Union Monopoly Is Bad for Teachers. (Education)
Lieberman, Myron, USA TODAY
FROM AN ECONOMIC point of view, teacher unions are producers of representation services and teachers are consumers of such services. Since the emergence of teacher unionization in the 1960s, the National Education Association (NEA) and American Federation of Teachers (AFT) have monopolized the market for representation services. In the 34 states that require school boards to bargain collectively with teacher unions, the NEA and AFT currently share almost 100% of the market. The two unions operate under a no-compete agreement, thus dominating the right to represent teachers at the local level.
As is the case with monopolies generally, the NEA/AFT's has resulted in excessive costs and inferior services affecting millions of teachers and support personnel. In 2001, active teacher membership in the two unions was about 2,700,000 out of a potential 3,700,-000. Both the NEA and AFT organize non-teachers--such as custodians, school bus drivers, and cafeteria employees--hence my recommendations concerning "teachers" are equally applicable to all school district employees who have the right to bargain collectively. In 2001-02, combined NEA/AFT revenues (local, state, and national) probably exceeded $1,500,000,000, not including their political action committees (PACs), foundations, and special-purpose organizations.
Significantly, in the states that have not authorized teacher collective bargaining, there is real competition to represent teachers. For example, in three non-bargaining law states (Georgia, Missouri, and Texas), independent teacher organizations enroll more members than NEA or AFT affiliates. This demonstrates clearly that the state teacher bargaining laws have resulted in the NEA/AFT monopoly.
What must be done to introduce competition in states that require school boards to bargain collectively with teacher unions? One change that is essential is to allow for-profit and nonprofit entities of all types to compete with unions for the right to represent teachers in collective bargaining. Most people assume that teachers are free to choose a different union, or none if that is their preference. As a practical matter, however, real choice rarely exists. Defending the status quo are the NEA and AFT, with their huge revenues, over 6,000 full-time staff, the capacity to reach all teachers repeatedly in school or at home, and strong incentives to spend whatever it takes to win elections, growing out of the fact that losses jeopardize the jobs and welfare of union officers and staff. NEA/AFT locals also can call upon their state and/or national affiliates for assistance that the challengers cannot afford to match. In contrast, teachers who wish to change their representative must finance the campaign for an alternative to NEA/AFT representation from their personal resources.
In addition to allowing nonmembership organizations to represent teachers, the state legislatures should lower the required showing of interest to trigger a representation election from 30 to 10% of those who would be covered by a collective agreement. The usual 30% threshold has a stifling effect on dissatisfied teachers who want a different bargaining agent. The financial barriers to implementing changes in representation are exacerbated by the fact that existing contracts often provide incumbent unions with critical advantages in elections. For instance, in Florida, the contract between the Leon County (Tallahassee) School Board and the Leon County Teachers Association, an NEA affiliate, includes the following provision: "The rights granted herein to the LCTA shall not be granted or extended to any other organization claiming to, or attempting to represent the members of the bargaining unit except as provided by law." That exclusivity clause, which is very common in Florida's 69 county school districts, means that no organization trying to replace the LCTA as the bargaining agent has the right to meet in school facilities, place materials in teachers' mailboxes, utilize the district mail system, post its notices on school bulletin boards, utilize payroll deduction of dues, or take time off with pay to conduct organization business.
Many school boards do not understand or do not care about the implications of these exclusivity clauses that serve only one purpose--to undermine any effort to dislodge the incumbent union. Unfortunately for those represented, many school boards are willing to weaken teacher rights in exchange for concessions from the incumbent union. To foster a level playing field for entities seeking to represent teachers, school boards should not agree to such clauses in union/school board contracts. Individuals, partnerships, and for-profit and nonprofit organizations other than unions should be eligible to represent teachers. These entities could provide sources of funding that would enable dissatisfied teachers to compete effectively against NEA/AFT affiliates for the right to represent them.
Another reform would be to allow all members of the bargaining unit, not just union members, the right to vote by secret ballot on such critical issues as initial authorization of an exclusive bargaining representative; reauthorization of an exclusive representative at two- or three-year intervals; an employer's final contract offer; contract ratification; strike authorization, if strikes are permitted; and dues and fees for representational services.
In other words, the state bargaining laws must separate membership in a union from the right to vote on the key decisions affecting employment. The reasons can be summarized as follows:
* All teachers deserve the right to vote on key employment decisions, including the type of representation they prefer.
