Discussions of the woes of public education inevitably turn to the subject of teachers’ unions. Some claim they are detrimental to public education, while others claim they are neutral or even beneficial. This is certainly a controversy worth addressing.
Before proceeding with the discussion, I am obligated to disclose that I am a union member. As such, my arguments should be read with proper scrutiny for the influence of unconscious biases on my part. While it might be suspected that I am blindly pro-union, I will endeavor to give an objective assessment of the arguments for and against teachers’ unions. In return, I ask the same of readers.
Objectively assessing teachers’ unions is certainly a daunting task. One reason for this is that the matter has become politically charged. For many conservatives, it is an article of faith that the main villains of education are the teachers’ unions. Since American politics is so bipolar, it is hardly surprising that liberals tend to favor (or at least tolerate) teachers’ unions. As with many political matters, a person’s stance on teachers’ unions often becomes part of their identity and this has many negative consequences in regards to objectively assessing unions. Ideological commitment is the enemy of rational assessment because it triggers a wide range of cognitive biases and motivates people to accept fallacious reasoning. As such, arguments and data tend to be accepted or rejected based on their correspondence to the ideology rather than their merits. While it is difficult to do so, these tendencies can be overcome—if one is willing to take the effort.
Another reason objective assessment is difficult is that there are entrenched and unfounded opinions about unions even in those who do not make their view of unions part of their political identity. People tend to believe what they hear repeated in the media and otherwise uncritically form opinions. Such unfounded and entrenched opinions can be hard to overcome with reason and evidence, but doing so is easier than getting a person to change an aspect of their political identity.
A third reason, one that helps explain the existence of unfounded opinions on the matter, is that there has been little in the way of rigorous studies of the impact of unions. As such, people tend to be stuck with mere anecdotal evidence and intuitive appeals. While these might turn out to be correct, they do not provide much of a foundation for making good decisions about unions.
In this essay (and the following ones) I will endeavor to objectively assess teachers’ unions in a way that overcomes my own political views and entrenched unfounded opinions. Naturally, I will try to do this with solid argumentation and good data rather than mere anecdotes and intuitions. While my main concern is with the impact of unions on education, I will briefly address two attacks on unions that do not directly relate to education.
One stock attack on unions is the argument based on the idea that it is wrong for workers to be required to join a union or pay dues to a union. In politics, this view is called “right to work.” Not surprisingly, it is generally opposed by unions and supported by businesses. Those who support it contend that it is good for business and employees. Those who oppose it point to data showing the negative impact of right to work laws. Since this is a contentious political issue, the various sides reject the data offered by the others because they are regarded as biased.
Being a philosopher, my main concern is with the ethics of compelling people to join a union or pay dues rather than with the legal issues. On the face of it, membership in a union should be voluntary as should paying fees to unions. Just as a person should be free to accept or reject a job or any service, the same should apply to unions. However, freedom (as some like to say) is not free: those who make the decision to not join the union or elect to not contribute to the costs of collective bargaining should be excluded from those benefits. As with any goods or services, a person who refuses to pay for them has no right to expect these goods or services. To use an analogy, if a group of homeowners are involved in a lawsuit and want to hire a lawyer, individual homeowners have every right to refuse to pay the lawyer’s fee. However, if they do not pay, they have no right to be free riders. To use another analogy, if a business does not want to join a chamber of commerce, it should be free to not join. However, the business has no right to claim the benefits offered by the chamber of commerce.
In case anyone wonders, I voluntarily joined the union on the moral grounds that I did not want to be a free rider. I knew I would benefit from the union, hence I am obligated to contribute to the costs of getting those services.
If unions are compelled to represent non-members, then the non-members would be obligated to contribute to the cost of this representation and it would be right to compel them to do so. Going back to the lawyer analogy, if the lawyer is compelled to represent all the homeowners, then they are all obligated to pay their share. Otherwise they are engaged in theft, plain and simple. The same holds for the chamber of commerce analogy: if a chamber of commerce is compelled to provide services to all business in the area, then those businesses are obligated to pay if they avail themselves of these benefits.
