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A National Union for Principals Pushes to Expand Its Membership

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In a campaign to increase its membership, a national union for principals has succeeded in bringing the local union that represents the San Diego school district's principals, vice principals, as well as supervisors in charge of food, transportation, and police services, into its fold. 

The American Federation of School Administrators, which had been relatively low-key outfit in the past, has been stepping up efforts to boost membership—including cold-calling local principals' groups and attending principal-focused conferences to get face time with school leaders and prospective members.

The union is spurred in part by the widespread teacher activism over the past two years that brought renewed attention—and debates—to unionization in the education workforce. The push is also a response to last year's Supreme Court ruling in Janus v. American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which many saw as a blow to union membership.

The principals' and administrators' union has largely operated in the shadows of the two education labor juggernauts—the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association. And its membership numbers—around 15,500 active members and 5,000 retirees—are dwarfed by that of the two teachers' unions.

Less than a third of the nation's 90,000 or so principals are represented under collective bargaining agreements. Most principals are part of professional associations that provide some sort of professional development and advocate for policies that affect principals.

Whether the push by AFSA will lead to big membership gains is yet to be seen. Membership has remained relatively stable over the past two years, according to the organization. 

In addition to San Diego, with its approximately 500 members, the much smaller administrators' union in Nashua, N.H., with about 50 members, joined this year. The national union is also hoping to grow membership among retirees, for whom issues such as pension and healthcare remain salient even after they've left the job.

Scott Treibitz, a spokesman for AFSA, said that the union has gotten an increase in calls expressing interest than in the past, including from places that aren't traditionally union strongholds or where collective bargaining is banned. Overall, they have received calls from Rhode Island, West Virginia, Virginia, and Wisconsin, he said. 

The union's effort to enter the charter school sector—last year it passed a resolution to kick off a program to go after charter school leaders—has been a bust so far. While there was some interest, no new members have come from the charter sector, Treibitz said.

The union set up a booth at the July conference of the National Association of Secondary Schools Principals in Boston.

"The first reaction [from principals] was 'I didn't know we could have a union,' " said Treibitz.

Why Would Principals Want to Join a Union? 

Ernest Logan, the organization's president and a former New York City principal, said that for many principals who are interested in joining the union, their motivation goes beyond getting a better salary. It's also about the conditions in children's lives, like housing, healthcare, jobs, and apprenticeship programs for students. The union last year encouraged assistant principals and principals to run for office and that will continue to be a focus this year. Its priorities also include school safety, funding for professional development for school leaders, and school leader training.

"[Principals] realize that they cannot meet the challenges that people are asking them to meet running schools without coming together and demanding resources across the board," Logan said of why San Diego and other district unions that have expressed interest in affiliating with AFSA, which is affiliated with the AFL-CIO.

Donis Coronel, the executive director of the Administrators Association of San Diego City Schools, agreed.

"It's not just about wages," Coronel said. "It's about work conditions, work-life balance, quality of life in general in terms of benefits, and always being guaranteed a voice at the table."

Jon Shelton, an associate professor at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, who studies public sector unions, including teachers' unions, said that he's not surprised that there would be a push to get some principals to unionize after the victories from the teacher strikes. Some of the same conditions and issues that drove teachers to walk out—including overall education funding—are also important to school leaders and would make their jobs easier.

Through their strikes and other activism, teachers were "able to shine a spotlight on the state of education in this country," he said.

"You can imagine that a lot of principals also feel like there is a moment where more intentional and sustained action could very well lead to better conditions," Shelton said. "I think there is a greater sense of what's possible now after the teacher uprisings."

But whether the national push gains any traction really depends on local politics, he said.  And principals' unions could potentially face some of the same criticisms that have been levied against teachers' unions: that they protect poor performers.

There's also the hurdle of overcoming a culture where principals, who are seen as supervisors, are not traditionally union members. In many states, because public sector labor laws are based on private sector labor laws, supervisors like principals are barred from collective bargaining.

"I think even beyond the legal [reasons], there is a kind of a culture that's working against the idea of principals unionizing," Shelton said. "For the most part in the United States, we have accepted the fact that [teachers] should be allowed to form unions and collectively bargain. But principals, as supervisors, they are seen as needing to kind of stay above the fray."

 "My guess is that a lot of principals have internalized that idea, too—that they shouldn't unionize, they should be different than the people they are supervising," Shelton said.

Liability Insurance for Principals

Coronel said the affiliation with the national union will allow it to save money, and offer better benefits to its members. The San Diego association has been around for about 70 years, though it only became a union about decade ago.

Coronel said AFSA representatives reached out about four years ago and invited her to join their training. She was "very intrigued" by what she saw and continued to attend every year even though she was not a member, Coronel said.

After the Supreme Court ruling in Janus v. AFSCME, Coronel approached the San Diego union leadership about affiliating with the national union.

"I felt that our organization was [a] stand alone and we needed to be part of bigger organization that had national ties and ties with other administrators' unions outside of California," Coronel said.

Coronel said that being affiliated with the national union will give the local union a collective voice on the national level, access to a staff attorney and to discounted benefits like liability insurance. The national union provides access to $1 million professional liability policy for principals in the event that they get sued, Treibitz said.

"Those benefits are much greater than what we, as a 500-person union, could offer our members," she said. 

The union was also required to have an insurance policy for the directors and officers, at about $20,000 a year, which AFSA will now provide, Coronel said. The cost of being part of the national union comes to less than $8 per member. The union will cover that cost, Coronel said. 

"It was affordable to us, and the return on investments seems like it would be well worth it," Coronel said.

Image: Getty

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