A standard argument against teachers’ unions is built on the claim that they spend millions of dollars lobbying politicians to protect and advance their interests. This is bad, or so the reasoning goes, because the interests of the teachers’ unions are often (or even always) contrary to what is best for the students.
When pressed for examples of such interests, opponents of the unions allege that “collective bargaining agreements are written like celebrity contracts” and they point to egregious examples such as how Buffalo pays the bills when teachers have elective plastic surgery.
One approach to addressing this criticism is to accept that unions do sometimes negotiate contracts containing problematic provisions while contending that this is not a defect inherent to unions. That is, the problems lie with the problematic provisions rather than with the existence of teachers’ unions. To use the obvious analogy, corporations spend millions lobbying politicians to protect and advance their interests. This lobbying often results in legislation that is contrary to the interests of many other citizens; but this does not justify eliminating or weakening corporations. It also does not automatically justify eliminating lobbying. The problem, after all, is not inherent to corporations or lobbying, but is the result of harmful legislation. Likewise, when unions lobby for and get laws or agreements that prove harmful to others, the problem lies within the laws or agreements and not with unions or lobbying.
It could, of course, be argued that collective entities like unions and corporations are inherently damaging to the rest of society and that they should be eliminated or weakened. However, the burden of proof would seem to rest on those who hold this position. Also, this solution to the problem of teachers’ unions would need to be applied consistently, thus eliminating all collective entities that interact with the public. This would include all corporations and nonprofit organizations.
It could also be contended that the problem lies with lobbying—if lobbying was eliminated or severely restricted, then it would be a better world. Given that big-money lobbying often has a corrupting and corrosive effect, this does have considerable appeal. However, this is not a problem unique to teachers’ unions. As such, if the solution to the some of the woes attributed to teachers’ unions can be solved by eliminating or restricting their ability to lobby, then consistency would require extending the same policies to other collective bodies, such as corporations.
Another approach to the matter is to consider whether teachers’ unions are as harmful as their opponents claim. To provide a clear focus, I will consider the claim that teachers’ unions inflict collective bargaining agreements that are like “celebrity contracts.”
One popular example of such a “celebrity contract” provision is the above-mentioned coverage of plastic surgery provided to teachers by Buffalo. While the anti-union narrative is that the union negotiated so teachers could get breast implants and nose jobs, the real story is rather different. When the benefit was first offered, plastic surgery was used primarily for reconstruction after a disfiguring injury (such as that inflicted by being thrown through a car’s windshield). However, plastic surgery has changed since then—it is now an elective surgery for “improving” appearance. As such, it was not a case of the union negotiating a celebrity contract, but a case of a change in plastic surgery that has been exploited. Sorting out this matter did prove problematic, not because of unions but because of issues with the way contracts are handled. There is also the fact that one anecdote about plastic surgery benefits does not show that teachers’ unions in general are bad.
While plastic surgery might be part of a “celebrity contract”, a clear hallmark of such an agreement is the payment of large (even exorbitant) sums of money. As such, if unions are benefiting teachers at the expense of students, then large (even exorbitant) teacher salaries should be expected as well as sweet bonuses and perks. However, the typical salaries for teachers ranges from $43,491-48,880. While this is not a bad income relative to the national average, it compares unfavorably to the salaries of college educated workers in other professions. There are various myths about teacher pay that people use to argue that teachers are well (or even excessively) paid. However, these are just that, namely myths. As such, the idea that teachers’ unions are acting to the detriment of students by negotiating “celebrity contracts” for teachers is absurd in the face of the facts. That this is the case should be obvious to anyone who knows teachers—they do not live celebrity lifestyles and typically spend those “summer vacations” working a second job. My parents taught at public schools and I can assure readers that we did not live a celebrity lifestyle and they had to work second jobs over the summers to pay the bills. Speaking with people who are teachers today makes it clear that things have not changed since those days.
It could be argued that although teachers are not living the high life at the expense of students, unions still spend millions lobbying politicians and this money would be better spent on the students. On the face of it, this is a reasonable point: it would be better if that money could be spent on educating the children rather than fattening politicians. I am sure that other organizations, such as businesses, would prefer to use their lobbying money for more beneficial purposes, such as raises for employees. However, if they did not lobby, then they would be worse off. That is why they lobby. The same holds true for the teachers’ unions: if they did not lobby on behalf of teachers, then things would be worse off for the teachers and the students. While it would be wonderful if politicians would do the right thing for education (and business) because it is right and beneficial, that is not how politics works in the current system. As such, the fact that the teachers’ unions spend so much money lobbying is a problem with the politicians and not a problem with unions.
Considering the above discussion, while it is obvious and evident that while unions can do wrong, they are rather important for protecting teachers and education. As such, the efforts to eliminate or weaken unions are, at best, misguided.