Unions and the Public Interest: Is Collective Bargaining for Teachers Good for Students?

By Kahlenberg, Richard D.; Greene, Jay P. | Education Next, Winter 2012 | Go to article overview

Unions and the Public Interest: Is Collective Bargaining for Teachers Good for Students?


Kahlenberg, Richard D., Greene, Jay P., Education Next


Three years after Barack Obama's election signaled a seeming resurgence for America's unions, the landscape looks very different. Republican governors in Wisconsin, Indiana, and Ohio have limited the reach of collective bargaining for public employees. The moves, especially in Wisconsin, set off a national furor that has all but obscured the underlying debate as it relates to schooling: Should public-employee collective bargaining be reined in or expanded in education? Is the public interest served by public-sector collective bargaining? If so, how and in what ways? Arguing in this forum for more expansive collective bargaining for teachers is Richard D. Kohlenberg, senior fellow at The Century Foundation and author of Tough Liberal: Albert Shanker and the Battles over Schools, Unions, Race and Democracy. Responding that public-employee collective bargaining is destructive to schooling and needs to be reined in is Jay P. Greene, chair of the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas and author of Education Myths.

Richard D. Kahlenberq: Wisconsin governor Scott Walker's campaign earlier this year to significantly curtail the scope of bargaining for the state's public employees, including teachers, set off a national debate over whether their long-established right to collectively bargain should be reined in, or even eliminated.

If you're a Republican who wants to win elections, going after teachers unions makes parochial sense. According to Terry Moe, the National Education Association (NEA) and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) gave 95 percent of contributions to Democrats in federal elections between 1989 and 2010. "Collective bargaining is the bedrock of union well-being," Moe notes, so to constrain collective bargaining is to weaken union power. The partisan nature of Walker's campaign was revealed when he exempted two public-employee unions that supported him politically: those representing police and firefighters.

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But polls suggest that Americans don't want to see teachers and other public employees stripped of collective bargaining rights. A USA Today/Gallup poll found that by a margin of 61 to 33 percent, Americans oppose ending collective bargaining for public employees. A Wall Street Journal/NBC poll discovered that while Americans want public employees to pay more for retirement benefits and health care, 77 percent said unionized state and municipal employees should have the same rights as union members who work in the private sector. Is the public wrong in supporting the rights of teachers and other public employees to collectively bargain? I don't think so.

The NEA has existed since 1857 and the AFT since 1916, but teachers didn't have real influence until they began bargaining collectively in the 1960s. Before that, as Albert Shanker, one of the founding fathers of modern teachers unions, noted, teachers engaged in "collective begging." Educators were very poorly compensated; in New York City, they were paid less than those washing cars for a living. Teachers were subject to the whims of often autocratic principals and could be fired for joining a union.

Some teachers objected to the idea of collective bargaining. They saw unions as organizations for blue-collar workers, not for college-educated professionals. But Shanker and others insisted that teachers needed collective bargaining in order to be compensated sufficiently and treated as professionals.

Democratic societies throughout the world recognize the basic right of employees to band together to pursue their interests and secure a decent standard of living. Article 23 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights provides not only that workers should be shielded from discrimination, but also that "everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests."

Collective bargaining is important, not only to advance individual interests but to give unions the power to serve as a countervailing force against big business and big government. …

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