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One Strike Against Another
School Administrator, November 2022
A new teachers’ union president has taken an antagonistic approach to district administration and the board of education, filing multiple grievances and unfair labor practice charges throughout his first year. During contract negotiations, he led teachers in an illegal day-long strike on a professional day. The school board reacted by telling the superintendent, who is responsible for personnel, to dismiss the union leadership, an action never previously taken in response to a teacher strike in the state. Should the superintendent follow the instruction of the board and dismiss the union leadership?
No, the superintendent should not. Doing so would likely open the school district to all kinds of unfair labor practices and legal ramifications. The fact this would be the first time for this action in the state means a great deal of negative attention will befall the district, making it even more difficult to attract and retain quality staff.
The superintendent should lay out these and all other possible negative scenarios that could result from this action and possibly even include the district’s attorney in educating the board. Then the superintendent should discuss other avenues open to the board to improve relationships with the union and its president, which is the core of the issue. In the best interests of the students of the district, improving relationships should be the goal, rather than a board power play that would make that goal impossible for many years to come.
The superintendent should ask the school board to give him some time to work through this issue with the union. A dismissal action — even if legal, which is questionable — would further incite the union, alienate the leadership and accelerate an already rapidly eroding relationship between labor and management.
The superintendent should call the union president in and ask him if he is willing to work with the superintendent to resolve the current conflict and begin what will be a long process of establishing a working relationship. The two together should develop a plan and guidelines for ongoing conversation and conflict resolution. While many of the issues raised in these sessions might well end up at the bargaining table, some may be resolved informally.
Establishing ongoing and frequent interaction between the union president and a few of his colleagues and the superintendent and a few of his cabinet would begin the process of developing a productive working relationship. Successful negotiations are always based on trust and the ability to communicate and resolve issues. An informal process could start developing this critical foundation.
When union leadership changes, relationships may need to be reestablished. Sometimes a new leader is trying to demonstrate leadership with members, resulting in aggressive behaviors. This new union president may feel a need to show members that he is able to be assertive on their behalf and that they made the right choice in selecting him for this leadership role.
The superintendent usually establishes a relationship with the new union president to find areas where they share a common interest. For example, the superintendent may be committed to resolving issues before they become grievances and will want to ask the new union president how they can communicate about issues and establish a shared process for pursuing resolutions.
When the superintendent was unable to move beyond the antagonistic approach presented to district administration and the board of education, it might be helpful to find a way to share communication efforts through a form of updates that show teachers that the district is committed to a collaborative approach in working with the union. For example, the superintendent may want to highlight the accomplishments of teachers in the monthly or weekly district newsletter/updates. This will demonstrate the value the superintendent places on the work of teachers. Although not a perfect solution, sending consistent positive messages about teachers and their work in classrooms and schools sets a positive tone for the district. When the climate is consistently positive and collaborative at the system level, the union president’s negative rhetoric will seem out of place.
The grievances and unfair labor practices filed during the president’s first year will be disturbing to district administration and the school board. It is important to remind site leaders not to get pulled into the practices of the union president and to maintain a positive climate to the extent possible with teachers. The grievances will be resolved and demonstrate the district is committed to resolving conflicts by sitting together to discuss the problem and to reach resolution.
The superintendent will need to work with board members during closed sessions when negotiations and parameters for the district’s proposals are discussed confidentially with the board. The board may get angry and frustrated by the antagonistic actions of the union president yet dismissing the union leadership may not the appropriate action. It could be considered retaliatory and lead to a deeper divide between the union and district leadership.
A better course of action is to pursue an unfair labor practice against the union for the day-long strike. The district’s legal counsel should carefully analyze the union’s action to determine that it was unlawful and that the district will likely prevail in an unfair labor practice. Prevailing will be powerful in demonstrating the district’s integrity of action related to working with its union.