* Unions are not, never have been, and are not going to be participatory democracies in the future.
* Substantial amounts of union revenues are spent on noneducational matters, but, except for issues that directly affect their employment, most union members are not interested in union activities, despite the common view among academics that they ought to be.
* If all teachers in a school district have the right to vote on critical employment issues, the identity of their representative becomes much less important.
* Instead of the present system, in which it is practically impossible to oust an incumbent union, teachers will be better served by one where it is much easier to remove an exclusive representative and for teachers to choose a different one. Exclusive representatives, if they can be easily removed, can be expected to be very responsible to teachers.
* Incumbent teacher unions would be one of the options open to teachers, and these unions would continue to serve as exclusive representatives as long as teachers preferred this option.
* Unions currently lack sufficient incentive to operate economically. They cannot invest any surplus in profit-generating activities, hence their tendency to spend it on excessive salaries, fringe benefits, first-class airfares, liberal car allowances, and upscale hotel accommodations for union staff.
Many NEA/AFT members would prefer a different kind of union or none to the union they have. One reason for this conclusion relates to the payment of "agency fees" by nonmembers. These are the fees that nonmembers of the teacher unions must pay to the unions for their services in collective bargaining, grievance processing, and contract administration. Such fees are allowed or required in 21 states, including California, New York, Pennsylvania, and other bargaining law states with larger teacher populations. Agency fees are supposed to remedy the "free rider" problem arising out of the fact that some teachers represented by unions refuse to pay dues. These "free riders" allegedly receive the benefits of union representation without sharing the cost of achieving them. Actually, the claim that all teachers benefit from union representation, or that all benefit equally from it, is indefensible. For example, when the union negotiates a clause mandating that promotions be based upon seniority, teachers who would have been promoted except for the clause can hardly be said to benefit from union representation.
Except in the states in which agency fees are mandated by statute, the fees are imposed, if imposed at all, by the contracts between school boards and teacher unions. As a result of Supreme Court decisions, agency fees are limited to the teachers' pro rata share of the costs of collective bargaining. Over time, however, the NEA and AFT have increased the agency fees by grossly inflating the amounts allegedly spent on collective bargaining. Consequently, the percentage of union expenditures that nonmembers are required to pay varies between and among local, state, and national levels of the NEA/AFT, but usually amounts to about 80% of combined local, state, and national union dues.
The unions' success in negotiating agency fees that are close to the dues required of union members has induced many payers to avoid the hassle associated with nonmembership by joining the union. Estimates vary, but 10-20% of all regular NEA/AFT members were probably agency fee payers who finally concluded that the small difference between union dues and agency fees was not worth the trouble associated with nonmembership. The percentage is much higher, of course, in the states, such as California and New York, in which nonmembers are required by statute to pay agency fees.
Since many teachers are NEA/AFT members only because they have to pay fees that are almost as much as union dues, school boards and legislatures should resist payment of agency fees in their collective agreements. Legislation that mandates or allows agency fee payments deprives teachers of their most-effective way of influencing union policies.
The effectiveness of my recommendations depends partly upon the ability of nonunion providers to offer better service at much less than the cost of union representation. At least one such example has emerged in the Ft. Worth, Tex., area, where the United Educators Association (UEA), a for-profit company, represents 11,000 teachers. Returning teacher members pay $174 in dues and first-year members $119. Meanwhile, the NEA and state dues in the Texas State Teachers Association, the state NEA affiliate in Texas, are more than twice that amount. The UEA rebates $10 per member to its local affiliates, who can spend it in any way they wish. Larry Shaw, the founder and executive director of UEA, owns all the UEA stock.
As matters stand, there is no competition between the NEA and AFT or is there likely to be any as long as their leadership works closely together to merge the two unions. Furthermore, in states and school districts where NEA and AFT affiliates have merged, those organizations are affiliated with the AFL-CIO, which prohibits its affiliates from trying to organize employees already represented by an AFL-CIO affiliate.
School management will split on proposals to introduce competition in teacher representation. Many school boards and administrators will prefer the devil they know to the one they don't. Others will fear that organizational rivalry will disrupt the school system, especially if the organizations compete on the basis of which one can squeeze the most out of the school board. The selection of a representative may split school faculties and lead to conflict that adversely affects the work the teachers are paid to do. When this happens, however, it is likely to be short-term, because competition should weed out the less-efficient teacher representatives.
