A Union by Any Other Name

The NEA and AFT will promote reforms-but only those that serve teachers interests

The teacher unions have more influence on the public schools than any other group in American society. They shape the schools from the bottom up, through collective-bargaining activities so broad in scope that virtually every aspect of the schools is somehow affected. They also shape the schools from the top down, through political activities that give them unrivaled influence over the laws and regulations imposed on public education by government.

As the unions put their distinctive stamp on the nation’s schools, the objectives they pursue are reflections of their own interests, which are often incompatible with what is best for children, schools, and society. This presents an obvious problem-and a serious one-for a nation that wants to improve the quality of its education system.

In recent years, certain scholars and even a few union leaders have argued the need for “reform unionism” and claimed that, with enough enlightened thinking, the unions can voluntarily dedicate themselves to education reforms that promote the greater good. This is a fanciful notion, based on a fatal misconception: that the unions can be counted on not to pursue their own interests. No such thing is going to happen.

My purpose here is to provide a simple overview of the pivotal roles that teacher unions actually play in public education-and to suggest why, if Americans want to improve their schools, something needs to be done about the unions and their extraordinary power.

The Rise of Teacher Unions

Until the early 1960s, only a tiny percentage of teachers were unionized. The American Federation of Teachers (AFT) was the only teacher union to speak of, and it organized no more than 5 percent of the nation’s teachers clustered in a few urban areas. The leading force in public education was the National Education Association (NEA). It attracted about half of the nation’s teachers, but it functioned as a professional association and was controlled by school administrators.

The watershed event came in 1961, when the AFT won a representation election in New York City. This victory set off an aggressive AFT campaign to organize teachers in other cities, forcing the NEA to compete as a union or risk losing its constituency. The early years of NEA-AFT competition brought thousands of districts under union control, with the NEA winning the lion’s share and maintaining its position of leadership-but now as a union rather than a professional association.

By the early 1980s, dramatic increases in union membership began to level off at a new equilibrium. As of 2001, this equilibrium still prevails and is quite stable, with the vast majority of teachers (outside the South) covered by collective bargaining. The NEA, which claimed a membership of 766,000 in 1961, now claims to have some 2.5 million members, about 2 million of whom are K-12 teachers. It has affiliates in all 50 states and is politically active throughout the country. The AFT has expanded by its own count from 70,821 members in 1961 to roughly one million members today, although only about half are teachers. As in the past, the AFT’s strength is in big cities.

Any effort to understand why the teacher unions succeeded as they did must begin by recognizing that their emergence was not an isolated development in the American labor movement. It happened during a time of spectacular growth among public-employee unions generally.

Several factors were responsible for this phenomenon, but a critical one is simply that the laws changed. Before the 1960s, states did not authorize public employees to engage in collective bargaining. In 1959, Wisconsin became the first state to enact a collective-bargaining law for public-sector workers, and over the next two decades most states followed suit. These laws created rights, duties, and procedures that made it easier for unions to organize and bargain. By the early 1980s, the percentage of unionized workers in government had skyrocketed from trivial levels two decades earlier to a robust 37 percent-where, as with teachers, it stabilized at a new equilibrium.

At the very time unions were succeeding dramatically in the public sector, they were stumbling badly in the private sector, in what was nothing short of a catastrophe for the labor movement. Why did teacher unions and other public sector unions do so well when private-sector unions-which had long benefited from union-promoting legal frameworks-fared so poorly?

There seem to be various causes at work. In the private sector, most employers know they will lose business to competitors if their costs increase, and this prompts them to resist unionization. Similarly, unions cannot make costly demands without losing jobs to nonunion firms, and this too limits their ability to organize and bargain. As a general matter, competition breeds trouble for unions; and over the past few decades, the private sector has become much more competitive.

The government environment is very different. Public agencies usually have no competition and are not threatened by loss of business if their costs go up, while unions know they are not putting jobs at risk by pressuring for all they can get. Government decisions on labor matters, moreover, are heavily influenced by politics rather than simple efficiency. In jurisdictions where unions are powerful, therefore, many public officials have incentives to submit to union demands even if they know the result will be higher costs and inefficiencies.

