Labor-management collaboration in California's ABC Unified School District has led to gains in student achievement.

Laura Rico, union president for southern California’s ABC Unified School District and national vice president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), said the idea of collaboration between labor and management was “very risky—even political suicide” when union leaders began working more closely with district leaders in the late 1990s. But the partnership has paid off in a big way, she said—demonstrating that when both sides come together in the interest of students, better achievement can follow.

For ABC Unified, the timing was right to take such a risk. In 1993, the district’s teachers went on strike over cuts to their pay and benefits. The strike lasted eight days, and it taught Rico and her colleagues that “it’s better to be in a labor-management partnership than it is to be out on the street,” she said—better for the students and for everyone involved.

The hiring of a new superintendent in 1999, coupled with the election of three new board members that same year, opened the door for greater collaboration between teachers and district leaders.

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Around that time, Rico received information from the AFT promoting a weeklong seminar at Harvard University on better labor-management relations in public schools. She attended the seminar along with other district leaders, and they learned how to listen and talk to each other. When they returned to the district, the new superintendent, Ron Barnes, was receptive to the idea. He and Rico began meeting once a week to discuss new problems or challenges that might have arisen during the week—a practice that continues with the current superintendent, Gary Smuts.

The district also created a set of guiding principles that formed the basis of its new labor-management partnership. These are:

• All students can succeed; we will not accept any excuses and will work together to promote student achievement.

• All necessary support will be made available to schools to make sure every child succeeds—and we will work together to make sure that happens.