In recent decades, America has experienced a steady de-unionization of the private sector workforce. This is a real problem, particularly in an era of declining economic security and increasing inequality (problems that partially stem from de-unionization itself). The public sector, by contrast, has pretty much maintained a steady level of unionization, in part because governments don’t go out of business and most municipal and education jobs can’t be shipped overseas.
Teachers unions represent a substantial percentage of the unionized public workforce. They’re politically powerful and seen by some as an impediment to needed school reform (I myself fall into that camp from time to time). Unlike some people, I don’t think teachers unions are a bad thing per se. Teachers have a right to organize, period, and schools work best when teachers have a strong voice and role in the educational process. But I wish I agreed with teachers union policy choices more often than I do.
I suspect there’s a hope among some union antagonists that teachers unions will fade in power and importance over time, much as their private sector counterparts have. That hope is often based on a generational theory of change: as the teachers who remember or participated in the initial struggle for unionization retire in large numbers in the next few years, they’ll be replaced by a younger generation that grew up in a more de-unionized society, people who don’t see teaching as a 30-year career leading to a comfortable retirement and will thus be less supportive of what unions have to offer.
According to a new survey of teachers published this week by Education Sector, these hopes are unfounded. From 2003 to 2007, the percentage of teachers who see teachers unions and associations as “Absolutely Essential” increased from 46% to 54%, a statistically significant change. And the change among teachers with less than five years of experience was even more striking: 30% to 51%.
Interestingly, this is despite the fact that most teacher are quite open to reforms of traditional labor arrangements that many teachers unions fail to actively support at best, and oppose at worst. For example:
- 55% agreed that the process for removing teachers who are “clearly ineffective and shouldn’t be in the classroom” is “very difficult and time-consuming.”
- 42% said their most recent evaluation was “just a formality” while another 32% said it was “well intentioned but not particularly helpful to [their] teaching practice”
- 80% favored giving financial incentives to teachers who “work in tough neighborhoods with low-performing schools,” 58% for teachers who “consistently received outstanding evaluations by their principals,” and 53% for teachers who “specialize in hard-to-fill subjects such as science or mathematics.” All of these percentages represent a statistically significant increase since the same question was asked in 2003.
Teachers were, however, split down the middle on using “value-added” measures to evaluate their performance, which I find disappointing given that I think such techniques have a lot of promise. Most teachers remain skeptical of tying pay to standardized tests. But the majority (52%) “somewhat” or “strongly” support the idea of their union “taking the lead on negotiating a way to add teacher performance as a consideration when deciding and individual teacher’s salary.
There were also regional patterns: teachers from the South, were unions are structurally weaker, were more supportive of differentiated pay options than teachers from other regions. The same was true for newer teachers compared to veterans.
The message seems to be that teachers are open to a number of good ideas that could improve the way they’re paid and evaluated, but those reforms can’t and shouldn’t be implemented in a way that’s fundamentally antagonistic their labor rights or idenity in terms their union. That doesn’t immunize teachers unions from criticism when they oppose commonsensical reforms that most of their members support. But it does point to a collaborative reform strategy–which is as it should be.
Update: Liam Julian at the Fordham Institute turns in a somewhat bizarre reading of the above post here. He says:
To say that the loss of jobs in, say, Michigan and Ohio stems from de-unionization certainly has originality going for it, if not much veracity. To maintain that the steady decline of Ford and General Motors—neither of which can compete with Japanese car makers in large part because they pay something like $2200 more in labor costs per car than does Toyota—is the product of de-unionization is… well, it’s definitely new.
There is, of course, nothing in my post about job loss in Michigan and Ohio. But as long we’re (now) on the topic: a significant part of the reason Ford and G.M are paying more in labor costs per car is because they’re paying health care costs that our government–unlike those of our foreign competitors–won’t. (I look forward to upcoming Flypaper posts advocating for universal health care.) Meanwhile, a growing percentage of the labor force is employed by corporations like Wal-Mart that actively employ blatant and often illegal union-busting tactics–when they’re not busy giving money to organizations like the Fordham Institute. Liam also says:
That teachers are only receptive to educational reforms that fit the agendas of their unions—agendas that are inarguably designed to increase union membership, solidify union political power, and ensure teachers don’t work too hard—is not progress of any sort.
I really have no idea how Liam managed to get from here to there. To repeat: teachers unions are often against tougher evaluation systems, against making it easier to fire ineffective teachers, against moving away from the single salary schedule to differentiated pay plans. Our survey indicates that most teachers are, by contrast, in favor of those reforms.
Update 3: When I first wrote the paragraph above, it said “Liam hates organized labor,” but I changed it to “dislikes” before posting because “hates” seemed a little over the top. But that was before I read the comments thread on his post, where he says of unions: “Like all parasites you tolerate them until they become more trouble then they’re worth.”
“Hates” it is, then.
Oops, that was a commenter, not Liam. My bad. Back to “dislikes.”