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Quick Take: ‘Bargaining for the Common Good’ or Self-Interest? A Critical Look At A Teachers Union Puff Piece

Last week, Rachel Cohen at The American Prospect wrote a laudatory piece about teachers unions’ efforts (shocker!) to bargain for policies that go beyond the usual issues of salaries, benefits, and work rules. As she explains:

“By expanding their bargaining demands beyond wages and benefits, unions are recognizing that they can more fully support, and engage their community partners—and get those community groups to support them in return.”

Cohen points to an agreement signed last week between the Los Angeles Unified School District and United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA) as an example of this new strategy, which UTLA president Alex Caputo-Pearl describes as “bargaining for the common good.”

So how does the LAUSD/UTLA agreement actually serve the common good? Well, we’re told it commits the district to “hiring a Pupil Services and Attendance counselor for high-poverty high schools, and hiring a new teacher for the 55 most needy elementary schools in order to reduce class size.”

UTLA president Alex Caputo-Pearl: A true humanitarian (in the eyes of the American Prospect).
UTLA president Alex Caputo-Pearl: A true humanitarian (in the eyes of The American Prospect).

To bolster the case for UTLA’s beneficence, Cohen turns to John Kim, executive director of the Advancement Project, who praises the agreement: “We commend UTLA’s innovative leadership in leveraging its bargaining power to deliver real and impactful investments for low income communities of color.”

But is UTLA really using its power “deliver real and impactful investments for low income communities of color?” There’s a few reasons to be skeptical of Kim’s assertion:

  • The Advancement Project received approximately $150,000 from UTLA’s parent organization, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), in F.Y. 2015;
  • Research has shown that a small reduction in class size has a negligible impact on student performance, especially when compared to other interventions;
  • The agreement requires LAUSD to hire dozens of staff covered by the collective bargaining agreement (Cohen leaves out that the agreement also added an additional teaching position at every middle and high school that serves at least 200 students), which means UTLA has essentially set itself up for a boost in dues revenue when those new hires join the union.

When one takes these factors into consideration, it’s much less clear whether said contract stipulations were conceived to benefit the public or the union’s own interests.

When viewed through this same lens, the other examples of “common good bargaining” Cohen cites – last year’s Seattle teachers strike, the contentious negotiations that led to St. Paul’s 2014 teachers union contract, and the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools – also appear less altruistic than self-interested.

In both Seattle and St. Paul, the demands of union leaders required those districts to hire additional staff, which of course, added to the unions’ ranks and their coffers. Moreover, the Alliance is a particularly deceitful example of common good bargaining, since it is essentially a group of AFT/NEA-funded organizations attempting to pass themselves off as an organic, grassroots coalition.

Just something to keep in mind the next time you’re seeking an honest appraisal of public education issues in the pages of The American Prospect

Written by Peter Cook

Pete became involved in education reform as a 2002 Teach For America corps member in New Orleans Public Schools and has worked in various capacities at Teach For America, KIPP, TNTP, and the Recovery School District. As a consultant, he developed teacher evaluation systems and served as a strategic advisor to school district leaders in Cleveland, Nashville, Chattanooga, and Jefferson Parish, Louisiana. He now writes about education policy and politics and lives in New Orleans.


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