Education & Unions

Post-secondary educational organizations

While there are many excellent schools, there are also serious problems plaguing American and other education systems. People are, of course, eager to point fingers and these fingers are often pointed at teachers’ unions. Being a professor at a state school, it should hardly be a surprise that I am a member of the UFF, NEA and AFT. Because of this, my writing on this subject should be read with a critical eye so as to catch any bias in my claims or any trickery in my argumentation.

One stock argument against unions is based on the claim that the teachers’ unions are aimed at the good of the union members and this good is not always consistent with what is good for the students. There are, of course, harsher versions which involve claims that unions serve primarily to protect incompetent teachers and to do other wicked and damaging things.

This line of argument can have merit. After all, unions do (in theory) aim at benefiting their membership and the members of the teachers’ unions are teachers rather than students. There are also legitimate concerns that unions have enabled incompetent teachers to retain their jobs and that the lobbying power of teachers’ unions has been used in ways that might not lead to the best use of public money. That is, it could be argued that teachers’ unions function like pretty much all such organizations ranging from labor unions to corporations to political parties. This does not justify or excuse such behavior, but it does indicate that teachers’ unions are hardly unique in their sins. It also suggests that if organizations that serve the interest of their members but can be a detriment to the public good should be gotten rid of, then we should not just be rid of teachers’ unions but also corporations and political parties as well.

Of course, it would be absurd to rid society of all organisations that might act contrary to the public good-after all, this would undo much of society itself. Rather it would seem more sensible to address the alleged harms done by an organization so as to determine whether the organization should be changed (or perhaps destroyed). After all, to be rid of teachers’ unions because it is alleged that they have some role in the woes of education would seem to be on par with being rid of financial corporations because they happened to wreck the world economy (any only the most radical are suggesting that).

Turning back to teachers’ unions, there would seem to be two main avenues of legitimate criticism. One would be that  teachers’ unions are somehow intrinsically damaging to the education system. That is, it is simply the nature of these unions that they will, of necessity, cause trouble. Interestingly enough, some critics of capitalism make similar claims about corporations and other business: they must, by their very nature, be exploitative and harmful.

The idea that organizations such as unions and corporations are inherently harmful is certainly an interesting idea and one that would be well worth investigating in more detail. However, it seems unlikely that teachers organizing into unions must, of necessity, create harm to the education system. To support this, I offer two arguments.

First, there is the example of Finland. It has a unionized education system that is, in fact, excellent. As such, if unions were of necessity a bane to education, then Finland should be doing badly rather than well. Of course, it could be argued that Finland is an unusual exception. This takes me to my second argument.

Second, if  unions are a significant cause of educational woes (as some critics claim) in the United States and elsewhere, then one would expect to see correlation between the presence of unions and such woes. To use the obvious analogy, if a toxin causes disease, one would expect to see more cases of the disease in areas where to toxin concentration is higher. Interestingly enough, educational quality in the United States does not seem to correlate with the presence or absence of unions, but rather with other factors. In the case of K-12 public education, the quality and problems seem to match quite closely the poverty or wealth of the school and the community.  That is, “poor” schools tend to have far more problems than “rich” schools. As such, it would seem that it is not primarily a matter of unions (after all, rich and poor schools alike are unionized) but rather other factors.

It might be replied that unions are still a problem but that the money enables the schools to counter the damage done by unions (just as a wealthy community might be able to counter a toxin by having more money to spend on treatment and prevention). This is a point worth considering, but what would be needed would be evidence that the unions are doing the damage rather than the other factors that seem to correlate with educational woes.

In regards to the claim that unions are inherently harmful because the serve the interests of teachers, one rather obvious reply is that students have no union and the organizations that are most likely to act in ways that are in the interest of students are teachers’ unions. After all, these unions generally aim at things like better schools, better funding for educational programs and so on. That is, the interests of teachers overlap the interests of students and teachers’ unions tend to provide students with the only organized voice in the realm of politics. As such, teachers’ unions do not seem to be intrinsically bad. There is also the obvious concern of how eliminating these unions would actually improve education-that is, what group would step in to see to it that the interests of the students and teachers were being taken into account.

Another avenue of criticism is to raise specific problems that particular actions by unions or union members cause. For example, if a union acts to prevent incompetent teachers from being fired at a specific school, then this act could be legitimately criticized and such problems should be addressed.

In general, it would be rather odd if unions did not cause some problems. If they did not, they would be truly unique. However, it seems more sensible to address these problems rather than simply condemning unions. Given the fervor with which these unions are being attacked, it might be suspected that some folks stand to make a profit by getting rid of these unions. But perhaps that is merely cynicism on my part. After all, I am sure that the people funding the attacks on unions and the politicians who will attack them are merely driven by a love of the public good and are doing it for the children.

