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. …