Unions the Major Obstacle to Market-Oriented Reforms

Published April 1, 1997

Those familiar with the school reform movement, and with this newspaper, are keenly aware of the key role–sometimes positive, more recently quite negative–that teacher unions have played in school reform debates nationwide. Perhaps no one is more keenly aware of the unions’ significance in these debates than Myron Lieberman, chairman of the Education Policy Institute and a senior research scholar at Bowling Green State University.

Lieberman is the author or coauthor of over a dozen books and scores of articles on education policy and teacher bargaining. He is also a life member of the NEA and a retiree member of the AFT. He was a candidate for national president of the AFT in 1962, receiving roughly one-third of the convention votes. He has been a frequent delegate to state and national teacher union conventions. He also has served as a labor negotiator for school boards in Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, Arizona, California, and New Jersey, handling grievances and unfair labor practice complaints as well as contract negotiations. He spoke recently with School Reform News managing editor George Clowes about his experiences.

Clowes: Can you provide us with a brief history of unionization among teachers: when it happened, how it happened, and why?

Lieberman: As I point out in my forthcoming book, The Teacher Unions, although teacher unions have existed since the nineteenth century, it was not until the 1960s that membership in the teacher unions mushroomed. The American Federation of Teachers, or AFT, was formed in 1916 as a result of the Chicago Board of Education placing a prohibition on teacher union membership. In the growth spurt that followed, for a brief time membership in the AFT exceeded that in the National Education Association, or NEA, which had formed much earlier, in 1857. Although there was a decline in membership during the 1920s, AFT membership increased steadily through the 1960s, with about 5 percent of all teachers as members.

The NEA was formed by school superintendents in 1857. It was an anti-union organization until the 1960s. Although teachers were often required to join the NEA, its local dues were quite low. NEA membership provided few benefits to teachers, since the organization was controlled by school administrators.

In 1961, the United Federation of Teachers, the AFT affiliate in New York, was selected by a vote of the teachers to represent them in collective bargaining. Because of the way the New York City election was conducted, the union represented all teachers rather than one segment of teachers, such as elementary, junior high, or high school. This pattern has continued to the present time. The AFT also advocated the teachers’ right to strike and by 1969, the NEA had embraced this also.

Although the AFT led the effort to achieve collective bargaining rights, the NEA soon followed and both organizations greatly increased their membership as a result. As the collective bargaining agent for teachers, the union became the exclusive representative of the teachers, who were then not permitted to negotiate individually for terms and conditions of employment. Over time, most non-members joined the union that was their exclusive representative. The critical years for the NEA were 1962, when it decided to compete with the AFT, and 1972, when it adopted unified dues and a new constitution, eliminating administrators from the union structure.

Clowes: Can you speculate on what might become of the American Federation of Teachers, now that its president of over 20 years, Albert Shanker, has passed away?

Lieberman: Since one-third of AFT membership is in New York, that’s where the next president of the AFT probably will come from. I expect that the NEA and AFT will merge in the next few years, with a loose affiliation with the AFL-CIO. I say that even though the likely candidates for the AFT presidency don’t possess Shanker’s strong commitment to the AFL-CIO. Shanker himself was instrumental in bringing about national merger discussions between the NEA and the AFT in 1993. And although these discussions broke down in December 1994, they have been revived recently. Last year, Bob Chase, the new president of the NEA, said that these talks had been taken up again with the aim of bringing about a merger between the NEA and the AFT.

If, in the meantime, a few of the larger AFT locals go over to the NEA, it could signal the demise of the AFT.

Clowes: What has been the impact of unionization on teachers and on education?

Lieberman: The unions assert that the impact of unionization has been beneficial to teacher welfare and student achievement. The first claim is doubtful–improvements in teacher welfare are marginal, and have come at the expense of other needs, such as better facilities and instructional materials. The impact on student achievement has been negative, despite union claims to the contrary. Let us not forget that teacher unions were established to promote teacher welfare, not educational achievement. It would be remarkable if an organization established to redistribute income to teachers turned out to be optimal for increasing productivity.

Clowes: Teacher unions have been a powerful force opposed to educational choice, or vouchers, and similar school reform efforts. Why is that?

Lieberman: Unions cannot flourish, even survive, if there is competition among the producers, who employ services provided by union members. We have seen this over and over, in dozens of different industries. The NEA/AFT are well aware of this, hence their strategy is to defeat and denigrate school choice and contracting out in every way they can.

Clowes: Must the unions be worked with, or through, or against? What strategies do you recommend to reform activists who are facing union opposition?