For various reasons, competition to represent teachers may emerge first from labor law attorneys and legal firms, for-profit entrepreneurs, and collective bargaining organizations. A large number of lawyers already work full time or on retainer for NEA/AFT affiliates, and it would be surprising if some did not prefer to represent teachers under the arrangements outlined in my proposal. School boards frequently employ chief negotiators who represent several such boards, and there is no reason why teachers cannot employ negotiators who represent teachers in several school districts. Multiple clients would make it possible to take advantage of economies of scale. For instance, the costs of legal research that affects teachers in several school districts could be shared, hence would cost much less per teacher than if the research were paid for by those in a single district.
A massive ouster of NEA/AFT affiliates as exclusive representatives might not happen immediately, because only about one-third of the teacher union contracts expire in any given year, and it will take some time for potential competitors to prepare to challenge NEA/ AFT affiliates in representation elections. Nonetheless, even a relatively small number of immediate defections might lead to significant changes in the NEA/AFT. To forestall massive defections, the NEA and AFT might have to lower their dues, move away from their close ties to the Democratic Party, moderate their hard-core-left agenda, and reduce their contributions to organizations that promote it. These possibilities are admittedly speculative, but it is difficult to see how competition to represent teachers could fail to have some of those effects.
Significantly, one of the reasons for worker reluctance to join unions in the private sector is the fear of being subject to union discipline. This issue also constitutes a quandary for the NEA and AFT. On the one hand, these unions are concerned about the widespread view that they are the major obstacles to terminating incompetent teachers. On the other, if they reduce the obstacles to firing teachers, union membership will be less attractive to those who are afraid that the unions will be less resolute in challenges to dismissals. There is often a drop in union membership among teachers who have just achieved tenure.
Prospects for enactment
For constitutional reasons, Federal labor law does not apply to state and local public employment. As a result, the bargaining laws covering public school teachers are state statutes that frequently incorporate the language in the National Labor Relations Act. Interestingly, the NLRA authorizes individuals to be designated as exclusive representatives. Section 2(4) of the act states that "The term `representative' includes any individual or labor organization."
Of course, the NEA/AFT may be as successful in persuading teachers that real choice of representative is bad for them. (After all, the unions have persuaded many parents that parental choice of schools is undesirable.) Nevertheless, my proposal provides the independent teacher organizations a platform on which they could become a much-more-serious threat to the NEA/AFT in the bargaining law states. Opening teacher representation to competition would enable independent teacher organizations to maintain their emphasis on professionalism while turning the representation issue to their advantage. The independent organizations could argue creditably that not only will teachers receive better bargaining services at a lower cost, but their organization will be free to focus on professional development and better service. The independent organizations would require higher membership dues to be viable, but those plus any fees for representation services would still be much less than teacher union dues.
One additional point on teacher support for the proposal merits notice. For more than half a century, union ideologues have visualized unions as participatory democracies that generate worker support for a host of noble causes with only tenuous connections, if any, to workplace issues. Although teachers would remain free to support unions that embrace these ideals, most of them, like most union members generally, do not regard unions as instruments of social change. The more remote a union activity is from direct relevance to the material interests of union members, the less member interest and participation there is in union affairs. This is not a criticism of union members or an assertion of their lack of interest in broad policy issues. Most union members simply do not regard their union as the organization or institution best able to deal with their non-job-related concerns. A reform that adopts or is based upon a more-realistic view of the union role might achieve a surprising level of support from teachers who are reluctant to publicize their policy positions in union forums.
Teachers would benefit significantly from competition to represent them in collective bargaining, achieving lower dues, better service, increased choice, and more input into the key decisions affecting their employment. Allowing nonmembership organizations, solo entrepreneurs, negotiators, lawyers, and collective bargaining companies to compete with the NEA/AFT for the right to represent teachers would create powerful incentives to represent them effectively. Introducing competition is the best way to ensure that unions work for the benefit of teachers.
Myron Lieberman, chairman of the Education Policy Institute, Washington, D.C., and a senior research scholar with the Social Philosophy and Policy Center, Bowling Green (Ohio) State University, is the author of Liberating Teachers: Toward Market Competition in Teacher Representation.…
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Publication information: Article title: Union Monopoly Is Bad for Teachers. (Education). Contributors: Lieberman, Myron - Author. Magazine title: USA TODAY. Volume: 131. Issue: 2694 Publication date: March 2003. Page number: 32+. © 2009 Society for the Advancement of Education. COPYRIGHT 2003 Gale Group.