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WHAT'S NEW IN NEW UNIONISM

2/2/00

The last weekend in January found me attending the Northeast Regional Conference of the National Education Association (NEA) in Burlington Vermont. The NEA holds such meetings each year at some climatically challenged area of the country ostensibly to provide workshops for union activists and opportunities for discussion of the issues of the day. In recent years, however, the national leadership has used these regional conferences to push various aspects of what has come to be known as the "new unionism," a belief which posits that labor and management must transcend their historical adversarial relationship and establish a collaborative one in which they work in common cause to solve the problems of contemporary public schools.

Ever wary of what the leaders of both national education unions are up to, I was instinctively drawn to a workshop on alternatives to the traditional teacher salary schedule on which one advances on the basis of the number of graduate credits taken and one’s longevity on the job. Recently in Denver and several other places, contracts have been settled containing clauses that provided for what is euphemistically called "pay for performance," or what is better known as merit pay repackaged in the pseudo-scientific lingo of the school reform junkies for whom everything, including pay, must be linked to "objectively" determined outcomes. What sort of "new unionism" spin would our national leaders put on this latest attempt to pit one union member against another and destroy our solidarity?

With one out of every one hundred citizens of the United States a member of the NEA, one might have expected this workshop to be a significant piece in the process of organizing our membership to resist this latest threat. One might have expected the meeting to be used to mobilize union activists to work on both the political and collective fronts of union work to develop strategies to protect our membership from this new merit pay. One might have expected the NEA to act as a union, working to secure improvements for all of its members not just some arbitrarily determined elite.

Instead participants were subjected to a presentation clearly meant to sanitize the effect of pay for performance schemes, clearly presenting them a yet another change that is inevitable, clearly implying that attempts to resist are futile. Pay is to be linked to quality, but have no fears. It is possible to scientifically determine teacher quality.

There were some other unionists there who objected vehemently to this obvious drift away from our NEA policy opposing merit pay. My guess is, however, that our leaders will forge ahead creating new problems for those of us who still care about the conditions under which we work. Might we not expect more from an organization representing one out of ever one hundred Americans?

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