All Labor, No Management: When Principals Are Also Members of a Union

When unions representing principals and teachers work in concert, who is watching out for the interests of parents and the public?

A photo of a man in a suit with a sign in the foreground that says "principal"

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Teachers and education support workers are represented at the bargaining table by an entire alphabet soup of labor unions, such as NEA, AFT, SEIU, AFSCME, IBT, et al.

Parents and the public are represented by superintendents and school boards, but at school sites they rely on principals and other supervisors. However, in many of the largest districts, these school managers are also union members.

Having seen the gains teachers unions made for their members both in salary and working conditions, administrators unions would like to copy that success.

There are 92,000 principals working in the public schools, and another 100,000 assistant principals. The vast majority have long backgrounds in teaching. The average principal had 12 years in the classroom before moving to an administrative role.

In many states, public school teachers are banned or restricted from bargaining collectively, and the hurdles are even higher for administrators, who can be viewed as both labor and management.

Principals unions were originally formed along with teachers unions in the 1960s and 1970s, but it wasn’t just superintendents and other district managers who found the event problematic. The American Federation of Teachers passed a resolution in 1977 demanding the ouster of school administrators from the AFL-CIO, with which both are affiliated, citing their managerial responsibilities. AFT also claimed the administrators would “subvert collective bargaining achievements of organized teachers” and “cast teachers in an anti-union role.”

Despite these differences, principals unions mirrored AFT in policies, structure and composition. The American Federation of School Administrators is the national umbrella union for five state chapters and 85 local affiliates. It’s small, with a budget of just $1.5 million, and acts primarily as a federal lobbying arm. The union’s priorities are very similar to those of the teachers unions.

Last month, union President Leonard Pugliese sent a letter to President Joe Biden, calling on him to “develop and implement a Marshall Plan for public education.” This is something both NEA and AFT have advocated.

Its resolutions from last year supported legislation to mandate an assistant principal in every public school and to integrate social-emotional learning concepts into pre-K-12 education.

Naturally, it wants to expand its membership as well. “In districts without school leader unions, the workload has increased, but the compensation hasn’t moved accordingly. We need to help organize the unorganized school leaders, so they can protect themselves, too,” said Pugliese.

As with the AFT, by far the largest portion of federation membership works in the New York City Public Schools, represented by the Council of School Supervisors and Administrators. The New York City administrators account for more than 63% of the national union’s 22,000 members.

The council has an additional quirk that may be unique among all labor unions: More than 53% of its total membership are retirees. While the national union operates on a shoestring, the New York City branch collects $18.4 million in dues, and its president was paid more than $287,000 in 2022.

Principals unions tend to form in large cities. AFSA has locals in Chicago, San Francisco, Boston, Baltimore, Detroit, St. Louis, Oakland, San Diego, Denver, Seattle, Portland and Washington, D.C. Los Angeles also has an administrators union, but it is independent.

While some of these unions have existed for many years, they can’t all bargain collectively. The Chicago Principals and Administrators Association only just won that right earlier this year.

Acting alone, administrators unions have no more power or influence than any other small advocacy group. But when they act in concert with teachers unions, they can leave school sites with all labor and no management. Without it, parents and the public lose much of their influence over their schools.

Mike Antonucci’s Union Report appears most Wednesdays; see the full archive.

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