N.O. teachers union loses its force in storm's wake By Steve Ritea Staff writer
When the Orleans Parish School Board gathered last month and voted to fire virtually the entire work force of 7,500 teachers, custodians, bus drivers and kitchen staff, union brass might have been expected to clamor loudly in opposition.
Instead, but for one or two nonunion gadflies who spieled and sat down, you could practically hear the crickets.
Of course, in a fundamental sense, the union position was already a lost cause. Katrina scattered thousands of teachers and school staff workers across the nation, destroying their homes and many of the schools where they spent their careers.
The union's death blow came in November, when the Legislature voted to sweep 87 percent of the system's schools into a state-run recovery district, annulling the collective bargaining agreement that for years had given United Teachers of New Orleans the exclusive right to negotiate most school employees' contracts with the School Board.
The largest union in the city before Katrina, UTNO for years played a major role charting the course of public education and making and breaking political careers, particularly through its endorsements of School Board candidates. Although the union had not called a strike in 16 years, intermittent walkouts during the previous decades had emptied school buildings, sometimes for weeks at a stretch.
Critics accused the union of coddling incompetent teachers and stifling moves toward a more innovative curriculum. Supporters saw the union as a necessary resource for employees of a highly dysfunctional system that routinely lost paychecks and was so cash-strapped it almost failed to make payroll before a private management team was brought in last year.
Today, with its Paris Avenue offices gutted, the union that once represented employees at 117 schools has members at only four campuses.
Union brass talks gamely of an inevitable comeback, but few teachers and administrators see much of a role for the union in post-Katrina New Orleans. The majority of functioning campuses are charter schools and exempt - at least for now - from union rules. Like private and religious schools throughout the area, the charter schools operate without negotiated contracts. They hire teachers for a year at a time, keeping those who perform well and letting go of those who don't.
But Brenda Mitchell, the union's president since 1999, said reports of UTNO's death are greatly exaggerated.
"The union is still strong and viable," she said. "We're just going to be working with a different kind of system."
Bruce Cooper, an education professor at Fordham University in New York who has studied labor issues in public schools for the past 40 years, sees Mitchell's rosy prediction as groundless. "They have no power, because power comes with collective bargaining," Cooper said. "Once they break this thing up, why would anyone want to be a member? What do you get for your money? Nothing. They can't protect you. I think the union will simply disappear."
UTNO, which had 4,700 dues-paying members before Katrina and negotiated on behalf of about 6,300 school system employees, now represents a mere 300 workers. Annual dues of $600 per member, which yielded the union close to $3 million a year before the storm, now amount to a trickle, and its parent organization, the American Federation of Teachers, has had to bail it out.
Frank Peterson, a math and journalism teacher for the past eight years at the recently chartered Benjamin Franklin Senior High School, said he and many of his colleagues don't see much need for union protection in the new work environment.
"There's no place for a union in this new scheme," he said. "Unless there are abuses that are intolerable, you won't really see the union."
Teachers unions were first established in New Orleans in 1937 but remained racially split for decades, with one for black teachers and one for white teachers
In the 1960s, as collective bargaining gained momentum among teachers across the nation, the unions in New Orleans pushed the School Board for that right. In 1966, they went on strike for three days to pressure the board, but only 500 of about 5,000 teachers walked off the job. The strike was a failure.
They tried again in 1969, this time with 1,000 teachers carrying picket signs for nine days. Again they lacked the strength to win collective bargaining.
Critical mass was achieved three years later, when the segregated unions voted to merge. United Teachers of New Orleans became the first integrated union of educators in the South, said Nat LaCour, UTNO's president from 1972 to 1998.
LaCour, who now serves as secretary-treasurer of the American Federation of Teachers in Washington, announced their main objective the same day as the historic 1972 vote: to lobby the School Board for collective bargaining.
