Leading Teacher Unions: Negotiating Challenges and Impact

Date of Award

May 2015

Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)




Madonna Harrington Meyer


teacher union

Subject Categories

Social and Behavioral Sciences


Given tremendous challenges, how do union leaders - in their role as advocates for public servants - maintain union viability under systems of control, and within the gendered context of public school workplaces? I study union leadership during a particularly hostile moment for public employee unions and public school teachers. According to the US Department of Labor (2014), union membership nationally is 11%, and declining, suggesting the influence of unions is also diminishing over time. The weakened viability of unions is inversely associated with a growing corporate culture that seeks to restrain workers' rights and privileges by asserting their economic and political influence over unions and the workers they represent.

I offer an in-depth perspective of union leaders from a single teacher union as they manage union strategies during a particularly hostile moment for teachers and their unions. I used a longitudinal case study framework to explore the strategies and everyday work of union leaders as they manage union activities for one teacher union in a northeast US city I refer to as Urban, NY. Using symbolic interactionism and feminist methods to study the experiences of union leaders, I approached the lives and experiences of leaders as central to this story of union viability, while also making my own social location as the researcher an essential part of the text. From September 2006 to February 2011, I conducted interviews with key informants who discussed at length their experiences as union leaders, and I participated in union meetings and events to witness how union work was accomplished. I observed union leaders managing the union mostly at monthly representative assembly meetings, and also at town hall meetings, rallies, and social and community events.

Union leaders must manage the internal workings of the union while simultaneously negotiating teachers' professional authority as they interact with external entities, including the federal government, state legislators, school administrators, and the community. I address the role of union leaders as advocates for public servants by focusing first on the typical expectations for any teacher union president and Executive Board; second on the specific experiences of three Urban City Union (UCU) presidents who presided over the union during a particularly challenging moment for public school teachers; and, third on the leadership qualities well-suited for union presidents, based on a review of literature and corroborated by my research.

Union leaders negotiated the use of intimidation by district administrators to control teacher behavior at the local level. Union leaders negotiated the use of mandates by policy makers to control the teaching profession at a macro level, as well. Specifically, union leaders described the impact accountability mandates had on teachers' relationships with students and parents and the unintended consequences of standardization on curriculum quality.

I address the role of union leaders as advocates for constituents in a gendered occupation comprised predominately of women workers by drawing first on the feminist critiques of gender inequality associated with workplace practices; and second, on the specific experiences of three UCU women leaders who describe how sexism at work was a catalyst for participation in leadership. I selected these three stories because they offer composite pictures of some issues women respondents spoke about in terms of workplace sexism and taking on the challenge of a leadership position. I reflect on leaders' stories of balancing home-life with work and union commitments to provide insight into how a union organization can do more for working families.


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