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It’s Time to Abolish the Teachers Unions
A disaster for students and good teachers alike.
By Larry Sand
“All Government employees should realize that the process of collective bargaining, as usually understood, cannot be transplanted into the public service. It has its distinct and insurmountable limitations when applied to public personnel management.”
The above caveat about government unions – usually known by the kinder and gentler “public employee unions” – was not issued by the Koch Brothers or Donald Trump. The statement was made by none other than progressive icon Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Additionally, George Meany, president of the AFL-CIO for 24 years, once stated, “It is impossible to bargain collectively with the government.” Both men understood that the very nature of government makes it wrong for its leaders to enter into negotiations with any union. When government unions negotiate, they often sit across the table from people they helped put in office with generous campaign contributions. And when these unions go on strike, they walk out on the taxpayer.
In the private sector, if a business is forced to pay its workers more money, those costs are passed on to the consumer. If the cost of a product is raised too high, the purchaser can choose to go elsewhere. Most unions get this and realize they can’t bargain for excessive salaries and perks. But some unions push things too far and ultimately price their members out of a job. An example of the latter is the United Auto Workers, whose exorbitant demands drove car buyers to Japanese models and automakers to produce cars elsewhere, thus sending Detroit down the road to ruin.
But the government unions are always a nightmare for consumers, as they can’t shop elsewhere for services provided by the state, because the government has a monopoly on them. When union negotiators and elected officials agree on exorbitant pay packages and protections for cops, prison guards, firemen and teachers, what can the public do? Call a different fire department if their house is burning down?
There is an exception here with schools, but unless there is a parental choice system in place, where public tax money follows the child, only the well-to-do really have a choice. In exercising that option, they must pay twice, however – in state and local taxes which go to their local public school and tuition payments for the private one.
It’s worth noting that many government union leaders fully understand the conflict of interest. In 1975, Victor Gotbaum, leader of District Council 37 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) in New York City, bragged, “We have the ability, in a sense, to elect our own boss.” Forty-five years later, in 2020, Los Angeles teacher union boss Alex Caputo-Pearl admitted, “We have a unique power – we elect our bosses. It would be difficult to think of workers anywhere else who elect their bosses. We do. We must take advantage of it.”
While all government unions do damage, none is more noxious than the teachers unions because their collective bargaining agreements (CBAs) have been a disaster for students and good teachers alike. The unions don’t treat teachers as professionals, but rather as interchangeable widgets, all of whom are of equal value and competence. To differentiate between effective and ineffective educators as a result of what their students actually learn would necessitate doing away with their fossilized, industrial-style work rules like one-size-fits-all salary scales, not to mention tenure, contractually known as “permanence” and seniority – perennial union mainstays. Many studies have borne out the harm of CBAs to America’s children.
“The Long-run Effects of Teacher Collective Bargaining,” a 2018 study by researchers Michael Lovenheim and Alexander Willen, found that, among men, exposure to a duty-to-bargain law in the first 10 years after passage depresses students’ future annual earnings by $2,134 (3.93 percent), decreases weekly hours worked by 0.42, and reduces employment and labor force participation.
The Lovenheim-Willen study was not the first to detail CBA’s harm to students. In 2007, Stanford professor Terry Moe reported that collective bargaining appears to have a strongly negative impact in larger school districts.
Caroline Hoxby, also a professor at Stanford, made a three-minute video in 2009 in which she explains in plain language how CBAs stifle any management flexibility in determining the best slot for a teacher at a given school, as well as denying schools the opportunity to get rid of underperformers.
Good teachers also are hurt by CBAs. “Wage compression” occurs when the salaries of lower paid teachers are raised above the market rate, with the increase offset by reducing the pay of the most productive ones. “Why strive to become better if I am not going to be compensated for it?” is the attitude of many. Mike Petrilli of the Fordham Institute takes it one step further, claiming CBAs hurt the bottom line of all teachers. According to Petrilli, “Teachers in non-collective bargaining districts actually earn more than their union-protected peers – $64,500 on average versus $57,500.” Petrilli’s study was from 2011, and research from Michael Lovenheim in 2009 and Andrew Coulson in 2010 bore similar results. Also, University of California San Diego professor Augustina Pagalayan reported in 2018 that CBAs do not improve teacher pay.
