New turn for teacher unions

IMAGINE a local teachers' union president who sees many positives in private schools, promotes charter schools, even runs seminars for teachers interested in starting a public charter.

Just as radical, consider a union leader convinced that professionalism and rigorous teacher-to-teacher peer review need to replace protection by tenure and assignment by seniority. A leader who believes teachers unions should be more like craft guilds of professionals than simply defense attorneys for members in trouble.


That union leader exists. He is Adam Urbanski, chief of the Rochester Teachers Union in New York. Last week Mr. Urbanski was re-elected to his 10th consecutive two-year term, scooping up 80 percent of the vote against a bread-and-butter-issues-first opponent.

Polish born


He was born in Communist Poland, raised in the Stalinist model steel-making city of Nowa Huta near Crakow. It took his parents and six brothers three years to make it to America, arriving in 1960.

Their mother had finished sixth grade. Their father -- a shepherd, then a tailor's apprentice -- was unlettered. But father Urbanski asked one thing of his children: to wake up each morning and give thanks for being in America.

Adam finished high school in Rochester, continued to community college and won a scholarship to the University of Rochester, where he received his bachelor's degree and then doctorate in American social history.

In graduate school, he was already teaching, becoming a critic of school management -- and his union. In 1981 his faculty colleagues gathered over 1,000 signatures asking him to run for the presidency of their 3,000-member union.

Mr. Urbanski had key mentors and allies, among them Dal Lawrence, president of the Toledo Federation of Teachers, and Al Shanker, the famed national American Federation of Teachers president.

Among Mr. Urbanski's early Rochester innovations: a union-sponsored hotline to help students by phone, at any hour, with their homework.

But skilled tactics weren't ignored: "I believed from the start," he says, "that rather than pounding the table and demanding things, teacher unions have to match management, to surpass it in educational expertise."

In 1987 Mr. Urbanski and Rochester's school system negotiated a nationally noted contract that raised teacher salaries sharply while providing for school-based management along with peer-based evaluation and counseling of teachers.


Mr. Urbanski admits there were bumps and reversals along the way in Rochester. But his reforms, including peer review in recruiting good and weeding out failing teachers, have been emulated in such cities as Seattle, Minneapolis and Boston.

He became a vice president of the AFT and in 1995 led 21 progressive unions from both the AFT and National Education Association to form a Teacher Union Reform Network (TURN). The goal: to craft a new vision of more professional teachers unions, sharing responsibility with management to create "high-performance organizations."

Even with endorsement from AFT president Sandra Feldman and NEA chief Robert Chase, TURN faces a tough challenge overcoming the hyper-protectiveness and resistance to change that still infects so many teachers union locals, feeding public clamor for charters or vouchers.

But if teachers unions are to have a future in 21st-century America, then Adam Urbanski, the immigrant boy who only began to learn English at age 10, may be a key figure in the transition.

There's a traditional side to the man: He honors the tough, confrontational, picket-line unionism of the early 20th century as necessary then -- but not now. He's dead set against vouchers because he fears a profit motive may be pitted against children's welfare in private schools.



But with school choice and charters, Mr. Urbanski wants to see public schools emulate the best of what the private school world offers.

He ticks off the advantages: smaller schools and smaller classes, market dynamics, full parental choice of schools, expectation of academic rigor, less bureaucracy and layers of administration. He derisively notes New York state alone has more nonteaching administrators than all of Western Europe.

What will be the unions' role in Mr. Urbanski's brave new world? They'll function as compacts of professionals insisting on quality standards, he suggests. They'll act as agents for talented teachers seeking schools willing to bid for their skills. They'll negotiate instructional issues -- on the theory professional administrators often get them wrong, and need the teachers' collegial advice.

Unions will also, Mr. Urbanski suggests, represent teachers against arbitrary dismissals, but not get immersed in a sea of petty grievances.

What emerges is an intensely professional model for 21st-century teachers unions, a sharp break with 20th-century unionism. Not all the local presidents in TURN are there yet -- not to mention the mediocre middle and bottom of school unions and teacher ranks.

But Adam Urbanski's vision of the excellence that could be, in our schools and their professional unions, seems to evoke the very perseverance and optimism of his own family's voyage to America.


Neal R. Peirce writes a syndicated column.