A second stock argument against teachers’ unions is based on the fact that they do not represent the views of all their members on various social and political issues. While this is a matter of concern, it is not unique to teachers’ unions or unions in general. All groups, ranging from clubs to political parties to nations face this problem. To use a specific example, the state legislature of any American state does not represent the views of all the members of the state. Since people have different and often conflicting views, it is nearly impossible for the representatives of a large group to represent the views of all the members. For example, some union members might favor allowing computer programing to count as a math class while others oppose it. Obviously, the class cannot be a math class and not a math class, so a union stance on the matter will fail to represent all views. As such, being unable to represent every view is not a special problem for teachers’ unions, it is a feature of groups made of people who do not agree about everything.
If the teachers’ union has a democratic process for taking positions on issues, be it direct democracy or electing representatives, then the union would represent the views of the members in the same way any democratic or representative system does. That is, imperfectly and with compromises. As such, the fact that unions do not represent the views of all members is not a special problem for teachers’ unions.
In the following essays I will focus on the claim that teachers unions are bad for education in general and students in particular.
Not surprisingly, I have a lot of opinions on this matter, most are based on personal experience but at least one is founded in a general discussion of ethics. As to the effect teachers unions have on education, well, perhaps my anecdotes might serve to illustrate a point.
For ten years, I taught as an adjunct at a major New York University, in the heart of Manhattan. At one point, we got a letter telling us to join the union (NYC Adjuncts Union was an arm of the UAW, of all things). I read the platform that the union was supporting, which was mostly about grievances that I did not share – so I let the letter drift down to the bottom of the pile and didn’t think about it again.
Of course, two years later, I got a letter from the University indicating that they would not be able to hire me for the upcoming semester unless I (A) paid all of my back dues, in cash (totaling more than $1,000), and (B) signed a salary reduction agreement for $50 per month going forward. There were no options for the first part – no installments, no adding to my salary reduction, nothing. I felt as though I was being held hostage.
Anyway, I had no choice, I needed the job, so I paid it and signed the form.
At the time, I was teaching four classes. They were all on the same days and had been for years. One of the classes I was teaching was an experimental class; I had offered to learn the material on my own time and teach the class to see where it went and if it might fit in the curriculum. I taught that class for two years, setting aside a class that dealt with part of the core curriculum.
One of the benefits that the union won for us was that if a faculty member was teaching a class in a given year, that faculty member would have the “right of first refusal” to teach that class the next year, and the next, and so on until they decided they didn’t want it anymore.
So after two years of teaching the experimental class, which I did for the benefit of the university, the course was dropped from the curriculum, but I was unable to pick up any kind of replacement for it. The class I had taught previously was now “owned” by another adjunct. I spoke to the administration, and voiced not only my concerns but those of students who disliked this new professor, but they said their hands were tied. I lost an important class, and 25% of my income from that job.
This was in 2008. Shortly after joining the union, I started getting a subscription to “Solidarity” magazine, which was a full color, glossy piece of monthly political propaganda about issues I did not support. Back then, of course, Barack Obama’s picture and family were splayed on the front cover of every issue and scattered throughout. Needless to say I was angry about this; I didn’t support this candidate and I had just shelled out about $1500 and lost 25% of my income, and this is what I got for it.
I had a conversation with a friend, and told him the story. I knew he was a lawyer, but it wasn’t a “consultation”, just a conversation. It turns out he’s a labor lawyer in NY, and he told me that I have the right to claim something called “Beck Rights” (named after a suit involving the beer company). I had the right to request an accounting of union expenditures, and have my dues reduced by a percentage equal to what the union spent on supporting political causes or anything else not related to collective bargaining.
I called the union, and they were very glad to hear from me until they heard what I was requesting. The conversation ended abruptly with “Fine” and a hangup. Two weeks later I got a box of paperwork in the mail, with every rule and regulation imaginable, and about a dozen forms I had to fill out, which I did. It was what lawyers call “Burying them in paperwork”.
The next semester – one class. A night class. I had taught at this university for ten years; I had excellent student evaluations and solid peer reviews. I was sought after to serve on thesis committees – all on my own merit. The union came in, and I was essentially fired for not wanting to play their game, and not wanting to support Obama and union political causes. I had no one to support me – the union wouldn’t take my calls and the administration was hamstrung by their rules. I later learned that I had been replaced by a completely new professor, right out of school. I suppose it would be egotistical in a Machiavellian sort of way for me to suggest that the students were harmed by this, but I think they were.
