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With Internal Elections, Union Leaders Walk Tightrope

It ain't easy being a union president these days. Move too slow on the "reform" issue du jour and you can get accused of "protecting the status quo"; move too fast—or be seen as too "cozy" with management—and you risk getting tossed out of office. (Exhibit A: The ousting of the Chicago Teachers' Union President Marilyn Stewart by Karen Lewis.)

This, it appears, is the shadow side of labor-management collaboration. Recently, The New Jersey Spotlight analyzed the interesting news that Joseph Del Grosso, the president of the Newark Teachers Union, just barely won re-election. In fact, an opposition slate won the majority of seats on the union's board.

The implication is that the close call is a reaction to a new performance-bonus and -evaluation system negotiated by Del Grosso and members from the American Federation of Teachers, the NTU's parent union. And it's particularly interesting because Del Grosso has a reputation of being an outspoken, scrappy fighter for his members.

But is it all so simple? It is worth considering the trajectory of another AFT-affiliated union leader, New Haven Federation of Teachers President David Cicarella, who was elected to a third term in December 2012. He was one of the driving forces behind New Haven's evaluation system, which I profiled in an Education Week story, and which has led to several dozen teachers being dismissed on performance grounds. He also seems willing to take on other sacred cows; the New Haven Independent reported recently that he's clashed with some members over how the principalship should be decided at a local teacher-led school.

It's hard to say exactly what these two very different examples mean in the grand scheme of things. Context, obviously, matters a lot. But one possible frame for understanding it comes out of this 1997 volume, which distinguished between "industrial" unionism and the "guild" model, where in exchange for greater self-regulation unions have fewer top-down dictates. (This context is often lost in the "international comparison" discussions of top-performing, heavily unionized countries such as Finland.) American teachers' unions, it's probably fair to say, still have a ways to go in this shift. But the journey there is not a particularly easy one, as the elections tightrope shows.

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