Lieberman: The power of teacher unions to block reform must and can be weakened in a variety of ways. The unions are the major obstacle to market-oriented education reforms such as school choice and contracting out. They are also opposed to lowering the terminal age of compulsory schooling, home schooling, and other reforms that are urgently needed.

The primary strategy must be to weaken the teacher unions financially so that they can no longer intimidate school boards and legislators. The ways to achieve this are: to reduce union revenues; to eliminate taxpayer subsidies that the unions receive but which should never have been given in the first place; and to impose on the teacher unions the same reporting and disclosure requirements that are imposed on private sector unions under the National Labor Relations Act.

Clowes: How can we reduce union revenues and eliminate taxpayer subsidies to the unions?

Lieberman: The agency shop fee is probably the most important source of union revenues after membership dues. These are fees paid to the union by non-members who do not want to join the union, and the fees are often clearly excessive. Legislation is needed to remedy this situation, or, failing that, it’s essential to litigate and to publicize corrupt practices. In addition, the NEA avoids at least $1.4 million in property taxes on its tax-exempt building in Washington, DC–an exemption no other labor union enjoys and which should be repealed.

Other taxpayer subsidies to the teacher unions that should be terminated are time off with pay to conduct union business, payroll deduction of union dues, PAC contributions at no cost to the union, and taxpayer funding of pension contributions for NEA/AFT staff who are teachers on leave from school district employment.

Finally, unions should be required by law to provide to their members on a regular basis reports and disclosures concerning union assets, income, expenditures, and so on, just as private sector unions are required to do under the Landrum-Griffin Act.

Clowes: Is the union leadership representative of membership on these issues?

Lieberman: THE NEA/AFT devote substantial resources to polling their members. It is a fallacy to assume they are out of touch with their membership. The problem is that membership attitudes are based on misinformation or lack of information due to the need for the union bureaucracies to protect themselves.

“Representative” is ambiguous. For example, 35 percent of NEA members are Republicans, and another 35 percent consider themselves independent. Yet 98 percent of NEA-PAC and AFT/COPE funds go to Democrats. In that sense, union leadership is not “representative” of membership attitudes.

Teacher attitudes on education reform are shaped in large part by union propaganda on the issues. This is why teachers believe, erroneously, that school choice is a threat to teachers.

Clowes: Do you know of “campaign strategies” that would allow reformers to reach teachers who might be amenable to more radical proposals?

Lieberman: Yes, I do. There are several strategies that could be effective. The problem is that the conservatives don’t know very much about the NEA/AFT, hence are not prepared to take advantage of union vulnerabilities.

Clowes: In Public Education: An Autopsy, you are critical of the incompetence of the educational choice movement. Could you explain your concerns?

Lieberman: California’s Proposition 174 provides a good example of this incompetence. This was a school voucher proposition that was on the ballot on November 2, 1993. It was defeated 70-30, in spite of polls showing a majority of parents in California were in favor of school choice. The initiative failed for a number of reasons, including disorganization, underfunding, lack of business or Republican support, and poor drafting. Education is not a major concern of the Republican Party: there are no staff members in the National Republican Committee assigned to education issues.

Initiative supporters demonstrated a remarkable lack of sophistication about their union opponents. They did opposition research far too late in the campaign, and they completely underestimated their union opponents.

Clowes: What is your assessment of such reforms as charter schools and private scholarship/ voucher programs? Are these steps in the right direction?

Lieberman: Charter schools could be helpful if they provide broad scope for schools for-profit, do not depend upon establishment approval, and avoid compulsory unionization. Few charter schools meet these criteria. For this reason, and although I hope I am mistaken, I believe that the potential of charter schools is exaggerated.

I do not oppose the private scholarship movement and the motives behind it are commendable. Nevertheless, I believe its potential for systemic improvement also is largely exaggerated.

Clowes: What steps could be taken by the readers of School Reform News–state elected officials, journalists, parents, and school reform activists–to improve the quality of education in the U.S. today?

Lieberman: My answer is spelled out in several books and articles. I would emphasize that weakening the veto power of the NEA/AFT over education policy is an essential condition of significant progress, but it is not a sufficient condition. The key to improvement is market competition. That has been the key in other industries and I see no reason why it is not in education.

Clowes: What one message would you like most to communicate to School Reform News readers about education issues?

Lieberman: I hope we can rise above the buzz word level, examine the realities of our education situation, and scrutinize the remedies more realistically. With phrases such as “Every child can learn,” “World-class standards,” and “Parental involvement,” there is very little substance to debates over education policy, especially among conservatives. Few conservative leaders have a strong background in education or the union movement. Their gullibility in these areas, and their chasing after symbolic victories, such as school prayer, that have little or no substantive impact, are major advantages for supporters of the status quo.