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  1. “In regards to the claim that unions are inherently harmful because the serve the interests of teachers, one rather obvious reply is that students have no union and the organizations that are most likely to act in ways that are in the interest of students are teachers’ unions.”

    There are a couple of rather obvious objections to this statement. There are, in the higher education area, organisations of both parents and students: both might be more likely to act in the interests of students than teachers. (In Australia, in higher education, the student organisations are “Student unions”; I don’t know about other places.)

    Second, a common claim made (again, I refer to Australia) by teachers unions is that their actions (e.g. strikes which disrupt the lives of both students and parents) is that they are acting in the best interests of children’s education; even when those who are most obviously going to benefit are the teachers themselves (e.g. better pay and conditions). It is difficult not to be cynical when listening to such claims.

  2. s. wallerstein (amos)

    The years have not treated unions gentlely.

    When I was a child, clothing bore the label “union-made”, which was a guarantee of quality and durability.

    Our clothing is no longer union-made and one can note the difference in durability between Levis jeans, vintage 1964 and the same article, vintage 2012.

    Unions defend the rights and incomes of teachers and that is their main raison d’etre.

    If there were no unions, teachers would be even more poorly paid than they are now.

    In no society that I know of (Finland may be an exception) are teachers paid the same incomes as others with the same educactional preparation.

    That seems to indicate the value that our societies place on education and as long as our societies continue to value education as lowly as they do, unions are necessary to defend the rights and incomes of the teaching profession.

  3. Unions are a legal invention and are infected with the falseness and asininities of the law. Labour law is not my expertise. However, labour law does effect everyone in some way.

    Unions were a good thing for labour in 19th century. They gave protection for people from the “rum and lash” attitudes spread by British Naval law throughout the world. Unions protect jobs, wages, pensions, sick and maternity leave, and safety standards. Two newer issues have arisen about unions that have nothing to do with protecting the worker.

    First, they have been accused of going too far in their demands. Unions amass huge strike funds that threaten to cripple any economy. In most places in the Occident, corporations are forced to close their doors after a strike. We see industry and technology moving to the Orient where information on labour conditions is difficult to get. Slave labour is increasing throughout the world. Union lawyers seem oblivious to this. Still, life goes on.

    Second, the moment unions cross that threshold from protecting labour and move into product quality control, the results are poor. Product quality is more than a function of pride or experience. In the modern world it also requires knowledge, education, ability and emotional stability. In terms of innovation, quality control might even require a little financial risk. Again, unions demand too much and want to risk nothing. They want it all as if they know everything, and they do not. Laws do not make quality products. Union law only processes dispute.

    Mike LaBossiere addresses some of these issues in several articles. Advanced education should be for the love of knowledge first and not for trade. This makes private education more appealing than state funded education. It seems as if the FSU union has high-jacked the term University and is changing the meaning to “trade education”. Is the problem that Unions are dictating the quality and content of what is being taught? Are unionized professors in danger of becoming Union labour law instructors?

  4. Every time Michelle Rhee and her anti-teacher organization are mentioned, the media should inquire into the corporate funding behind the effort.

    Follow the money.

  5. “That seems to indicate the value that our societies place on education and as long as our societies continue to value education as lowly as they do, unions are necessary to defend the rights and incomes of the teaching profession.”

    Assessments of how much teachers are paid, in comparison to similarly qualified people, will, I suspect, vary strongly among countries. They are also confounded by the fact that, in some countries at least, teachers often have more generous leave and pension schemes than people in other professions.

    Your last phrase, however, emphasises that teachers unions are primarily concerned with benefits for teachers, rather than students.

  6. s. wallerstein (amos)


    Whether teachers are well paid elsewhere, Mike is speaking about the U.S.

    I never claim that unions help improve educational quality, only that they ensure decent salaries for teachers.

    However, if teachers were paid less in the U.S., we can assume that fewer qualified people would become teachers and thus, educational quality would decline even more. Thus, unions while obtaining higher pay for teachers, indirectly help educational quality, since union teaching, given higher wages than non-union teaching, attracts more skillful teachers.

    If teachers wages were higher in the U.S., there might not be any rationale for unions.

    Here is an article on teachers’ wages in the U.S., which by the way, is critical of the unions, but does insist on the need for higher wages for the teaching profession.

  7. “Thus, unions while obtaining higher pay for teachers, indirectly help educational quality, since union teaching, given higher wages than non-union teaching, attracts more skillful teachers.”

    Thanks for the reference, Amos. I note that the author also says: “Look, I’m not a fan of teachers’ unions. They used their clout to gain job security more than pay, thus making the field safe for low achievers. Teaching work rules are often inflexible, benefits are generous relative to salaries, and it is difficult or impossible to dismiss teachers who are ineffective.”

