teaching profession, and only secondarily, or not at all, on the inequities in schools and societyÚ (Peterson & Charney, 1999, p. 7).

Canadian teacher unions, while less likely to endorse aspects of professional unionism, such as peer review and accountability based on standardized test scores, demonstrate their own brand of professional unionism. Educational quality issues, such as professional development, class size limits, and support for special needs students increasingly find their way into collective agreements. Management and government generally reject union suggestions for educational reform, usually on the basis of cost. For example, union attempts to limit class size or increase the number of teacher aides to assist special needs students meet resistance from cash-strapped school boards and from governments reluctant to increase spending.

If a new unionism gains momentum in Canada, it will likely differ from the American model. It may reject or modify aspects of the professional unionism model adopted by American unions. New unionism in Canada is most likely to emerge in the form of social justice unionism. Canadian teacher unions advocate social justice to a much greater extent than their American counterparts. They resist more strongly some educational reforms, particularly standardized testing, on the basis of the inequities they exacerbate.

Can any union reform movement gain momentum in Canada, however, in the existing political context? Governments and management often portray union initiatives, such as reducing class sizes and ensuring adequate levels of support for special needs students, as self-interested³ intended to lighten the workload of teachers, not on improving education for students. The potential contribution of union initiatives to improving the quality of education typically gets dismissed.

Governments have declared war on teacher unions, and unions, not surprisingly, have responded by defending teachers’ rights and the hard-won gains of collective bargaining. Both professional and social justice unionisms build on industrial unionism. Collective bargaining rights and at least basic protection for teachers are, according to unionists, prerequisites for the evolution of teacher unionism. With these basic rights and protections in jeopardy, teachers will perceive the need to focus more of their attention and efforts on meeting their basic needs.

The first step toward healing the damage and building union-management and union-government relations is recognizing the nature of the political struggle between these groups. The conflict is, in part, based on satisfying and protecting self-interests, but this is true of all parties involved. Governments want to gain greater power to achieve their political agenda. Management wants flexibility, not only to improve education for children, but also to make decision-making easier. Teacher unions want to protect teachers from the sometimes arbitrary and capricious behavior of management.

The more fundamental political conflict is philosophical. Differences in ideas about what constitutes a good society and a good education form the roots of the struggle. The liberal typology proposed by Manzer (1994) and his analysis of their development over time, draws attention to how new conceptions of liberalism have developed in Canada during different historical periods and have influenced educational policy. Each permutation (political liberalism, economic liberalism, ethical liberalism, and technological liberalism to use Manzer’s terms) suggests different ideas about what constitutes the public good. Each new form is grounded in those that have preceded them, although they invariably have distinctive characteristics. We still see elements of liberal ideals that have long since lost ascendancy. For example, we still expect students to learn about their rights and responsibilities under Canadian democracy, and we continue to include general and vocational education in our high schools. The real struggle, today, however, is between ethical liberalism and technological liberalism.

We are witnessing a shift away from ethical liberalism and the emergence of technological unionism, which has gained ascendancy in the U.S. and is quickly gaining momentum in Canada. Technological liberals (including the current governments of Alberta, British Columbia, and Ontario) criticize ethical liberalism for its failure to achieve efficiency, high academic standards, and measurable accountability. Technological liberalism developed, says Manzer (1994), because of ethical liberalism’s Ùfailure to take the economic importance of education seriouslyÚ (p. 271). Technological liberalism, Manzer points out, typically ignores or dismisses social diversity, concerned that it may lead to social fragmentation. The neglect of diversity issues in an increasingly pluralistic society may prove to be the downfall of technological liberalism. Ethical liberalism and technological liberalism may accommodate the other’s weakness; therefore they may need each other to form a sustainable conception of the good society and a good education. Herein may lie the solution to the chaos created by the present struggle between teacher unions, management, and governments. If we can move beyond attacking and blaming the other, and examine the underlying interests of the parties, we find the foundations for building a better educational system and a union-management relationship that will take us beyond industrial unionism.


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