Barbara Biasi, an assistant Professor of Economics at the Yale School of Management, has studied teacher salaries. She focused on Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s Act 10 in 2011, which all but eliminated collective bargaining for teachers and created a marketplace where school districts could compete for better educators by paying valued teachers more. Among Biasi’s findings is that there is a “34 percent increase in the quality of teachers moving from salary-schedule to individual-salary districts, and a 17 percent decrease in the quality of teachers exiting individual-salary districts.” In fact, about half of Wisconsin’s school districts abandoned their lock-step salary schedules and began to pay teachers for performance, for having advanced math and science skills, taking difficult assignments, etc.
In these trying times, the teachers unions have been throwing their considerable power around with great abandon. Several studies have shown that Covid-related school shutdowns occurred more frequently in states and municipalities with strong teachers unions. In fact, the American Federation of Teachers, the nation’s second largest teachers union, lobbied the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on – and even proposed language for – the agency’s school-reopening guidance released in February. Quite obviously the lobbying paid off as “in at least two instances, language ‘suggestions’ offered by the union were adopted nearly verbatim into the final text of the CDC document.”
These unions have often used the pandemic to leverage benefits as well. The California Teachers Association, for example, issued a “bargaining advisory” in May of 2020, in which it states, “When exercising a ‘get for the give’ approach to bargaining concessions, locals should consider strengthening or implementing consultation procedures language in the CBA. The union added, “Now is the time to secure (contract) language improvements that we have wanted for some time.”
The teachers unions have also been at the forefront of the move to establish the noxious Critical Race Theory in our k-12 schools. At its latest yearly convention in July, the National Education Association New Business Items (NBI) – proposed projects and actions from the delegates for the union to pursue during the coming year – frequently pushed CRT.
For example, NBI A was adopted, which, among other things has NEA “supporting and leading campaigns that result in increasing the implementation of culturally responsive education, critical race theory, and ethnic (Native people, Asian, Black, Latin(o/a/x), Middle Eastern, North African, and Pacific Islander) Studies curriculum in pre- K-12 and higher education.”
NBI 39 continued the CRT theme and has the union joining forces with two Marxist groups – Black Lives Matter at School and the Zinn Education Project – to push their agenda, which includes providing a study that “critiques empire, white supremacy, anti-Blackness, anti-Indigeneity, racism, patriarchy, cisheteropatriarchy, capitalism, ableism, anthropocentrism, and other forms of power and oppression at the intersections of our society.”
To support its CRT work, NEA now offers a “Confronting White Nationalism in Schools” toolkit.
Immediately following NEA’s annual meeting, the American Federation of Teachers held an online conference at which president Randi Weingarten described a “new culture campaign” that some lawmakers (and Fox News) are using to distort history, limit learning and stoke fears about our public schools.”
She added, “Let’s be clear: critical race theory is not taught in elementary schools or high schools. It’s a method of examination taught in law school and college that helps analyze whether systemic racism exists—and, in particular, whether it has an effect on law and public policy.”
But if Weingarten really believed that there is no CRT in k-12, why would she have Ibram X. Kendi, probably the most vocal and aggressive CRT proponent in the country, speak at the conference? His talk was touted as, “Hear from Dr. Ibram X. Kendi in this free-ranging discussion with student activists and AFT members on his scholarship and on developing anti-racist mindsets and actions inside and outside classrooms.”
Perhaps the poster boy/patron saint for teachers unions is Bob Chanin, 41-year general counsel for NEA. At the union’s yearly meeting in 2009, Chanin gave a legendary talk announcing his retirement, and explained why NEA and its affiliates are such effective advocates. “Despite what some among us would like to believe, it is not because of our creative ideas. It is not because of the merit of our positions. It is not because we care about children. And it is not because we have a vision of a “great public school for every child.” NEA and its affiliates are effective advocates because we have power….”
Chanin is correct, and it is a power they never should have been given, and it should now be taken away. Yes, it’s time to abolish the teachers unions.
To that end, Tim Draper, a venture capitalist from California, is trying to put an initiative on the ballot in 2022 that would abolish all public employee unions in the state. Draper maintains that “…some public employee unions have used their money and power to protect bad employees engaged in unspeakable conduct and others who have completely failed at their jobs.”
To be continued.
Larry Sand, a former classroom teacher, is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network – a non-partisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers and the general public with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues. The views presented here are strictly his own.