The Question of Public Sector Collective Bargaining and Teachers Unions.

by Kenneth W. Krause.

Kenneth W. Krause is a contributing editor and “Science Watch” columnist for the Skeptical Inquirer.  Formerly a contributing editor and books columnist for the Humanist, Kenneth contributes regularly to Skeptic as well.  He may be contacted at

Author’s note: When originally published, this article inspired more criticism than any other in the magazine’s long history. Soon thereafter, my wife and I were actually assaulted by a teachers union supporter. This is one among many reasons why I despise politics and avoid political minds.  I do value education, however. Although reasonable people might disagree on this issue, we should all be able to openly and candidly discuss it without resorting to personal attacks or violence.

“If Governor Walker wanted to balance the budget on the backs of middle class workers, he had the concessions he’d asked for, but … he is more interested in busting state unions.” Jennifer Shilling, Democratic Assembly person and recall candidate for the Wisconsin State Senate, in a letter to the author.

Cruel tyrants, some say, have seized local power across the nation.  They despise American workers and are bent on ripping the states apart at their socio-political seams over the sensitive issue of public employee collective bargaining rights.

The ghastly spectacle began here in Wisconsin on February 11, 2011 when the newly-elected Republican governor, Scott Walker, unveiled his plot to severely limit such rights for most government workers—supposedly in an effort to balance the state’s distended budget.  An equally zealous Republican-dominated legislature seemed poised to pass their leader’s so-called “budget repair bill” in very short order.

But the allegedly noble opposition had other plans.  Claiming it had already tendered fair and generous concessions, the state’s largest teachers union summoned its angry members to rally.  Incensed educators called in sick, forcing public schools to close.  Tens of thousands of slogan-toting protestors descended on the capitol in Madison to “fight for working families.”

To impede the legislative process, all fourteen Democratic senators abandoned their elected posts on February 17.  They fled the state and surveilled the fallout from a secret hideout in Illinois.  Recall petitions—first targeting Republican, then Democratic senators—would soon circulate through previously peaceable neighborhoods, including mine.

Following a three-day filibuster, Assembly Republicans passed Walker’s bill that same day.  As they exited the chamber, Democrats clad in matching blaze-orange union t-shirts rose for the television cameras, pumping their fingers and shouting “Shame! Shame! Shame!” in eerily perfect unison.

On March 9, Senate Republicans devised a means to pass a revised measure without contribution from their still-truant counterparts.  Threats on the Governor’s life poured in; one group’s letter promised to murder each Republican senator along with his or her family to “save the rights of 300,000 people.”

Walker signed the bill two days later, but Democrats quickly sued to enjoin its implementation, alleging a technical violation of the legislature’s open meetings law.  They were victorious in liberal Dane County, but the Republicans appealed instantly.

Meanwhile, a Wisconsin Supreme Court election ensued.  Normally a lackluster affair, the high-court contest became an instant media sensation as a referendum on the governor’s controversial bill.  The sober fact that state justices rule on a wide variety of important issues and serve lengthy ten-year terms seemed completely lost on both the general public and the popular press.

Before the mêlée in Madison began, the sitting conservative justice, David Prosser, was expected to win re-election handily.  But embarrassingly crude advertisements—announcing, “Prosser is Walker,” for example—quickly flooded the airwaves.   Prosser eventually prevailed, but only after the projected result was flipped by a reliably conservative district’s late-coming tally and a lengthy, expensive, and ultimately fruitless recount demanded by the Justice’s liberal challenger.

By March 12—after a three-week hiatus, the Democratic senators had returned to work.  Some greeted them as heroes to the working class, others as self-serving traitors to both their constituents and the democratic process.   The “Wisconsin 14”would be the first group ever to win the National Education Association’s “Friend of Education” award.

Nine recall applications were certified for six Republicans and three Democrats.  In the six Republican recalls, including the one in my district, the Wisconsin Republican Party forced expensive primaries by running “fake” Democrats, thereby providing the “real” Republican candidates with additional time to campaign.  Out-of-state money, much of it from the national teachers unions, began pouring into these local campaigns.

Subjected to dissenting accusations of political bias from the liberal Chief Justice, the Wisconsin Supreme Court majority—piloted by Justice Prosser—terminated the lower court’s injunction.  A swarm of public employee unions led by the Wisconsin Education Association Council then sued in federal court alleging the collective bargaining bill’s violation of both the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution.  And lest we worry that local histrionics were spent, by the end of June, Justice Ann Bradley had publicly accused Prosser of choking her during an argument in her chambers.

