American teachers unions are increasingly the target of measures, authored by friends and foes alike, intended to limit their power, or even eviscerate them. Looking at this scene, one would never guess that the countries that are among the top 10 in student performance have some of the strongest teachers unions in the world. Are those unions in some way different from American teachers unions? Do unions elsewhere behave differently from American teachers unions when challenged to do what is necessary to improve student performance? To explore these questions, I compare teachers and their unions in Ontario, Canada and Finland with their U.S. counterparts.
In the United States, the modern labor union grew out of bitter strife between workers and owners in the early years of the 20th century. The Wagner Act, passed in 1935, guaranteed workers the right to organize and strike. Modern labor relations date from the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act, which modified the Wagner Act mainly by defining the rights of employers in the framework it had provided. These laws applied only to workers in the private sector.
The Wagner and Taft-Hartley Acts reflected the mass-production systems that the United States embraced more fully than any other industrial nation. In this arrangement, management figured out how the work was going to get done; workers were regarded as interchangeable; and skilled craftsmanship was minimized. The "skill" was in the machine, not the person operating it. And because the work was largely unskilled, pay was low.
The Wagner and Taft-Hartley Acts gave workers the right to organize to bargain for wages and working conditions. They also obligated the unions to defend their members against management when conflicts arose. The assumption was that the relationship between the union and management would be adversarial; the laws provided the rules under which that adversarial relationship would be conducted. Courts later ruled that the unions and management could not collaborate.
In northern Europe at that time, the mass-production system was not so widely embraced, the era of the craftsman did not abate, and work was less routinized and rule-bound than in the United States.
Alter World War II, management and owners in many Western European countries wanted to deny communism any opportunity to gain ground among workers, and so they gave labor a seat at the table. Thus three "social partners" -- government, labor, and management--would frame social policy together, as equals. In many countries, the law also provided for work councils made up of workers elected by their peers at the firm level to adjust the national agreement to local conditions.
indeed, in countries with labor parties in Europe today, it is not unusual for the labor party, when in power, to put a brake on wage growth in order to forestall inflation, or to resist calls for more benefits when productivity growth does not justify increased benefits.
In many European countries, by law, workers sit on the boards of directors of major firms. When that happens, workers sometimes offer to hold wages steady or even reduce them if management agrees to invest the savings in capital or in research and development. Workers understand that if the firm cannot make the investments required to be more competitive, it may resort to layoffs.
Senior European executives are often puzzled when their American counterparts talk about a desire to greatly weaken or even eliminate trade unions. The Europeans, while often eager to acquire more power vis-a-visa their unions, do not generally talk about eliminating them. They view the unions as an instrument for giving a voice to a key sector of the society. They generally believe that if labor were not provided a voice through the union, it might eventually become a direct threat to democratic capitalism.
The Case of American Teachers
Prior to the 1960s, the National Education Association (NEA) was an alliance of educators, not a teachers union. …