When the school board directs the superintendent to take action that could seriously damage the district, the superintendent has an obligation to do everything possible to help the board consider alternative courses of action through a detailed discussion of potential outcomes. Hopefully, the superintendent can use personal leadership, a relationship of trust with the board and consistent modeling of integrity to show the board there are alternatives that will lead to a more successful, long-term outcome.
Labor relations post COVID could be challenging as teachers are struggling with their own mental and physical well-being. A union president who uses antagonistic language and combative approaches to solving problems contributes to employee stress and undermines his own members during a time when healing is needed and should be encouraged. The superintendent might consider attending a conference on employee well-being with the union president to initiate a discussion of how they can work together to improve conditions that support teacher wellness and retention.
In the end, there are some leaders who are toxic and the superintendent may need to wait until the next change in union leadership. You can invite the union president to the well of collaboration, but you can’t make him drink the water.
The superintendent, for both pragmatic and ethical reasons, should not comply with the directive to dismiss the union leadership. Such an unprecedented action would have extraordinarily destructive short-term and long-term results for both the district and the community — and could lead to little or no benefit after extensive struggle and disruption.
First, discharge of the union leadership would significantly exacerbate tensions with the union, further alienate teachers and result in additional labor actions that would disrupt children’s education and the district’s ability to move any strategic agenda forward. A decision to discharge would dramatically impair administration’s ability to provide effective leadership for the district and lead to a more directive rather than collaborative form of leadership.
Second, forcibly depriving teachers of their leadership would compromise the board’s standing among teachers, other employees, parents, and many community members. Union leaders would publicly argue that their initial labor action was an expression of concern that did not harm children and that the board’s response was an unjustified over-reaction to the circumstances.
Third, discharging the union leaders could enhance rather than reduce the influence of the current union leaders. Even if discharged, they could still be selected by the union to serve as members of the bargaining team and continue to exert a major influence on negotiations and future labor actions.
Fourth, with no precedent for the discharge of union leadership as a result of a teacher strike, this action would be a threat to other unions in the state and could bring the full force of the state teachers’ association as well as other local associations in support of the union at rallies and other union actions. Coupled with local, state and national media attention drawn to this unprecedented action, it would create a chaotic environment that would exacerbate tensions between teachers and the administration, as well as between the board and the community.
Fifth, it would trigger a lengthy and costly legal battle that would not likely be settled in the district’s favor. The case could be in the courts on appeals for many years, requiring excessive legal fees, and potentially exposing the district — if it loses — to paying its own and the union’s legal fees and costs, as well as the back wages and reinstatement of those persons discharged. With the odds of success questionable and the case taking years to settle, there would be a long-lasting negative impact on the district.
Sixth, a union-busting action like this would significantly compromise the career and future employment of the superintendent. It would be difficult for the superintendent to remain in the district and repair the damage and equally difficult to secure a superintendency in another district given that the action would be seen as extraordinarily antagonistic to teachers.
Finally, organized labor has a right to express dissent. The labor movement has contributed greatly to the gains in the country’s social welfare and in public education in general. Discharge of the union leadership would be viewed as a major attack by the district on the union’s rights, even if by law they do not have the right to strike.
Any strike-related action is remembered for decades, long past the tenure of any current union leaders, district administrators or board members. It leaves a taint on a school district that is hard to erase and hard to move beyond. A decision to discharge would be contrary to the community’s best interests.
For all of these reasons the superintendent should reject the board’s directive to discharge the union leadership, explain the rationale behind that decision, and engage the board in a conversation about how they might best respond to the situation to ease rather than exacerbate tensions. If the board remains adamant about dismissal and the superintendent rejects their directive, it is time for the superintendent to prepare to leave the district and find another position.
The Ethical Educator panel consists of
SHELDON H. BERMAN,
AASA lead superintendent, Redmond, Ore.;
the Pomerantz endowed professor in educational excellence, University of Northern Iowa;
former Missouri commissioner of education; and
MARIA G. OTT,
Irving R. and Virginia A. Melbo chair in educational administration, Rossier School of Education, University of Southern California.