Given the lack of competition, and given the dominance of politics over efficiency, unions simply find it much easier to prosper in the public sector. It is no accident that the American labor movement has been kept afloat by the success of public-sector unions-and that the largest, most powerful union in the country is not the Teamsters or the United Auto Workers, but the National Education Association.

Collective Bargaining

When it comes to the fundamentals of organization, the teacher unions are like all other unions: collective bargaining is their core function and the base of their economic and political power. It is through collective bargaining that they attract and hold members, get most of their resources, and gain the capacity for political action.

The teacher unions bargain with school boards, which play the role of management. As the above discussion implies, however, school boards cannot be expected to behave like the managers of private firms in resisting union demands. School boards face little competition and needn’t worry that they will lose business by agreeing to union demands that raise costs, promote inefficiencies, or lower school performance. The kids and the tax money will still be there. In addition, school boards are composed of elected officials, whose incentives are explicitly political and less tied to efficiency and costs than those of private managers. Moreover, the unions, by participating in local elections, are in a position to determine who the management will be, and to give it incentives to bargain sympathetically-a stunning advantage that, for private-sector unions, would be a dream come true.

Union influence usually takes the form of rules that specify (in excruciating detail) what must or must not be done. In a typical union contract, there are so many rules about so many subjects that it may take more than a hundred pages to spell them all out. In many urban districts, where the unions are strongest, contracts may run to two or three hundred pages or longer.

There are rules, of course, about pay and fringe benefits. But there are also rules about hiring, firing, layoffs, and promotion. Rules about how teachers are evaluated. Rules about the assignment of teachers to classrooms and their (non)assignment to yard duty, lunch duty, and afterschool activities. Rules about how much time teachers may be asked to work and how much time they must get to prepare for class. Rules about class schedules. Rules about class size. Rules about the numbers and uses of teacher aides. Rules about teacher involvement in school policy decisions. Rules about how grievances are to be handled. Rules about numbers of faculty meetings. Rules about how often teachers can be required to meet with parents. Rules about who has to join the union. Rules about whether dues will be deducted automatically from paychecks. Rules about union use of school facilities. And more.

Union demands on these and other scores are not random or frivolous. Fundamental interests motivate their behavior and determine the kinds of rules they find desirable. These interests arise from the primordial fact that, in order to prosper as organizations, unions need to attract members and money. Most of what they do can be understood in terms of these simple goals-which entail, among other things, securing benefits and protections for members, increasing the demand for teachers, supporting higher taxes, regularizing the flow of resources into union coffers, minimizing competition, and seeking political power.

Note that these interests and the behaviors they entail need have nothing to do with what is best for children, schools, or the public interest; indeed, they may clearly conflict with them. For this reason, collective bargaining often leads to contracts that make little sense as blueprints for effective organization.

By way of illustration, here are some common themes that give substance to the typical contract:

• Unions are dedicated to protecting the jobs of all members. The rules they insist upon make it virtually impossible for schools to get rid of even the worst teachers, not to mention those who are merely mediocre.

• Unions don’t want decisions about pay, promotions, assignments, or transfers to be based on performance. As they see it, performance evaluations create uncertainty for their members, force members to compete with one another, and put discretion in the hands of superiors. The unions want personnel decisions to be based on seniority and formal education, which offer advancement to all teachers regardless of their competence.

• Unions seek to expand teachers’ rights by severely restricting the discretion available to administrators. For principals and district officials, discretion means the ability to lead and manage. For unions, however, it means that administrators make decisions about where, when, and how teachers do their work and how incentives are structured-which is unacceptable. Discretion is to be driven out, replaced by rules that define realms of teacher autonomy.

• Unions tend to oppose anything that induces competition or differentiation among teachers. This applies to performance-based assessments, but also to many other policies. They are opposed, for example, to differential pay in response to market conditions (which might mean paying math and science teachers a premium to attract and hold them). Unions want teachers to have the same interests, because this promotes solidarity. The notion that some teachers are better than others, or worth more than others, is stridently resisted.

