Terry Moe: Dilemma of teacher union power won’t go away

Terry Moe
Terry Moe

Editor’s note: This is the first of four guest posts on the future of teachers unions.

At the heart of any discussion of the unions’ role in American education, whether that role is now or in the future, lies a fundamental dilemma. On the one hand, it is clear that teachers are the key determinants of student achievement, that they are the experts on teaching, and that, if human capital is to be organized in the best possible ways for educating children, teachers need to have systematic input when decisions are made. They also need to be involved in the implementation process as decisions get translated into action. The teacher unions – which represent teachers and provide the key means of coordinating their behavior toward agreed-upon ends – would therefore seem to have very positive roles to play in both the making and implementation of education policy.

There is, however, an on the other hand. And herein lies the dilemma. Teachers join unions to protect and promote their occupational interests as employees: in job security, in better wages and benefits, in restrictive work rules.  These job interests – which are the core interests that motivate union behavior – are simply not the same as the interests of children or the requirements of effective organization. Throughout the modern era, as a result, the teacher unions have often used their political power to block or weaken major reform efforts – efforts that would expand school choice, evaluate teachers based on performance, pay teachers with some reference to performance, move bad teachers out of the classroom, and more – because these reforms are threatening to the jobs of their members. Similarly, the unions have used their power in collective bargaining to impose work rules – seniority based layoffs and transfers, restrictions on teachers assignments, onerous evaluation and dismissal procedures, and the like – that are not designed to promote effective organization, and indeed are perverse and counterproductive.

So the dilemma, to state it simply, is that teachers are enormously important to the effective organization of schooling, and their involvement in decision making and reform makes eminently good sense – yet when teachers are organized into unions, the teacher unions use their power to promote the job interests of their members rather than the best interests of children, and this often leads them to undermine effective organization and stand in the way of reform.

That there is a dilemma here is not a secret. Indeed, over the last decade or so, this problem has increasingly become a topic of concern within the reform community, particularly among the growing numbers of liberals, moderates, and Democrats who – while supportive of teacher unions and collective bargaining in general – are now critical of the teachers unions for being obstacles to reform and effective schools.

The widespread view among this crucial group of reformers, however, is that there is a solution to the problem. The solution is reform unionism: which rests on the belief that, with enlightened union leadership (think Randi Weingarten) and sufficient pressure from the outside (think Race to the Top’s “union buy-in” requirement), the unions can be expected to change their behavior – to stop blocking reform, to stop imposing restrictive work rules, and to actively embrace whatever approaches to schooling are best for kids. In a world of reform unionism, then, union power is not a problem and indeed can be welcomed and embraced – because the unions will use their power in the best interests of children and quality education.

This belief is a way of squaring the circle for those who see unions and collective bargaining as essentials of the good society. But in the hard light of reality it is fanciful and misguided, and it prompts reformers to look for solutions where they don’t exist.

Reform unionism is not rooted in a genuine understanding of union leadership and organization. Nor is it rooted in a genuine understanding of teachers and what they want and expect from their unions. There is simply no compelling intellectual or empirical basis for it.

Its fatal flaw is to assume that  the unions’ approach to collective bargaining, politics, and reform can somehow be changed, even though the fundamental interests that motivate their behavior – namely, teachers’ primal concerns for job security, wages and benefits, and work rules – remain the same. Union leaders are going to continue pursuing these interests. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t be leaders very long. There is good evidence to show, moreover, that the vast majority of unionized teachers are wildly supportive of their local unions precisely because their bread-and-butter interests as employees are being forcefully represented.

In recent years, due to the financial crisis and the growing political strength of the reform movement, the teachers unions have found themselves (in some states and urban districts) “supporting” performance-based evaluations, relaxed seniority rules, modifications of tenure, and other reforms.  But these are simply concessions in a time of weakness, not true support for reform.  The unions’ job interests have not changed.  Their leaders are simply forced to pursue them in an environment that is distinctly more difficult than in the past.

What, then, would we expect from the teachers unions in future years, if the education system grows more diverse – as seems likely – through the expansion of charters, vouchers, and virtual schools? These developments are threatening to teacher union interests, because choice allows children (and thus jobs) to leave the regular public schools for other providers. The unions will therefore continue to use their power – just as they have for 30 years – to try to inhibit the expansion of choice in whatever ways they can. As choice nonetheless advances (slowly, over a long period of time) and as enrollments in the regular public schools decline, however, the unions will get smaller and weaker, and they will accordingly have less power in both politics and collective bargaining. As a result, they will find it necessary to make greater concessions in “supporting” reforms that they do not like, and to accommodate an educational world that is increasingly not of their own making. In so doing, they will endeavor to unionize the new education providers and impose collective bargaining on them – even, if necessary, by offering “thin” contracts that impose few obvious constraints in the short term, but that provide a basis (they hope) for fatter and fatter contracts as time goes on.

The dilemma will not go away. The teacher unions will continue to pursue their job interests even in a choice-based system, and those interests will continue to come into conflict with the effective organization of schools. This in itself will make unionization unattractive for the competing schools that make up the system, for they will need the flexibility to organize in whatever ways work best. In a system of numerous, autonomous providers, moreover, union organizing efforts will be very difficult anyway – as they need to target each school separately – and they are unlikely to succeed on a grand scale.

The best prediction for the future is that the schools, increasingly driven to seek effective organization, will have strong incentives to involve teachers in their own decision making and their own reforms. But it won’t happen through unions.

Terry M. Moe is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, a member of the Institution’s Koret Task Force on K–12 education, and the William Bennett Munro Professor of political science at Stanford University.

Coming tomorrow: Joe Williams, executive director, Democrats for Education Reform.

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BY Special to NextSteps


Oy vey, are firefighter unions bad for putting out fires? Are police unions bad for enforcing the law? Of course not. They help ensure that we have a compensated workforce that provides basic protections but for some reason, teachers are selfish and myopic for wanting the same thing.

His argument that the union tries to stop reforms is correct, except he forgot to add the word bad before reforms. Merit pay has evidence that says it doesn’t work. There are so many holes in at least Florida’s teacher evaluation system that it should have been called the colander and no union protects bad teachers they just make sure due process is followed and what Moe never mentions in his extended teacher bashing is districts have to agree upon the rules too. Believe you me unions especially in Florida where teachers can’t even strike is not imposing its will upon anyone.

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