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Character Sketch

Paul Toner, union leader

By Dante Ramos
Globe Staff / July 10, 2011

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AT AN unusually challenging time for unions representing government workers, Paul Toner has staked out a surprisingly forward-looking position for the one he leads.

In December, the Massachusetts Teachers Association, of which he is president, proposed to use student performance in evaluating teachers - and to consider MCAS scores as one of a number of measures. Mild as this step might seem, it was a departure from the union’s past opposition to such a use of standardized test scores. Validating that decision, the union’s parent, the National Education Association, adopted a similar stance at its national convention last week.

The shift in Massachusetts reflected how many members already felt, Toner says. Yet it also brought the union in line with political and bureaucratic realities. “Everybody knows every principal in the state of Massachusetts is looking at MCAS scores,’’ Toner said this week. It’s better for the union to help shape state policy, he thinks, rather than simply to react to it.

A native of North Cambridge, Toner, 45, taught middle-school social studies in the city for eight years, picking up a law degree at Suffolk University along the way. During his tenure as vice president and then president of the Cambridge Teachers Association, the union dismissed a raft of old, lingering grievances, and Toner - to the dismay of at least a few members - gained a reputation as a union chief with whom administrators could cooperate. “I’m reasonable, and I can see the other point of view,’’ Toner once told the Globe. In an interview last week, he emphasized that he too has children in public schools, and he wants them to be educated well.

None of this means Toner or his union has signed on fully, or even mostly, to the agendas of educational and fiscal reformers. In recent months, the association has resisted efforts to let cities and towns move their employees into cheaper health plans. So have other unions, but the opposition from the teachers association - the state’s largest public-employee union - is a major obstacle.

Still, Toner’s sensible, unruffled manner is a point of distinction in a state where unions representing government workers have often equated strength with stridency. When even a Democratic president has shrugged off traditional union stances on education, and public employees are on the defensive in such labor bastions as Wisconsin and Ohio, a more open-minded approach could prove to be a political asset.