• Unions tend to oppose anything that induces competition among schools. Most fundamentally, they want all schools in a district to be covered by the same contract, because the schools not covered (and free of the costs and rigidities it imposes) would have an advantage. This would be especially true if the noncovered schools were allowed to be different in other ways too, and if parents were free to choose, for then the noncovered schools might attract kids, jobs, and resources away from the union schools. The union ideal is that all schools be regulated the same and that all be guaranteed their “fair share” of students and money.

• Unions tend to oppose any contracting-out of educational functions that involves a shift of jobs and resources from public to private. This is true even if privatization may provide better services at lower cost. The goal is to keep public employment and spending as high as possible.

• Unions want contract provisions that require all teachers to become members and that force nonmembers to pay “agency fees.” They also want dues and fees automatically deducted from teachers’ paychecks, as this guarantees unions a regular flow of money and shifts administrative costs onto the districts.

The unions put the best public face on their collective-bargaining demands, arguing that what is good for teachers is good for kids and that they are just fighting for quality public schools. It is obvious, however, that many aspects of union influence (not all) have negative consequences for kids and schools. How can it be socially beneficial that schools can’t get rid of bad teachers? Or that teachers can’t be tested for competence? Or that teachers can’t be evaluated based on how much their students learn? Or that principals are so heavily constrained they can’t exercise leadership of their own schools?

It is also clear that union-generated rules add tremendously to the bureaucratization of schools. The unions are responsible for making the system much more formal, complex, and impersonal than it would otherwise be. These characteristics tend to undermine school performance. Schools tend to do best when they function in an informal, cooperative, flexible, and nurturing way-which is precisely the opposite of bureaucracy.

Little research specifically links teacher unions to school performance, so it is impossible to make an ironclad, fully documented case about the direction of union effects. The few existing studies have produced mixed results, some showing negative effects and some showing positive effects. But many of these findings are probably spurious, arising because the data are very poor and hard to get and the methodological difficulties are formidable.

The most recent addition to this literature, an article by Lala Carr Steelman, Brian Powell, and Robert M. Carini in the Winter 2000 issue of the Harvard Educational Review, claims that unions have positive effects on performance, and its findings are being touted by union enthusiasts. This analysis, too, needs to be regarded with care. Its measures of school performance, for example, are SAT and ACT scores, which clearly do not measure the actual performance of the schools (as the unions are usually the first to point out). And because these and other variables are aggregated to the state level for analysis, there are dangers in drawing inferences about causal processes (like union influence) at the school level. An analysis that minimizes these sorts of problems, and is the most sophisticated of the tests of union impact, was carried out a few years ago by Harvard economist Caroline M. Hoxby and published in the August 1996 issue of the Quarterly Journal of Economics. Hoxby found that unions have negative effects on school performance.

The unions are responsible for making the education system much more formal, complex, and impersonal than it would otherwise be. These characteristics tend to undermine school performance.

The most confident conclusion that can be drawn from this literature is that unions increase the costs of education, apparently by an average of 8 to 15 percent-and without (as far as can be determined) a corresponding increase, or any increase at all, in school quality. This tends to support the argument that, for a given level of spending, unions make the production of quality education more difficult.

Local Politics

Collective bargaining is the bread-and-butter activity of teacher unions. The key to their preeminence in American education, however, is their ability to combine collective bargaining and politics into an integrated strategy for promoting union objectives.

Teacher unions are active in politics at all levels: local, state, and national. In local politics the teacher unions are in the astounding position of being able to determine who sits on local school boards, and thus with whom they will be bargaining. Needless to say, the unions have strong incentives to mobilize for political purposes, to participate actively in electoral campaigns, and to identify and recruit sympathetic candidates. These incentives are all the stronger because districts make decisions on a wide range of policy, taxing, and funding issues of great relevance to union interests.

The details of local politics can vary across districts, due to their individual histories, demographics, and problems. But certain characteristics are common to most of them-and give teacher unions great advantages in the struggle for influence.

• School-board elections usually occur in off years or times and thus tend to attract very low turnout, often in the range of 10 to 20 percent. By getting their own members and supporters to the polls, unions are well positioned to prevail.

• These elections are typically nonpartisan: candidates are not identified by party affiliation. Voters are thus denied the key information that running under a party banner conveys, and this enhances the ability of unions to control how candidates are perceived and who is elected.

