Just How Potent Are Teacher Unions?

Hostess Brands is set to liquidate its 82-year-old company because it was unable to meet the salary demands of its unionized employees. Roughly 18,500 workers will lose their jobs because 5,500 members of various bakers’ unions can’t appreciate that a tightening economy, stiffening competition, and an increasingly health-conscious America mean fewer Twinkies for all.

Hostess is doing what other private-sector organizations (such as the auto, airline, and steel industries) have done in response to fiscally unsustainable contracts with — or contract demands from — their unions: either throw in the towel and quit altogether, or use drastic measures such as bankruptcy proceedings to reboot the terms (and costs) of employment.

Private-sector firms can do things like that. But what happens when one’s core business is educating 55 million young Americans via the public schools? They have unions, too, unions that typically make demands that are as damaging to educational quality and affordability as those of their private-sector counterparts. But public-sector endeavors can’t just shut down — or declare bankruptcy.

Education today employs more unionized staff than any other industry, public or private. Between them, the National Education Association (NEA) and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) have some 4.6 million members, a combination of active teachers and other public-school employees, college faculty and staff, retirees, and students. (Meanwhile, membership rates in private-sector unions continue to fall, from 37 percent in 1952 to 6 percent in 2011.)

Teacher unions are enormous, no doubt about it. But does big mean strong? Recent months have seen many suggestions that they may be in retreat, losing members and policy battles alike. They failed to unseat Wisconsin governor Scott Walker, to undo his rollback of collective bargaining, or to fend off expansion of that state’s voucher program. They failed to block passage of Indiana’s 2011 bill making the Hoosier State the first right-to-work state in the Rust Belt. They were unable — in this year’s election — to achieve their dream of enshrining Michigan’s expansive collective-bargaining rights in the state constitution. What’s more, the recent explosion of education-reform advocacy groups means that teacher unions now have more adversaries and fewer automatic allies in statehouse politics and policy battles.

Yet for every teacher-union loss, there’s been at least as significant a recent victory. To end the Chicago teachers’ strike this fall, Mayor Rahm Emanuel finally acceded to most union demands regarding salary increases and teacher evaluations. Tony Bennett, one of the nation’s fiercest education reformers, lost his November reelection bid for Indiana state superintendent to a union-backed contender. Voters in Idaho undid state superintendent Tom Luna’s reforms of collective bargaining, teacher evaluations, and technology. And the list goes on.

So which is it — are union biceps as brawny as ever, or growing flabby with age? Short answer: It depends, particularly on which state (or the District of Columbia) you look at, and at what point in time. That’s the central finding of our recently concluded three-year study of the relative strength of teacher unions state-by–state.

We looked at state-level unions because so many crucial education-policy decisions are made in state capitals, not in Washington or locally. Unsurprisingly, every state is home to at least one affiliate of either the National Education Association (NEA) or the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), often both. (Four states host jointNEA-AFT affiliates.)

We examined three dozen data points — more than anyone has previously attempted — that bear on different aspects of union strength. These include membership and money, involvement in politics, the range of issues subject to collective bargaining, the extent of alignment between state education policies and traditional union interests, and the union’s perceived influence, as gauged by state-level insiders.

Here is what we found: The teacher unions of Hawaii, Oregon, Montana, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and California are exceptionally strong, while those in Mississippi, Virginia, Arkansas, South Carolina, and Arizona are among the weakest. States that require school districts to negotiate with their local unions tended to rate “strong” on our metric — but not always. Florida, for example, mandates collective bargaining yet ranks 50th in overall union strength. (Only Arizona has weaker teacher unions.) That’s largely because the Sunshine State does not allow unions to automatically collect “agency fees” — the equivalent of mandatory dues — from non-member teachers. Hence those unions’ revenues — and lobbying and advocacy efforts — are constrained.

Resources do matter. Unions in states where collective bargaining is mandatory collect an average of $581 annually per teacher, versus $296 in states where bargaining is permitted but not obligatory. On the one hand, that big gap isn’t surprising, inasmuch as mandatory-bargaining states have more unionized, dues-paying teachers. But union coffers are also fattened by state laws allowing agency fees. In those jurisdictions, the unions harvest an average of $650 per teacher. In states that ban agency fees, that number falls to $405. In other words, the fiscal advantage that unions enjoy in mandatory-bargaining states nearly vanishes if they cannot collect fees from non-members.

That’s why California unions fought so hard — and successfully — this fall to defeat Proposition 32, which would have banned union contributions to state and local candidates as well as automatic deductions from wages for political purposes. Our study found that 18 of the 20 weakest unions are located in states that restrict their revenues by forbidding either the collection of agency fees from non-members or automatic dues collection from members. The message for those who want to curb union power is clear: Focus on “paycheck protection” measures as much as on the right of teachers to bargain collectively.

Living in a state with weak teacher unions doesn’t mean they can be overlooked, nor does the presence of strong unions mean they cannot be beat. Moreover, unions are not the only foes of needed education reforms. But they are among the most formidable, and school systems can’t make them go away by declaring bankruptcy. We can forgo Twinkies, but not educating our kids.

-Chester E. Finn, Jr., and Amber Winkler

This blog post first appeared in the National Review Online.

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