New Era of Labor: Hawaii’s Powerful Teachers Union’s Multi-Front War

In a radically changing political landscape, reform-minded Democrats and rogue teachers made the state’s latest contract fight one to remember

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Kent Nishimura / AP

Hawaii State Teachers Association supporters wave at cars passing by the Hawaii State Capitol in Nov. 2012.

HONOLULU — 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.

Hawaii has traditionally been one of the most labor-friendly states in the nation. Collective bargaining is in its constitution, and more than a fifth of its workforce belongs to a union. Only New York and Alaska have higher union-membership rates. A 2012 study by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative think tank, ranked the Hawaii State Teachers Association (HSTA) as the strongest teachers union in the country.

But by last November, Hawaii’s 13,000 teachers had reached a breaking point. They had been working without a negotiated contract for more than 16 months. The union and state had fought over pay, benefits and a new teacher evaluation plan that tied compensation to student test scores. A federal mediator and a crisis communications consultant had failed to break the logjam. And teacher resentment toward both union officials and Democratic governor Neil Abercrombie was at an all-time high.

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The dramatic showdown in Hawaii demonstrates how radically the nation’s education landscape has changed in recent years. For decades, teacher unions used their political clout to exert near-complete control over school systems in many states, winning increased funding and better compensation. Now, Democrats are embracing policies that are anathema to unions, and Republicans have successfully weakened labor laws in former bastions of union strength. As a new generation of teachers joins the profession and questions the old way of doing things, teachers unions are dealing with dissent within their own ranks. No less than the future of the labor movement is at stake.

In the past few years, education reformers have scored major victories in expanding charter schools, eliminating teacher tenure and tying teacher evaluations to student test scores in dozens of states. In Michigan and Wisconsin, unions spent millions of dollars trying to prevent Republican lawmakers from stripping them of some collective bargaining rights, only to lose.

In 2012, total union membership levels hit their lowest point since the 1930s, with 11.3% of the national workforce belonging to a union, compared to 20.1% three decades earlier. With more than four million members combined, the two main national teacher unions are among the largest labor unions in the country. But the National Education Association (NEA) has lost 100,000 members since 2010.

Unions are also losing a public-relations battle. Approval ratings for labor unions are at a historic low. A 2011 Gallup poll found that 47% of Americans believe teacher unions are hurting public schools, while just a quarter of respondents think the unions help.

For every defeat, union officials point to a victory. Last year they were instrumental in overturning legislation in Idaho and South Dakota that would have curbed tenure and established merit pay. In 2011, they were able to repeal a partial ban on collective bargaining in Ohio. The NEA says that political activity is up among current members and the smaller American Federation of Teachers (AFT) has managed to keep its numbers steady.

“The last two years were a fight for survival,” AFT president Randi Weingarten said. “We are alive and well.”

Teacher unions will almost certainly survive. But their power is diminishing and adapting to a new labor environment will require major concessions.

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.

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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.

The research isn’t conclusive. Terry Moe, a political scientist at Stanford University and author of Special Interest: Teachers Unions and America’s Public Schools, conducted a survey that found teachers under the age of 35 have policy positions similar to their older peers.

To maintain their strength in a new political landscape, teachers unions are focused on appealing to new members. The AFT makes it a point to reach out to new teachers born long after the peak of unionism in the 1950s. “When you don’t grow up in a family where what union meant was retirement security or health security or being able to take a few days off to have a family vacation … you actually have to talk to people about what it means,” the AFT’s Weingarten said.

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.

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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.

Hawaii’s contract fight was bitter, but in some states, unions have seen the writing on the wall and been proactive about adopting new policies they might have once rejected. Delaware, Massachusetts and New Hampshire were ranked in the middle of the pack in the Fordham Institute’s report on union strength. “It’s not that the union isn’t strong,” said co-author Dara Zeehandelaar, “It’s that the union isn’t fighting.”

In Massachusetts, the union compromised on a new teacher evaluation system so that it didn’t end up as a ballot measure—and, in doing so, it saved hundreds of thousands of dollars fighting a proposal during election season. Education observers have praised New Haven, Conn., for developing a district- and union-approved teacher evaluation system. And Los Angeles teachers recently struck an agreement with their district on how student test score data could be used to evaluate them.

The NEA’s two-year strategic plan calls for the group to “amplify” its members’ voices in the world of education policy. And the nation’s largest union is investing millions of dollars in its own education reforms.
“[The unions] are savvy enough to understand that they can’t keep opposing and opposing,” said Michael McShane, a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank. “If the union wants to survive, its role is going to change.”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education-news outlet based at Teachers College, Columbia University.