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School principals line up for union membership as budget axes fall

With local school boards holding the line on spending, job security in education is no longer what it used to be, not even for principals. So they are doing what threatened workers in other fields do -- they are unionizing.

At least 19 percent of all public school principals are in bargaining units, says Peter S. O'Brien, executive vice-president of the American Federation of School Administrators (AFSA). If associations conferring informally with school boards, rather than actually negotiating, are included, the number is even higher.

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AFSA, an AFL-CIO affiliate, has 10,000 members and 70 locals. Because principals' unions are strongest in big cities, AFSA has relatively few locals in proportion to its membership.

Principals' unions, like teachers' groups, have evolved from managerial-type professional associations to actual unions. No more is the principal "the lone baron of the castle," says Dartmouth Prof. Bruce Cooper, who has studied the subject extensively.

School bureaucracies have grown, and principals are increasingly distant from their superintendents and school boards. As top officials in their schools, principals are clearly management. But in a budget crunch -- a continuous state in some districts -- they are labor, and subject to layoffs.

And so the unionization of principals has snowballed. The number of bargaining units is up 67 percent in the last five years, according to Professor Cooper.

Mr. O'Brien ascribes the increase to the contracts AFSA has negotiated, and to "enlightened" state legislatures, 19 of whom have authorized public-sector middle-management unions.

The growing strength of teachers' unions has helped push some principals into unions. About 65 percent of all teachers are in bargaining units now, and administrators fear that the raises teachers are pushing for may come at their expense.

And nothing makes principals feel caught in the middle more than a teachers' strike. In some cases superintendents have ordered principals to hold schools open with no teachers, or to take down names of those on the picket lines. Mr. O'Brien calls this "reprehensible."

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In case of a teachers' strike, principals' unions prefer to have their members fulfill the letter of their contracts by showing up and then, if no teachers are there, closing the school and going home. This is how principals responded in a recent teachers' strike in St. Louis.

"We make it clear that we will not perform scab labor," says Mr. O'Brien. "We have to live with the teachers afterwards."

The two principals' strikes that have occurred, both several years ago and both in New York City, stemmed from teachers' strikes.

Some people wonder why school principals -- public-sector middle managers -- are organizing at a time when private-sector middle managers are not.

Professor Cooper explains this as the result of the difference in career ladders on the two sides. Private-sector middle managers are typically business-school graduates supervising blue-collar tradesmen with whom they do not particularly identify. On the other hand, principals start as teachers and work up through the ranks. If teachers are organized, principals tend to feel they should be, too.

Not everyone feels principals do best in a union. The National Association of Secondary School Principals and the Pennsylvania Congress of School Administrators are addressing the same concerns as AFSA. But they consider themselves professional associations rather than unions. The NASSP, however, does help with collective bargaining for those local affiliates which request it.

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