• Local politics is not very pluralistic. Teacher unions tend to be the only organized force in school politics. They almost always overshadow business and civic groups, and they always overshadow parents, who are not organized (outside the PTA, which has long been under union control in politics) and who vote in low numbers.

• Teacher unions are flush with political resources. They have money for campaign contributions, and they control an army of political workers (teachers) who are educated, informed, have a direct stake in the issues, and are organized for political action.

• Most candidates run for school board on a shoestring. This being so, candidates endorsed by the unions and boosted by their money, manpower, and organization are very likely to win.

For these and other reasons, unions are formidable powers in local politics. The upshot is that, when school boards make decisions about policy or money or about the myriad rules governing school operations, they tend to give heavy weight to the interests of unions-and may often depart, as a result, from what is best for children and effective education.

State and National Politics

Important as local politics is, the teacher unions have good reason to think more broadly about the exercise of political power. Increasingly, the big decisions on education are being made by state and (to a lesser extent) national governments, and many of these decisions have a direct bearing on union interests. Active involvement in state and national politics is more than an attractive option for the unions. It is a necessity.

The great value of higher-level politics is that state governments, especially, are in a position to adopt virtually any requirements, programs, and funding arrangements they want for the public schools. Whatever policies they adopt, moreover, are typically applied to all the districts and schools in their jurisdictions. When unions use their political power at these higher levels, then, they can achieve many objectives they might be unable to achieve through local collective bargaining, from more money to smaller classes to stricter credentialing requirements. One political victory can accomplish what hundreds of decentralized negotiations cannot.

Over the past few decades, the NEA and the AFT have acted aggressively on these incentives, and they have emerged as extraordinarily powerful players in state and national politics. A recent study at the state level asked experts to rank interest groups according to political influence, and the teacher unions came out number one, outdistancing business organizations, trial lawyers, doctors, insurance companies, environmentalists, and even the state AFL-CIO affiliates.

One reason for the unions’ success is that they spend tremendous amounts of money on political campaigns and lobbying. They regularly rank among the top-spending interest groups at both the state and national levels, and in many states they are number one. Probably the key to their political firepower, however, is that they have literally millions of members, and these members are a looming presence in every electoral district in the country. Candidates are keenly aware that the unions invest heavily in mobilizing their local activists and have considerable clout in seeing friends elected and enemies defeated.

The teacher unions are in the astounding position of being able to determine who sits on local school boards, and thus with whom they will be bargaining.

Almost all of this firepower is employed to the benefit of Democrats, whose constituencies already incline them to favor policies the teacher unions want-more spending, higher taxes, higher public employment, more regulations, more job protections, more restrictions on competition, more collective bargaining-and who, with union backing and pressure, can usually be counted on for support.

Within Congress and the state legislatures, the teacher unions are aggressive, omnipresent participants. This is often true even in right-to-work states. They monitor all relevant legislation, propose bills, carry out background research on issues, attend committee hearings, keep scorecards on legislators, and bring their formidable power to bear in getting legislators to vote their way. On education, teacher unions are the 500-pound gorillas of legislative politics.

On occasion, they also use the initiative process to put their own bills on the ballot for a direct popular vote. Here, they can use their financial resources to bankroll signature-gathering and media blitzes, and they can unleash an army of volunteers during the campaign. No other organizations are so well suited to initiative politics, and the unions have gone this route when legislatures have failed to give them what they wanted. A good example: California’s Proposition 98, which was successfully promoted by the California Teachers Association in 1989, and since then has required the state to spend at least 40 percent of its annual budget on the public schools.

The teacher unions also exercise their power in administrative arenas. The national and state departments of education, in particular, oversee countless education programs, distribute billions of dollars, and have substantial discretion in deciding what the details of education policy will be and how the money will be spent. Within these departments, officials regard the unions as key “stakeholders” who have legitimate, ongoing roles to play in shaping public decisions. The opportunities for union influence are everywhere and virtually unobservable to outsiders unfamiliar with the byzantine world of government bureaucracy.

