I have been asked this question in various forms many times over the past two decades. The answer most people expect is some kind of list of campaign tactics, but I always respond in the same way. Nothing you do can keep the teachers’ union away. Your teachers keep the teachers’ union away.
Last Tuesday, Floyd “Doc” Buchanan passed away at the age of 91. From 1960 to 1991 he was the superintendent of the Clovis Unified School District, a district that has since grown to more than 40,000 students. At the midpoint of his tenure, a revolutionary change occurred in the California school system. Public school teachers were granted the right to bargain collectively.
All over the state, local unions formed and affiliated with the California Teachers Association or the California Federation of Teachers. But Clovis was unique among all but the very smallest of districts. It never had a union, and still does not, almost 40 years later.
Buchanan was opposed to unions, but he was apparently alone with the knowledge of turning them back. A colleague recalls Buchanan saying, “you need to serve your teachers and serve them so well that the trust is high, and they don’t feel they need a union.”
There has never been a group of workers who said to themselves, “We’re well paid, our working conditions are excellent, we’re treated with respect and our opinions matter… Let’s get a union in here!” Districts or charter schools faced with a union organizing drive should first look to their own practices and philosophies before worrying about what the union is up to.
When it came to education, Buchanan also favored an approach that has fallen out of favor in California’s schools: competition.
He would send a letter to each new teacher in the district that spelled out his doctrine:
Our philosophy is simple. A fair break for every kid.
We believe in high standards in Clovis schools. We believe competition is an ingredient of high standards and an important motivational tool. We recognize three levels of competition. First, we want you to make sure that all of our students learn to compete against themselves; that’s the toughest competition of all. Second, we want you to encourage our students to compete in specialty areas to help them build on their strengths and overcome their weaknesses, because that’s the way they get jobs and that’s the way they have to perform in life. Third, we want you to teach our students to work in groups and to compete in groups, because we think that students who can’t work in groups are going to have trouble in tomorrow’s world.
Should agency fee disappear in California, in many places the teachers’ unions will press on as exclusive representatives despite not having the power to compel dues. But some places will have to develop new systems of labor relations. Let’s hope Doc Buchanan’s model finds new life.