Two years later, UTNO became the first teachers union in the Deep South to gain collective bargaining rights. With exclusive power to negotiate contracts with the School Board, the union was at the height of its powers and its muscle was apparent in 1978, when about 3,500 of the system's 5,000 public school teachers went on a 12-day strike, demanding better pay and benefits.
With only about a third of students attending schools and parents starting to organize their own protests, the district finally caved in, granting a 7 percent pay increase and better medical benefits.
The next strike wasn't until 1990, when two-thirds of teachers again walked off the job, this time for nearly three weeks, until the district acquiesced to further raises.
That there have been fewer strikes in the past couple of decades should not be interpreted as a dissolution of union power, in LaCour's view. "It's because of the positive working relationship between the district and the union," he said.
But Cooper, the Fordham professor, sees UTNO's situation as part of an across-the-board decline of workplace unions as jobs move overseas and many Rust Belt companies break apart.
Forty-eight percent of all workers were in unions in 1955, Cooper said, compared with 12.5 percent today.
Whatever the cause, the sapping of UTNO's political clout is apparent. In 1992, when there was a groundswell of support for reform-minded School Board candidates, five of seven the union endorsed were elected. In 2004, with a similar reform movement brewing, the union endorsed a majority of the incumbents on the board but only one, Una Anderson, was re-elected.
The rise of school accountability programs, including Louisiana's standardized LEAP test and President Bush's "No Child Left Behind," also has taken a toll on local unions.
"You had this massive failure of public education in New Orleans, and what accountability did was shorten people's tolerance of that sustained failure because we kept shining a spotlight on it," said state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education member Leslie Jacobs.
The move toward greater accountability culminated in November's decision by the Legislature to have the state take over the 102 New Orleans public schools, out of a total of 117, that were performing below the state average. As part of a takeover, a school faculty loses its union affiliation, freeing principals to select teachers based on merit rather than seniority or other considerations.
"States are setting standards and assessing or declaring schools failing," Cooper said. "That would never have happened 20 years ago."
Today with just 300 public school employees - those at Ben Franklin Elementary, McMain Unified, McDonogh No. 35 High and Bethune Elementary - covered by the union contract, UTNO is a much-diminished force in public education.
The flood line on the front door of the union's office falls just shy of the UTNO insignia, a blue shield with clasped hands raising a picket sign high in the air. The building's parking lot, once routinely packed with cars, is empty but for an out-of-service Pepsi machine and the skeleton of a felled tree.
Although the state takeover left 15 schools under the local system's control, all but eight of those have been chartered and three more are making the same transition.
Mitchell is biding her time. She said the same issues the union dealt with in the old days are sure to crop up under the aegis of newly hatched systems such as the Algiers Charter Schools Association.
"They work in fear of losing their jobs on a day-to-day basis there," she said. "If teachers could take a secret ballot as to whether they wanted representation or some work rules, I bet you they would do it overwhelmingly."
Meanwhile, teachers in the public charter schools are on year-to-year contracts and do not bargain collectively for their salaries. Under UTNO's contract, by contrast, teachers got tenure after just three years.
"They want to get around the union's contract," LaCour said of the charters. Giving principals the right to hire and fire at will every year, he predicts, "will prove an unsuccessful way to run schools." A high turnover rate will make for a lack of stability and that will hurt school performance, LaCour said.
LaCour foresees a new fight for collective bargaining.
"We anticipate there's going to be strong resistance to this, but in the long run the union will prevail," he said.
To all those who fear union activity will return schools to the poor condition they were in under the local district, union leaders point to high-performing St. Tammany Parish public schools, which have been under collective bargaining for more than a decade.
Mitchell said it's unreasonable and unfair for charter schools to lay years of poor student performance at the feet of the union. "The whole notion of eliminating unions so the school can work well is a crock," Mitchell said. Even in pre-Katrina days, "Ben Franklin High and Lusher School had union teachers, and they were performing well."
But at Franklin, which has been the highest-performing public school in the state, Principal Carol Christen said she devised a hiring strategy over the years that allowed her to choose her teachers, rather than letting union rules dictate her staff.