Modern politics in the typically congenial Dairy State are rarely so toxic and divisive.  Can these humiliating events be explained simply as predictable responses to an overzealous political power-grab achieved by a vicious, middle-class loathing governor and his lock-step party minions?

Or is it more likely, perhaps, that certain special interest groups—extremely powerful, with legendary reputations for both surreptitious and heavy-handed tactics—suddenly feel threatened and are now working extremely hard in Wisconsin and elsewhere to ferment poisonous brews of political polarity, class warfare, and social unrest?

Are Public Employee Unions So Different?

“All government employees should realize that the process of collective bargaining, as usually understood, cannot be transplanted into the public service.” President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Can a progressive-minded person oppose collective bargaining rights for public employees without being a “union buster”?   Can such a person still appreciate the vital roles that private unions continue to play in the American economy?  Organized labor has served America well, I would respond, contributing mightily to both the design and implementation of key legislation pertaining to worker health and safety, child labor, and inappropriate discrimination, for example.

So, if the process works well in the private sector, why shouldn’t it prevail in its public counterpart?  To understand the distinction, let’s begin with some basic history.  It was FDR, of course, who championed organized labor in 1935 when he signed the National Labor Relations (or Wagner) Act, thus forcing private employers to engage in collective bargaining and making it illegal for them to discriminate, spy on, harass, or fire unionized workers.

Yet FDR vehemently opposed the extension of collective bargaining into the public sector.  “The very nature and purposes of government,” he observed, “make it impossible for administrative officials to represent fully or to bind the employer in mutual discussions with government employee organizations.”  “The employer,” he reminded us, “is the whole people.”  In other words, FDR recognized that public sector collective bargaining would prove inherently anti-democratic.

Nevertheless, it was FDR—along, perhaps, with the Republican-sponsored Labor-Management Relations (or Taft-Hartley) Act of 1947, permitting government supervision of union activities and influence and allowing states to pass “right to work” laws eliminating forced union membership—who also forever wed organized labor to the Democratic Party, for better or for worse.

The NLRA’s short-term effects were astounding: union membership leapt from fourteen percent of the private, nonagricultural workforce in 1935 to thirty-five percent in 1949.  On the other hand, few public workers in the U.S. were unionized before 1960 and almost none enjoyed collective bargaining rights.  Wisconsin, ironically, became the first state to grant such privileges to some of its employees in 1959.

But a remarkable transformation in organized labor would occur over the next few decades.  By 1983, private unions could claim only seventeen percent of the private workforce and, by 2009, that number had plunged below eight percent.  During the 1960s and 1970s, however, states began passing labor laws specifically designed to promote public unionism and collective bargaining.  Since then, organized labor in the public sector has flourished, prospering in self-assured immunity to the market forces that sealed the private sector’s fate: In both 1983 and 2009, thirty-seven percent of all public workers were unionized.

Thus, the engines of political power in the U.S. shifted rails from the United Auto Workers, the United Steelworkers, and the United Mine Workers of America to the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, the Service Employees International Union, and the two major teachers unions, the National Education Association (NEA) and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT).  Today, although public employees make up just seventeen percent of the total workforce, they comprise a whopping fifty percent of all union members.

How can we account for this revolution in American labor?  The decline and fall of private unionization can be explained in part by escalating competition in an increasingly global and technology-driven market.  Prior to the 1970s, limited competition had sheltered the U.S. auto industry, for example.  Because consumers faced severely limited options, unions could demand more on behalf of their members and employers could safely raise prices to compensate for those demands.

But markets for most goods are now truly international.  Competition is fierce and consumers enjoy a nearly inexhaustible range of choices.  In recent decades, employment in America has migrated from highly unionized manufacturing to weakly unionized services, from the well-organized Rust Belt to the relatively unorganized Sun Belt.  As a result, union membership and, thus, union power—at least in the private sector—has waned considerably.

All of which leads us squarely to the question at hand.  Government agencies generally face no competition and their “business” is rarely, if ever, mortally threatened by the increased costs and restrictive work rules that collective bargaining generates.  As such, public unions have little or no incentive to temper their demands with sober considerations of affordability or efficiency, let alone for the very existence of their members’ livelihoods.

