Unions have protected workers since the 18th century. When the Industrial Revolution brought new workers into factories, their working conditions or rate of pay were not necessarily appropriate for what their job responsibilities happened to be. The formation of a union helped to keep conditions safer while promoting higher wages.
From this effort came the formation of public-sector labor unions, which began to form in the late 19th century to protect government employees and public-sector workers. By the 1920s, public school teachers began forming teachers’ unions to protect their best interests as well.
To look at the pros and cons of teachers’ unions, we must explore the intricacies of public sector unionization.
What Are the Pros of Teachers Unions?
1. It protects teachers from political changes.
When the politics of a community or state change, education tends to be a popular department to address. In the last generation, teachers have seen efforts to tie their salaries to testing performance, curriculum changes, and other potentially negative impacts to their job head in their direction because of political changes. Teachers’ unions help to lessen the impacts that do occur, providing a buffer that allows each teacher to continue teaching.
2. It creates the possibility of tenure.
Tenure is a misunderstood concept in the world of public education. It is often viewed as giving a teacher a “job for life,” but that is rarely the case. Tenure is a resource which allows teachers, after a probationary period, to have guaranteed due process rights as part of their employment. It protects teachers from favoritism so they can continue teaching their students. In the US, it takes an average of 3 years for a public-school teacher to earn tenure.
3. It creates unification.
People working together can create change faster and better than people working apart from one another. By working together in a teachers’ union, each teacher can advocate for their own classroom and district while being able to support students at state or national levels simultaneously. It is an effective way to let teachers have a positive influence on the public education that children can receive.
4. Schools with high levels of unionization tend to perform better.
Countries that have 100% unionization levels in their schools, such as Finland and Singapore, produce better results for their students than schools in the United States. In the US, states with high unionization levels, such as Maryland and New York, tend to perform better than states that have low unionization levels, such as Louisiana or Mississippi. The Washington Post reports that out of the 10 non-union states in the US, only Virginia has an average rank above the media for education. 7 of the 10 states are in the bottom 15 for performance.
5. Teachers can have a voice on policy.
Teachers’ unions allow individual teachers to be an advocate for higher education spending. It gives them a voice in policy decisions that would normally exclude their input, but demand their compliance. It is the teacher who is in the classroom every day full-time, not the administrator or the politician. Their front-line experience, when put into policy, can help children learn effectively.
6. Union fees are often tax deductible.
Although there is a cost to joining a union and those fees can add up for substitute or casual teachers, those fees are tax deductible. Unions also provide discounts at certain shops, health providers, and restaurants that can help make up the cost of the fees as well.
What Are the Cons of Teachers Unions?
1. Actions by unions can reduce educational opportunities for children.
One method that is commonly used or discussed by teachers’ unions to negotiate contracts or CBAs is to threaten a strike. Most districts will only threaten a 1-day strike, as Seattle and Chicago have done in the past, which means educational opportunities for children are threatened. Using children as a negotiation tool has its own set of ethical and moral considerations that must be individually addressed.
2. It can lock districts into bad contracts over long periods.
For a collective bargaining agreement to be effective, both sides must send skilled negotiators to be part of the process of contract negotiation. Failing to do so can result in a bad contract for one side or the other that may be in effect for several years. That can mean poor-quality teachers may not be able to be removed or teachers could receive below-market wages in the district for an extended period.
3. The emphasis of the school changes.
Instead of emphasizing educational opportunities, teachers’ unions are part of a process that changes the school into an economic opportunity. Children shouldn’t be caught in the struggle between teachers and administrators who want resources in specific places.
4. Unions may funnel funds to places that teachers do not support.
Some teachers’ unions will support political candidates financially or lobby for a specific cause. They’re able to do so because of the contributions that teachers must make to the union for the representation that is received. If an individual teacher doesn’t support the candidate that the union supports, they typically have no say in where their money is spent. Some states have passed laws which restrict this spending in the US, but it is a common complaint for teachers and many other public-sector employees.
5. It creates a funding cycle that leaves taxpayers out of the equation.
Teachers often receive salary support from property taxes and other public resources that are distributed by the government. The government negotiates a salary with the teachers, who then have unions which advocate for the government officials. It creates a cycle where each group benefits the other, but at the expense of the average taxpayer.
6. It can be costly to remove a bad teacher.
Even when contracts allow for a bad teacher to be removed from the classroom, the process can be costly for the school district. In an interview with The Daily Beast, Terry Moe, a professor of political science at Stanford, said that it takes an average of $200,000 to remove just one poor teacher and up to 2 years of time to do so.
7. There can be a lack of union presence in the work place.
In the average school, a teacher might see a union sign in the break room or tucked away on a bulletin board somewhere, but that’s about it. There’s only so much a union can do for a teacher and disputes can be a lengthy process.
The pros and cons of teachers’ unions will likely continue to be a passionate debate. When statistics are controlled for poverty, the US has one of the best educational systems in the world. Because of that fact, perhaps our first priority should be to reduce poverty in our communities before worrying about the structure of a teacher’s contract or a union’s potential political influence.