"Whenever I would have a vacancy I would write a job description with expected performance outcomes, and plenty of people shied away from that," Christen said. That allowed her to hire teachers - often from outside the district - who had the best qualifications, she said.
Now there's no union contract to get around, Christen said, and she and other charter school principals have the freedom to hire whomever they want without fear of reprisal.
Schools still subject to a union contract are required to give first priority to teachers who worked at those schools pre-Katrina. After that, the jobs are open to certified teachers with the most seniority throughout the system.
"I don't think the best way to staff schools in New Orleans as they reopen is on seniority basis," BESE member Jacobs said. "The driver should be high quality. I don't think every teacher with high seniority is top quality, although many are."
The public school system's interim superintendent, Ora Watson, also refused to go along with the seniority provision in UTNO's contract and faces several grievances filed against her. Watson said contract provisions such as the emphasis on seniority "might have to be modified in favor of student rights," although there is no guarantee she will prevail.
"Union mentality is very much 'everybody gets the same.' It's very tenure-driven and seniority-driven," said Brian Riedlinger, the Algiers Charter Schools Association's director of instruction. "The union would fight anything that was incentive pay."
In Algiers, applicants stepped into a brave new world where seniority played no role in hiring.
All teachers, in fact, were given a short math and grammar test - a first for New Orleans public school teachers - and about 50 of 250 failed.
Those hired, even with 20 or 30 years of experience, were started at a salary level commensurate with no more than 14 years experience - a provision that Riedlinger said was designed to give educators an ongoing fiscal incentive to achieve.
"Unions don't tend to mix well with the concept of public charter schools, because the hallmark of charters is freedom and performance-based accountability and those things are anathema to union contracts," said Jeanne Allen, president of the Center for Education Reform, a charter school advocacy group.
Riedlinger said strong, mutually respectful relationships between management and staff eliminate the need for organizing.
"When you have insensitive management, the union becomes more and more powerful," he said. "Unions really don't play a huge role when management really sees it as a cooperative venture."
Cherie Goins, a test prep teacher at Behrman Elementary in Algiers, who served as a union building representative when she taught at Bienville Elementary before Katrina, said she'd be skeptical of paying her roughly $600 a year dues to UTNO today.
"I don't see a need to join again because so far we've had open communication with the administration," she said.
By all accounts, if unions are to endure in the new New Orleans, there must be a fundamental shift in the role unions play and the way they operate.
"Since so many schools now are not under collective bargaining, unions will have to market themselves to teachers," she said.
UTNO's treasurer, Leoance Williams, a 30-year teacher at A.P. Tureaud Elementary, said if he landed in a job where he was happy and well-compensated, he'd try to be a shrewd consumer if the union came a-knocking.
"I would find out what they would be offering," he said. "There has to be some benefits of us joining."
That could open the door for competition, with groups like the Louisiana Association of Educators jockeying with the UTNO-allied Louisiana Federation of Teachers for union dues. Louisiana Association of Educators President Carol Davis said her union was at pains not to look like a vulture circling a corpse.
"We haven't removed it from our thoughts," she said of a move into Orleans schools, "but that's not our active strategy."
Louisiana Federation of Teachers President Steve Monaghan said federation officials well aware of the new landscape and they're working to adapt to it.
"You can't put a new dress on the same old mare," he said. "You've got to have a new horse here."
Tulane University President Scott Cowen, who helped shepherd a new plan for public education reform as a member of the mayor's Bring New Orleans Back Commission, said that although unions never came up in their discussions, they will have to make drastic adjustments if they want to play a role in the new, accountability-based system his group is recommending.
"My feeling would be if the unions are flexible enough in what they do and how they do it, then they can conform to the model we're advocating," he said. "Our plan certainly requires flexibility in hiring, firing - and that flexibility is significantly different than what was available in the pre-Katrina environment."