Strengthening Union and Administration Relationships

Our book, Reviving Professional Learning Communities: Strength through diversity, conflict, teamwork, and structure, will be available December 16, 2012. Sprinkled throughout are 32 practical strategies to move collaboration from theory to practice. Below is an excerpt from Chapter 5: Strategies for Standpoint. You can Pre-Order the book now by visiting


Do unions and administrators in your school or district work collaboratively, or have relations become a never-ending “battle royal”? Labor and management relationships have certainly been struggling in every state, district, and school over the decades. Given this long experience, there is no other way to state the risk your institution faces: an “Us vs. Them” mentality will defeat the higher purpose of your PLC.

As American psychologist and philosopher William James wrote, “Whenever you’re in conflict with someone, there is one factor that can make the difference between damaging your relationship and deepening it. That factor is attitude.” It goes without saying.

Think of it this way: how could a school that is bustling with together- ness and genuine collaboration but suffering from recurrent labor-related tensions achieve the level of a PLC? The two antagonists—union and administration—must first find a way to bury their hatchets, soothe frayed egos, and work on issues of concern to all. Ideally, PLC manage- ment and unions trust one another and appreciate one another’s Stand- point. But this is an achievable ideal. After all, why should students have to end up with the short end of the stick every time the administration and union deem it fitting to bicker back and forth?

Where do you situate yourself in this? Are you part of the problem or the solution?

Action 1:

District superintendents (joined by their cabinet members) and union leadership have to make a special effort to model expected behavior. The two rival factions have to come together regularly to deal with district-wide concerns, issues, or more serious problems. In the end, this relationship has to be win-win for all parties concerned, with the exclusion of no one.

Some districts can truly be said to have adopted this course of action. Nearly ten years ago, for instance, the San Bernardino City Unified School District in California cobbled together a solution-generating team they named “Creating Opportunities—One Purpose” (CO-OP). This team comprised the key stakeholders: superintendent and assistant superintendents, union president and vice president, a principal representative for each level (elementary, middle, and high), and a handful of teachers. Half- to full-day meetings occurred monthly on some of the toughest issues. While everyone’s Standpoint was considered, titles lost their relevancy. In tough times, with budget cuts as deep as the sea, the team was able to address a $44 million budget deficit in only one year.

Another interesting district in California was ABC Unified School District. In his research article, “Toward Collaboration in District/Association Relationships: ABC School District,” Harvey (2009) explained, “District superintendent and president of the association meet every week for two hours. District cabinet and association cabinet meet two-three times a year and talk confidentially. The association has converted building representatives into learning representatives” (p. 1). He described their four conflict-resolution principles thus:

1. They both have an interest to cooperate and a capacity to compete.

2. They have norms.

3. They have mutual trust born out of interdependence.

4. They look for the middle ground of agreement.

Action 2:

Principals and teachers at the site level should fortify their relationships by working in unison to find solutions to site-specific problems. But there is no way around it: both parties have to hold one another accountable for commitments and actively work for students’ best interests, above all.

Action 3:

Principals and teachers should study and fully understand their district bargaining agreement. Unfortunately, too few have any clue of what their agreements actually read. A lack of understanding leads to frayed relationships and multiplying grievances.

The main strategy here—strengthening union and administration relationships—requires not necessarily the deep commitment of limited financial resources, but more importantly a sincere investment of time and positive attitude from all involved parties to work toward the betterment of the overall organization.


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