Often the unions pursue their policy objectives by combining legislative and administrative power. An important example can be found in their recent drive for teacher “professionalism.” This is a goal with obvious political appeal. Who could be against professionalism? The reality, however, is that they are active on this issue because their fundamental interests are at stake. By pushing for stricter licensing, credentialing, and certification requirements and for regulatory boards controlled or influenced by the unions themselves, they are attempting to control entry into their field and thus to limit supply and put upward pressure on salaries. This is a classic political strategy that other occupations, from doctors and lawyers to cosmetologists and plumbers, have long used with great success. The teacher unions just want to do the same.

The Politics of Blocking

Much of what the teacher unions do in politics is not about winning the policies they want. It is about blocking the policies they don’t want-a strategy that the American political system, built around multiple checks and balances, is designed to facilitate. Because blocking is relatively easy, the unions are usually powerful enough to stop reforms they consider a threat to their interests, and thus to protect a status quo that benefits them. In a time of widespread pressure for improvement in public education, this is the way the teacher unions put their power to most effective use. They use it to prevent change.

Consider the movement for school choice, which represents the most far-reaching movement for change in American education. From the unions’ standpoint, it is irrelevant whether choice is a promising reform. The overriding fact is that choice-based reforms naturally generate changes that are threatening to the unions’ interests-and the unions, quite predictably, oppose them. Much of their political activity over the past decade has been dedicated to the simple goal of blocking school choice.

The unions see vouchers as a survival issue. Vouchers would allow money and children to flow from public to private: threatening a drop in public employment and in union membership; dispersing teachers to private schools, where it is much harder for unions to organize; promoting competition among schools, which puts union schools at a disadvantage; and creating a less regulated system in which the unions have less power. Small wonder, then, that the unions have done everything they can to defeat vouchers-even when vouchers are proposed solely for the neediest of children.

The teacher unions are also battling against charter schools-which, while public, need not be unionized, and which draw students and money away from the regular public schools where union members teach. Unions sometimes claim to “support” charter proposals, but these are strategic moves designed to head off something much worse: vouchers. Moreover, they are typically accompanied by demands for strict ceilings on the number of charters, requirements that charters be unionized, and extensive district controls. Charters are on the rise nationwide, but for now most are constrained by laws that have been heavily influenced by the unions.

The teacher unions are also fighting privatization. In the 1990s, for-profit companies sought contracts with districts to run entire schools, typically those regarded as failing. The unions recognize that they have less control over private contractors than over the districts, and that the success of private contractors could well promote the flow of jobs, money, and control from public to private schools. They have done what they can, accordingly, to prevent school boards from entering into such agreements and to sabotage those that get past them.

The bottom line is that the teacher unions’ greatest power is not the ability to get what they want, but rather the ability to stifle reforms that threaten their interests. School choice is not the only reform they oppose-for union interests are deeply rooted in the status quo, and most changes of any consequence create problems for them. The result is that, as our nation has struggled to improve its public schools, the teacher unions have emerged as the fiercest, most powerful defenders of the status quo, and the single greatest obstacle to the reform of American education.


Introducing Competition

For reform to succeed, something concrete must be done to remove the education system from the unions’ grip. This won’t be easy, because the unions can (and regularly do) use their power to “persuade” reformers to turn their sights elsewhere. Most Democrats, in particular, would be committing political suicide by trying to alter the unions’ current role in public education, and they will resist any efforts to do so. In a political system of checks and balances, this alone will be enough to block most reform proposals most of the time.

If the future holds a solution to the problem of union power, it will probably develop as a by-product of the school-choice movement. The best bet is that, despite union opposition, school choice in various forms will gradually spread. As it does, the unions will be faced with an increasingly competitive environment. Children and resources will begin to flow to nonunion schools, and unions will find themselves with fewer members, less money, and a growing number of schools and teachers that are outside the traditional system and difficult to organize. Competition spells trouble for unions. It undermines their organizational strength-and with it, their political power.

Whether choice and competition will ultimately win out remains to be seen. In the meantime, the teacher unions will reign as the preeminent power in American education, and they will continue to give us public schools in their own image.

Terry M. Moe is a professor of political science at Stanford University, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, and the author of Schools, Vouchers, and the American Public (Brookings, 2001).

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