New Era of Labor: Hawaii’s Powerful Teachers Union’s Multi-Front War
by Sarah Butrymowicz, The Hechinger Report, published in Time Magazine June 08, 2013 (excerpts)
The Hawaii State Teachers Association’s weekly briefing meeting had turned into a battle-planning session; the conference room became a war room. It was late November. Officials were digging in for a protracted contract fight with the state that would last through April. They were also dealing with an internal problem: A rogue group of frustrated teachers had launched a series of protests without labor leaders’ approval, and the union had to figure out how to respond….
The Wednesday after Thanksgiving, a dozen or so teachers trickled in and out of a trailer classroom at Kahuku High & Intermediate School, near Oahu’s North Shore. They’d come to share their feedback on Hawaii’s experimental teacher evaluation system, but conversation about the state’s new proposed contract overshadowed the proceedings.
Union official Jodene Paris warned members that the contract would reduce sick leave from 18 days to 10, increase the time it takes to earn tenure from two to three years, and mandate that student growth play a key role in teacher evaluations. A 5% pay cut that Hawaii teachers took two years before would be offset with a new raise, but proposed future raises were small.
Maya Ross, the crisis communications consultant whom the union brought in to improve both teachers’ and the public’s perception of the organization, sat in the back of the room drafting an official response to a press release sent out by the rogue group of teachers who had launched the protests. The group, based at James Campbell High School, called for the state to make teachers’ salaries competitive and for teachers to be rated on four unannounced classroom visits….
Two weeks earlier, teachers at Campbell, unhappy with a lack of union action, started a protest known as “work-to-rule.” Every Thursday, participating teachers worked from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., the minimum hours required by their contract. Before and after the school day, they lined busy streets holding signs to drum up public support, often accompanied by their students.
Within a few weeks, the Campbell campaign spread to more than 100 schools across the state. Although few sustained the effort for long, the show of solidarity gave the protesters a sense of unity, Campbell teacher Daniel Pecoraro said. At the start, the attitude was “us against the union.” He described the union’s inability to negotiate a favorable contract as “the first time members realized they need to think for themselves.” The group has also organized campaigns to email the Governor and “teach in” days, where teachers bring the work they do on weekends to city hall.
HSTA tried to offer the protesters support without officially promoting their activities. “I want teachers who are initiating actions, inside or outside of HSTA’s formal structure, to know that I will join them in any legal and constructive action they initiate that will increase public attention and support for our cause of a dignified contract resolution,” HSTA President Wil Okabe said in a statement.
Hawaii’s rogue teachers represent a larger trend of union members voicing dissatisfaction with their leadership. Union officials, now facing attacks from inside and outside the organization, are still figuring out how to best manage their dissenters. Research by Todd DeMitchell, a professor at the University of New Hampshire, has found that although teachers and union officials share common ground on many things, labor leaders are much more likely than teachers to believe that union activity and professional activity are compatible, and that a union contract “fosters quality teaching.”
There’s also evidence of a generational gap. Across the country, pockets of teachers are deviating from traditional labor priorities—although not always from unions themselves—and organizing to promote controversial reforms. Many are young graduates from alternative training programs like Teach For America. Others are career-changers bringing ideas from the private sector to their new jobs. Older teachers tend to be more concerned with traditional job protections and benefits, and want unions to behave like they always have. Younger teachers are more likely to want unions to be a vehicle for change.
A 2012 Education Sector survey found that nearly half of teachers who’d been in the classroom for more than 20 years said that being in a union provided them with a sense of pride and solidarity, compared to just 22% of those with under five years of experience. And nine out of 10 new teachers said unions should take a more active role in making it easier to remove ineffective teachers from the classroom, compared to three-quarters of their veteran colleagues….
In Hawaii, the union believed improved communication would bolster member engagement among all ages. Union officials increased their activity on the HSTA’s Facebook page, filling it with updates, photographs and video messages from President Okabe. They also stepped up their efforts to answer complaints and collect feedback from members.
As negotiations continued into the winter, teacher evaluations—and primarily how student test scores will be included in them—remained a main point of contention, but the union made several concessions.
A counterproposal from the HSTA allowed for the use of student scores in teacher evaluations, but stressed the need for multiple measures of achievement and required that the scores count for no more than 10% of a teacher’s rating in the “student growth” subcategory—meaning it’d be a small fraction of a teacher’s overall evaluation. It also called for classroom observations and measurements of a teacher’s growth, omitting the student surveys that the state’s been pushing. The state rejected the offer.
In late March, the union and the state reached a tentative agreement that increased teacher raises and promised that teachers and union leaders would be a part of decision making about the new evaluation system. Regardless of that negotiation, half of a teacher’s evaluation would be based on student growth. Union membership voted to ratify the contract in April….
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