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November 14, 2009

Can labor negotiations lead to Greatness?

by Chris Lindholm

Every two years, public school districts must re-negotiate labor contracts with multiple bargaining units.  I've participated in negotiations as a teacher, principal, and once while "shadowing the superintendent," and I have often reflected on how the process has such a negative feel.  Boiled down to the basics, it's a process about one group arguing for what their side wants and the other side arguing for what they can/can't say yes to.  I am very fortunate to work in an district that has established a significant level of trust with most units, however even in this situation the process boils down to the "we want" argument. 

Negotiation processes sit poorly in my gut because they contradict the core of what I "preach" at school and what I want for my own children.  Teaching our students to value service and to work for the common good is essential to the future of democracy.  Media bombards children with hundreds of messages a week brainwashing them into believing that their own desires and wants are more important than all else.  Even worse, media has convinced an entire generation that they deserve the luxuries of affluence without having to work for it.  We've become an "I deserve, we want, give me" culture – all direct enemies of a successful democracy focused on the common good.  In our home we work hard to keep these messages from our children, and we do our best to brain wash them into valuing self-sacrifice, loving thy neighbor, hard work, receiving gifts as a privilege instead of a right, and to use their energy to benefit others.  These values just don't seem to line up with the processes of contract negotiations. 

All of this said, one cannot overlook the incredible role that organized labor has played in making our country the great place it is and how it has benefitted me personally.  Time and time again, those in positions of power have fallen to corruption and misuse of their authority in a manner that has hurt many, many people.  Organized labor protects those of us who need protection and fights for an element of sanity in a world where one's work can completely dominate life.  If not for organized labor, the greed and pull of profit would have us working 16 hour days without weekends.  Indeed much of the rub lies in the character of the CEO and his/her core understanding of the work day and how to support those who do their jobs with excellence.  To not recognize the value of what organized labor does would be blindness to a core piece of America's economic development over the past century. 

Reflection on my internal struggle with the feeling of labor negotiations and my great appreciation for the work of organized labor has left me with an intriguing question.  Our school has committed to making the leap from Good to Great.  According to Collins, this requires level 5 leadership, confronting the brutal facts, getting the right people on the bus (and the wrong people off of the bus), disciplined thought, and disciplined action.  These elements run in contradiction to the conversations I have been a part of at the negotiating table, however I am not convinced that this must be the case.  Might it be possible for organized labor and district management to have honest, transparent, productive conversation about how to become Great?  Might that table be a place to hold me accountable to being a level 5 leader and a place to model disciplined thought and action?  Can we change the conversation from being about "wants and demands" to focusing on how we can measure greatness and work together to improve overall performance?  Is that too far fetched?  Can real Greatness happen without it?  What do you think? 

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