Why Unions Still Matter in Adult Education

First in a series of profiles about the unionized ABE programs in Massachusetts

An interview with Jim Kaplan of the Somerville Center for Adult Learning Experiences (SCALE)

by Steven DeMaio

Jim Kaplan

Jim Kaplan has been teaching in adult education since 1977. He became involved in union activities as soon as he started working at SCALE and has served as a leader of the SCALE union since 1979. In this interview, he reflects on his many years of experience and offers his perspective on the continuing importance of unions in the adult education field in Massachusetts.

Why is it still important for adult education teachers to organize, given that they are so widely dispersed across institutions with little central leadership?

Jim K: It’s precisely the same as for any other workers. When we‘re organized, we have better chances of protecting our working conditions and, within a narrower range, of protecting and improving our income and benefits. Any worker with his or her head glued on well ought to be concerned about collective strength.

Do you think that groups of adult education teachers are best organized within schools or across schools?

Jim K: To be effective in organizing, we have to be dealing with people we see face-to-face. That means we need building blocks within individual schools. That said, any single school is not very significant within adult education statewide. You see, we work in a system where the Department of Education gives us a narrow bandwidth with regard to pay for teaching time and prep time. The only way we’re going to have a substantial effect on that reality is if we organize widely enough to influence the people at DOE and, more importantly, the people in the state legislature. What organizing in individual schools can do is to push what workers earn toward the high end within the narrow bandwidth, and that’s where we at SCALE have always been because we’re organized — precisely because we have a union.

At this time, there is simply no broad base for organizing across the state in adult education. It doesn’t mean that the idea isn’t a good one, but realistically what’s feasible is for individual workers within a school with pressing needs to come together to unionize and then to shop for an existing union as its collective bargaining agent. What could emerge eventually is a checkerboard of unions within the system such that it becomes harder for the employers to find low bidders because the number of unionized checkers on the board has reached a meaningful threshold. That is probably the limit of what’s feasible.

What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned during your long tenure as a union leader?

Jim K: The greatest impact of unionization in adult education is not improvement of salaries, wages, or benefits. It’s something else. It’s having a grievance system and non-grievance organizing mechanisms that can impose upon management an obligation to give workers due process and, consequently, job security within the very tight constraints of state funding. When the union has the strength to gain and enforce a contract, it has the capacity to veto abuse that is arbitrary, discriminatory, and retaliatory. It does not have the strength to veto discipline, evaluation, or even termination for people who are incompetent. But a union provides protection against abuse, and I’ve seen that proven time and time again.

What’s the most difficult challenge that unions in adult education face today? Has that changed in recent years?

Jim K: Unions everywhere are running into generational issues. Workers in unions are, on average, considerably older than workers who are not in unions. And so, on the whole, there aren’t as many young people in the ranks of unionized workplaces. Particularly as a sector shrinks, as in adult education with governmental funding cuts, there isn’t much new union activity. If the sector expands, union activity can expand with it. The fate of unionization in adult education essentially depends on the fate of adult education funding.

So then why should people bother organizing if the larger trend in adult education is toward shrinkage?

Jim K: Because unions can be a powerful organizing mechanism for mobilization of the entire sector to lobby and apply political pressure for investment in adult education. At the same time that increased unionization extends protection to individuals in particular schools, it also provides a base from which those protected individuals can come together to effect political change. It, in essence, puts a structure in place for the workers to speak with one voice, not just within their schools but to the people outside the schools who make funding decisions that affect the schools. Individual protection and protection of the sector as a whole go hand in hand.

Now that you’ve read Jim Kaplan’s reflections on the past, the present, and the future of unions in adult education, please share your thoughts on the topic right here.

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  21. Annie Dunbar says:

    Why unions matter should be obvious to anyone. Unfortunately, and for many reasons, it is a generational issue: young people are less motivated/able to find for their rights, or simply for their survival. Sadly enough, they may pay a high price, in Adult Ed and elsewhere.
    An older worker who can still sing: Stand up and fight…

  22. Marie says:

    I am a teacher in the mid-Atlantic, not New England. I found this interview to be very interesting. I hunger for a union movement in adult education because I think our working conditions are often so poor. We are second-class teachers because most of us work part-time, and we don’t fight for benefits because we don’t have enough time to come together. But the teachers I know in adult ed are often more educated and more skilled than in K-12. We are are on the sidelines of teh education conversation, and we are sidelined when it comes to funding, too. Thank you for this interview.

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