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.

All employees contribute to a student’s success, including support staff such as nurses, counselors, janitors, and office personnel.

• All negotiations support conditions that sustain successful teaching and learning.

• We won’t let each other fail.

• We will work hard to understand the core of each other’s job.

• We will respect each other, be honest with each other, and maintain confidentiality.

• We will not “sugar coat” difficult issues, but we will disagree without being disagreeable.

• We will reflect on each other’s comments, suggestions, and concerns, seeking clarification until we understand.

• We will both “own the contract.”

• We will aim to solve problems rather than win arguments.

• We will laugh at ourselves and with each other.

For more on school labor-management relations:

ED to unions, districts: Can’t we all just get along?

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For more on school reform:

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School Reform Center at eSN Online

ABC Unified has fostered a sense of “we’re all in this together” among its labor and management teams, and the results are hard to argue with: Despite a student population in which 92 percent are minorities and 22 percent are English-language learners, the district’s average scores in reading and math far exceed the state average. In fact, ABC Unified has exceeded the student achievement goals set by the state of California and continues to improve every year.

Rico said it has taken “hard work” to keep the labor-management partnership going—but “I’d do it again in a heartbeat.”

It has helped that both sides recognize the value each other brings to the enterprise and want each other to be successful.

“Only a strong superintendent and school board can succeed,” Rico said, “so we want to support each other.” Says Smuts: “I am a better superintendent because I have a strong union president.”

Shared decision-making also is key—district and union leaders worked together for three years to come up with a teacher evaluation system that both sides considered fair—as is sharing in the inevitable sacrifices that must be made. For example, the district’s union bears some of the cost of training in labor-management relations (with help from AFT Innovation Grants), and to help staff members agree to a recent furlough, administrators accepted a 2-percent pay cut for themselves.

Transparency in all labor-management discussions also is important. “I don’t know anything more about the budget than Laura knows,” Smuts said.

To help other districts form strong labor-management partnerships of their own, ABC Unified offered the following suggestions:

• Commit to taking a risk.

• Start regular meetings between the superintendent and union president (and between the human resources director and the union president).

• Develop a set of guiding principles and behaviors that will define the partnership.

• Start small; pick a project to work on together.

For more on school labor-management relations:

ED to unions, districts: Can’t we all just get along?

Wisconsin protests grow as teachers balk at proposed legislation

Editorial: Public school employees under attack

For more on school reform:

Expert: Federal school reform plan is wrong

School Reform Center at eSN Online

For ABC Unified, the first project that union and district leaders worked on together was a partnership to improve the reading skills of students in the district’s South Side, where a higher percentage of students came from economically disadvantaged families.

Union and district leaders teamed up to create the South Side Reading Collaborative, through which they jointly sponsored professional development conferences to improve reading instruction. They also stepped up their recruiting of teachers to work in South Side schools by offering $5,000 signing bonuses and funding the last year of college for student teachers who agreed to work in the schools for at least two years.

As a result of the partnership, the reading skills of South Side students have shown steady gains since 2002.

“We found out, ‘My gosh, look what happens when you work together,’” Rico said.