Teachers' union psychology 101

Fordham's latest report, The Leadership Limbo, is a valuable resource. It's inevitable, though, that I approach this issue from a somewhat different angle, considering what I do: focus on and cover the inner workings of the teachers' unions. I believe that to fully understand the collective-bargaining contracts that rule district-level operations, one must first understand those who implement them and the unions that help to create them.

A spate of studies have examined collective bargaining, and they all focus on the realities of running and managing a school district or school in the face of union demands and requirements. What is missing, in The Leadership Limbo and elsewhere, is any examination--hell, any mention--of the realities of running a teachers' union.

The reason teachers' unions love the traditional salary scale, for example, is not some blind devotion to their industrial union roots. It's because that's the only system that keeps member squawking to a minimum and assures the prime internal imperative: That the union be the sole source of teacher advancement, benefit, and protection. If you receive a raise or promotion based on your own performance, why do you need a union? If a math teacher in a low-income school can receive more money than a kindergarten teacher in a wealthy suburban school, the math teacher doesn't need the union (he's making more money based on his performance) and the kindergarten teacher doesn't need the union (he hasn't seen an extra dime). They both need the union only if it is the sole means by which to benefit.

Some may think I'm overstating this attitude; let me further illustrate my point. When statewide k-3 class-size reduction was instituted in California--a reform the union not only supported, but shepherded through the legislature--it actually caused all sorts of problems for union members. The k-3 teachers loved it, naturally. It reduced their workload. But what a competition for the new k-3 jobs that opened up (smaller classes means hiring more teachers)! It has been well-reported that veteran inner-city teachers fled to new k-3 openings in the suburbs, thus leaving inexperienced instructors behind. Less reported was the movement of veteran middle school and intermediate grade teachers into the primary grades. Teachers who previously wouldn't be caught dead teaching kindergarteners suddenly found educating five-year-olds desirable. Then the intermediate-grade teachers started moaning about how they had the same prep time for 34 students as their k-3 counterparts had for 20 students.

Because the California union had differentiated among its members, it had to spend a lot of time pacifying them (with contract provisions for additional prep time and teacher aide help). But of course it was motivated to do so because the main result of class-size reduction was more teachers, and therefore more union members. Without similar motivation, the union will avoid differentiation at all costs.

Aha!, you say--but the unions do differentiate, via college credits and years of experience. Correct. Notice, though, that these are virtually the only distinctions you can make among teachers based on indisputable, objective, numerical values. Teachers do not agree, despite the market's judgment, that math and science teachers are worth more than physical-education instructors. But they can accept the fact that ten is more than seven, when it comes to credits or years of experience. Even though unions lobby for and tout additional pay for nationally certified teachers, it's still a sore point in a lot of places.

Finally, I came to this recommendation in The Leadership Limbo: "Advocates, policymakers, and funders should keep pressing American Federation of Teachers and National Education Association locals to embrace the kind of rethinking and flexibility that the United Auto Workers accepted last year in its negotiations with General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler."

That's hardly a persuasive argument from the union's point of view. I understand the report's point, and most of its readers will, too. But put yourself in the shoes of the NEA president:

"I run the largest labor union in the United States, with virtually unbroken growth ever since we became a union in the mid-1970s. Together with our affiliates, our annual income approaches $1.5 billion. I have state laws that require teachers to join my union or pay the equivalent amount of dues. I have universally acknowledged political power. My locals can often dictate who will be on the other side of the bargaining table. My own members and employees sometimes double as state legislators themselves. The one downside is an awful public-relations image. My organization is seen nationwide--in  both political parties--as obstructionist. In order to repair it, I'm being asked to embrace the policies of the UAW, a failing private-sector union in a perennially declining AFL-CIO-led labor movement. Hmm, what should I do?"

All of this is a long-winded way of explaining why I think you can't study contracts if you don't study unions. And you can't study unions without studying their internal workings. And there we're hamstrung (myself included), because unions don't want to be studied.

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