    And note the comment about “benefits generous relative to salaries”. I don’t think that you can validly compare teaching salaries unless you take into account the benefits (leave, pensions).

    A problem not mentioned in that quote is that teaching unions generally oppose merit based pay, preferring promotion based on experience (i.e. how long you’ve been teaching).

    So salary is only one part of a complex set of conditions which affect teaching (which includes, by the way, government and institutional policy).

  8. s. wallerstein (amos)


    There are lots of problems with teachers unions (here in Chile too), but unless teachers’ salaries are raised, I fear that the end of teachers’ unions means even fewer qualified teachers in public education (due to lower salaries and fewer benefits) and thus, even more deteriorating public education, causing a flight of the middle class to private education.

    I assume, as does Kristoff, that higher paying (I include benefits as part of the “pay”) jobs generally attract more qualified people, although a few qualified people may go into lower paying jobs for non-monetary reasons: a sense of calling, family traditions, interest in the professional area, rejection of materialism, etc.

    I also suspect that some of those (I do not mean to include you) who attack teachers unions want to reduce public education to a even more deplorable state than it is in now (in Chile and possibly in the U.S.), thus paving the way for privatizing education.

  9. Teachers and the teacher unions are being used as scapegoats, often by politicians eager to claim “I made education better”. The problem is that when a politician makes a change to the system, the effects are not observable for at least a decade. This makes for a very convenient quick attack and subsequent political gain without any blame for problems down the road.

    Teachers often do not get into the profession to make money, though the security factor does mitigate the low pay somewhat. Merit pay is too subjective to not devolve into abuse by those rating the teacher. Capricious firings will result, and the board of ed members child will see extreme grade inflation as well. That was often the case before teacher unions came on the scene.

    Unions are not perfect, just necessary to balance out the power of the district office. Neither one should be more powerful than the other, similar to the balance of power in the American government.

  10. “and thus, even more deteriorating public education, causing a flight of the middle class to private education.”

    I realise that Mike is referring to the US but some of the issues he discusses are not unique to this country and I regularly read a blog which reports on US education issues and policies.

    In Australia, there is now a long term migration from public to private education (my children have been in both private and public education). Two of the main reasons for this are generally regarded as being: private schools are more responsive to parent wishes; and private schools have higher standards. Both of these things are largely to do with institutional policies, rather than teacher salaries.

    Some years ago, the Australian federal government decided to regularly run national tests to determine how students performed on basic educational benchmarks (reading, writing, mathematics and a couple of others). The teachers unions vehemently opposed the introduction of these tests and, years later, continue to attempt to obstruct both the administration of these tests and the dissemination of their results. The union also vehemently opposes any attempts to measure the quality of teaching or teachers and to linking salaries or rewards to the teaching performance. (Private schools have not, to my knowledge, been opposed to the national tests.)

    Again in Australia — but I see similar things in the US — teachers unions frequently engage in political activities which have little to do with education but much to do with trendy left wing causes: often taking stances which some members, and many parents, will oppose. The unions also routinely engage in campaigns of misinformation to advance their cause.

    For the record, I have been teaching in higher education in Australia for 30 years, have children who have attended private and public schools, have been a member of school councils and parent educational organisations, and am regularly involved in activities with primary and high schools. I will also state that my own experiences with teachers in both the private and public sectors have been, almost without exception, very positive and nothing I have written above should be interpreted as a criticism of individual teachers or schools. I also acknowledge that teachers unions have a role to play in ensuring that teachers are treated fairly.

  11. s. wallerstein (amos)


    The same socio-economic processes seem to be occurring in many societies.

    The Chilean teachers’ union refuses to have their classroom performance evaluated, as does their Australian counterpart.

    That’s unfortunate.

    In Chile, as in Australia as you describe it, there is a trend towards privatizing education.

    I am opposed to it and I will explain why.

    My first argument is idiosyncratic, but it may convince some.

    I think that it is good for a society and good for those who live in it that everyone goes through the same educational process.

    Public education in my youth was often stupid and intellectually pointless, but it did me good to go to school with the sons and daughters of people from all social classes. It made me more resourceful, tougher, less snobbish and less “delicate”.

    That used to be called “building character”.

    Public school is one of those few places where people from all social classes can get to know one another, compete with one another, fall in love with one another, measure themselves against one another and form a community.

    To be frank, public school is often full of shit and it is good, in my opinion, that people of all social classes spend some time in the same shit. That is moralism, my moralism.

    In fact, since life is unpredictable, yesterday’s winners can become tomorrow’s losers and vice-versa: it is good for kids to see both sides of life from an early age, and public school is a good place for kids to see both sides of life.

    The people whom I have known who are unable to face an often harsh world tend to come from protected or sheltered childhoods, from “special” or “alternative” schools, not from public schools.