The other story I’ve told before – it has to do with my sister, who served on the public school board of education when her kids were in grammar school. (Incidentally, she was a retired public schoolteacher herself)
They were negotiating a teacher contract, and she told me that the teacher’s union was making unreasonable demands for benefits that far exceeded what non-public employees could hope for – early retirement, full health insurance with no deductibles, no co-pay, and no premium contributions – and a defined benefit pension that was actuarially impossible to sustain. You know how this stuff goes – the union told the teachers that the board of ed was “screwing them”, the teachers told the parents, the parents (of grade school kids, mind you) would swear and actually spit at my sister at soccer games and school events. She was trying to do a very hard job under impossible circumstances, and she became a pariah in her own home town.
I think the ones who got screwed were the kids – because money that could have gone to a new library or a home-ec class or new curricular materials or field trips or any of a host of things, had to go to give the teachers what no one else in the town had, and that the town could not afford. Remember, a teacher can start at 25, teach until age 50, and earn a full pension, paid for by the state, until they die – which could exceed the amount of time they spent teaching. Investment risk is borne by the taxpayer – if the returns are not enough to sustain, the tax rate goes up.
I have also told the story of the Superintendent of Schools in my home town who was discovered to have forged his PhD; he never had one – but at 50 he was asked to leave and given his full pension, thanks to his strong union representation. The district of course had to hire a replacement, costing them his (defined benefit) pension AND another salary – again, money that could have gone to curriculum, computers, band instruments, science labs or even more teachers to reduce class size, but the union would not have it. This man’s salary exceeded $200,000; his pension was worth $150,000 or maybe a little more – that just came out of the state budget regardless of investment experience. If yields were low, the taxpayers bore the brunt.
The political issue about teachers’ unions that you did not mention is that as public employees, there really is no “negotiation”. With a business, there is “skin in the game” at the negotiating table – the business has a bottom line they have to make in order to meet their expenses and make a profit, and satisfy the investors (some of whom, BTW, are the fund managers for the teachers’ pensions). On the other hand, they have to keep their employees happy or they will lose them. It’s a true negotiation. With public employees, the demands are met on the backs of the taxpayers. It’s an unfair negotiation, because there is political motivation to give in to the unions, as they represent powerful lobbies and large blocs of votes to politicians that, in many circumstances (except maybe in Wisconsin) far outweigh the political clout of the individual voters. They call it a “negotiation”, but both parties are on the same side,and it is a corrupt bargain at best.
How much this trickles down to education is up for discussion and speculation – but the fact is that education is NOT the focus of the union. The unions reward longevity and respect “rights”, which is not altogether a bad thing, but they do not reward merit – and merit is what education is about. In one of the cases I mentioned above, they handed over a few crumbs to teachers, backed by an extremely powerful Auto Workers Union, in exchange for more revenue that they blatantly used for their own political gain. In the other case, the unions were used to bully a small-town board of education out of trying to cobble out a fair budget that was generous to the teachers but still focused on education, in exchange for an unreasonable and unsustainable benefits package, turning the town into an angry, partisan mob.
I am not in a union anymore. I am a tenured professor at a major university, and I earned my tenure over seven years of scholarly publication, peer-reviewed research, conference presentations, institute committee work and high student evaluations. While some might object to the idea of tenure, it was not given lightly – there was a lot of scrutiny and probationary evaluation before the decision was made. And now, to me, the most valuable part of that tenure is that I can speak out on controversial issues and offer non-mainstream points of view without fear of losing my job or angering the wrong person. I don’t need a union to back me up on that, I have earned that right myself. And a dialogue that offers unabashed opposition backed by research and passion on all sides of an issue is of great benefit to young minds. Unlike my previous job, I can even speak out publicly against unions without being blackballed.
In the above piece, I indicated that if the investments that supported these pensions did not perform, the tax rates in the town were raised – however, the alternative to that was also done – budgets were cut from other areas, and many times from the schools -directly harming the students. When my kids were in high school, many of the classes were taught in trailers because the school budget was not enough to pay the decades of retirement pensions AND the Cadillac benefits packages and be able to add on to the school buildings and pay for many other “non-essential” programs like music, art, theater, debate teams, and others.