    Second point: privatizing education in Chile has been done through the use of subsidized schools: that is, schools that are privately owned, for-profit or non-profit (run by Churches, etc.) and that are subsidized on a per pupil basis by the state. There are also private schools which are entirely paid for by parents.

    As you can imagine, private schools which are paid for by parents have better academic quality.
    Parents with enough money to pay for their children’s schooling almost always are more educated than those who do not have enough money to pay for education and thus, their children, having been exposed to learning in their homes, do better in school.

    Subsidized schools, given the amount of the subsidy, cannot compete in educational quality with private schools.

    However, since high-income taxpayers are already paying for their children’s educations out of their own pocket, they are opposed to higher taxes to increase school subsidies and thus, subsidies stay low.

    Result: segregation according to social class.

    Children from poor families go to subsidized schools which are of poorer quality, do less well on standardized tests and do not manage to get into the university, thus maintaining them in low-paying jobs.

    The best pay to deal with the situation, in my opinion, is to foment public education: insofar as the whole community, rich, middle-class and poor, send their children to public schools, they are preocupied about public school quality and are willing to pay taxes to support public schools.

    Good public schools aument social mobility (as poor kids get a good education if they are willing to study).

  12. s. wallerstein (amos)

    error: the “best pay to deal with” should read
    “the best way to deal with”

  13. “To be frank, public school is often full of shit and it is good, in my opinion, that people of all social classes spend some time in the same shit. That is moralism, my moralism.”

    A most unusual defence of poor quality public schooling: everyone should have to “spend some time in the same shit”!

    This, of course, is one reason why parents are moving their children to private schools: they actually want their kids to get a good education and not waste their time doing things that are “often stupid and intellectually pointless”. (Note that I am not making this accusation of any particular teachers or schools and my criticisms are for teachers unions which obstruct positive changes and defend poor teachers and teaching.)

  14. Keith,

    Did your read my post earlier? Can you argue against the necessity of teacher unions (or any union. . .) Arguments are often described as “sides”, just like a coin. In this instance the two sides of the coin (teacher unions and school administrations) need to work together to pay the bills (improve education).

  15. From a UK perspective, where we are not quite so rabidly anti-union, this article describes a country and a society that is difficult to accept as being real. Is everything really secondary to money and business? Does the well-being of citizens mean nothing? Scary.

  16. “In this instance the two sides of the coin (teacher unions and school administrations) need to work together to pay the bills (improve education).”

    Yes, I read all comments in this discussion but, in my opinion, there are not just two sides: there are more. Two sides you neglect to mention are the students and the parents.

    The primary reason teacher unions exist is to lobby for benefits for teachers: this will sometimes, but certainly not always, also benefit students. (I am a teacher and have belonged to teacher unions and taking industrial action on behalf of teachers; and, of course, myself.)

    Teachers unions in Australia, the US, the UK and Chile (added courtesy of comments from Amos) routinely oppose attempts to measure teaching quality and to fire poor teachers. People committed to improving education would not do this. (For the record, the quality of my teaching is assessed every semester through anonymous student surveys.)

    In Australia, the peak teaching union charges membership fees much greater than the services it provides to its members and spends much of these funds lobbying on issues that have nothing to do with teaching quality. I read blogs which cover teaching in the UK and US and the situation there appears not disimilar to that in Australia.

  17. Keith,

    Good points. As you note, the union does exist primarily to serve the needs of those who pay the dues. While teachers’ unions will tend to act in ways that are pro-education, they can be seen as impeding education. On the one hand, there is the legitimate concern that unions can block attempts to assess teachers as well as attempts to fire poor teachers. On the other hand, the unions seem to often be defending teachers from attempts to impose standards that are linked to certain interests and ideologies that are hostile to education. Also, unions are supposed to make it harder to fire teachers. This means, of course, that it is also harder to fire bad teachers-but perhaps the protection afforded to teachers in general is worth it. In the case of higher education, some folks attack tenure because it allegedly allows “bad professors” to remain on the job. However, it has as its main purpose protecting competent faculty from being fired without due cause (which seems worth the price of having a few bad apples).

  18. Steve,

    There are plenty of people who are pro-union, but the current political climate contains much that is rather anti-union, anti-government and anti-education. There has been some blow back on this ideology. For example, there have been recall elections in response to some of the “Tea Party” politicians.

  19. “Interestingly enough, educational quality in the United States does not seem to correlate with the presence or absence of unions, but rather with other factors. In the case of K-12 public education,”

    I’m going to challenge this. From everything I’ve seen, after accounting for things that we know affect quality of education, such as the wealth of the community, there is a slight positive correlation between the presence of a teacher’s union and the quality of the education students receive.

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