“The public environment is very different,” insists Terry Moe, Stanford University professor of political science and senior fellow at the Hoover Institution.  “[P]ublic sector unions know they are not putting their agencies or jobs at risk by pressuring for all they can get,” he argues, “however costly, however disabling to productivity.” (Special Interest: Teachers Unions and America’s Public Schools (Brookings 2011)).

And like many others, Moe is particularly concerned about the undemocratic accretion of overwhelming political power.  “To the extent that public sector unions can wield power in elections,” he warns, “they can literally select the ‘employers’ they will be bargaining with, and who will make all the authoritative decisions about government funding, programs, and policy.”

Nor should we overlook the role of party.  Democrats especially, Moe adds, given their longtime alliance with the unions, “clearly have incentives to promote collective bargaining, give in to union wage and benefit demands, go along with restrictive work rules, add to the employment roles, and protect existing jobs … even if they know full well that the result will be higher costs and inefficiencies and that the larger population of citizens will not be well served.”

“In the private sector, consumers have the right to opt out,” observes Reason Magazine editor Peter Suderman, “the right to buy less, or to go elsewhere.”  But of course taxpayers can’t just opt out, so when public employees collectively bargain for increased salaries or benefits, taxes have to be raised or services cut.  “This is why the power of public sector unions is such a big deal,” Suderman contends: “When they negotiate … the majority of taxpayers usually end up forced to bear the cost, somehow, whether they want to or not.”

In sum, the government must never be deemed just another industry.  Leveraging collective bargaining against our elected representatives produces bizarre results, many of which abuse the general public.  Allowing public employee unions to force special negotiations on government entities—behind closed doors, most often—is inherently anti-democratic, providing these organizations with disproportionate access and advantage at the expense of individuals and other important groups.

Moreover, as courts routinely ruled prior to the labor revolution of the 1960s and 1970s, public employee collective bargaining is an improper and potentially despotic delegation of critical political powers to unelected special interest groups.  Some such groups, of course, are more powerful and self-sanctimonious than others.  And in one very sensitive context, the social stakes for average citizens and their children are extremely high.

Collective Bargaining and Public Education: An Especially Dangerous Combination.

“People who do well under the status quo, whether it’s the unions, whether it’s the politicians … those are the groups that will protect a status quo that serves their needs, even if it doesn’t serve the needs of students.  We have to move to a customer-focused school system.” Joel Klein, former chancellor of New York City schools (2002-2010).

Thanks in no small measure to Davis Guggenheim’s 2010 documentary, Waiting for Superman, many Americans are now well aware of the foul treatment and demoralizing struggles students often face in our public schools—especially minority students in poor districts.  This poignant film features several desperate families from across the country that want nothing more than to save their children’s lives by helping them to escape their local schools.

Although Guggenheim is a liberal, private-sector union member himself, his new hit movie highlights the role of teachers unions in protecting bad teachers and their perverse seniority rules, for example.  Also highlighted is their stubborn opposition to charter schools and, perhaps worst of all, their tendency to make constructive change so gallingly difficult.

Superman also highlights the infamous “Rubber Rooms” of New York City.  Beginning in 2009, these Temporary Reassignment Centers quartered more than 700 teachers considered too incompetent to remain in class.  They didn’t teach, of course, but they arrived at and departed from the Rubber Rooms every day at the regular time, as if they were still working for us.  They were paid a full salary and received full benefits.  They had vacations and summers off too.

In salary and benefits alone, these defective teachers siphoned between $35 million and $65 million per year from their city’s already impoverished school budget.  That’s a lot of money that could have been spent on children.  Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Chancellor Klein wanted to detach them from the payroll, but state tenure laws, restrictive collective bargaining contracts, and the United Federation of Teachers—which dared to compare their members’ Rubber Rooms to the prisons at Guantanamo Bay—made such a just and common sense solution impossible.

How could this happen in a community that truly values education?  “The New York City school district is not organized to provide the best possible education to its children,” argues Moe.  Instead, thanks to union-influenced legislation and the contemptible rules contained in the collective bargaining contract, “The district is literally organized to protect bad teachers and to undermine the efforts of leaders to ensure teacher quality.”

Today, the NEA and AFT are more than 4.5 million members strong and clearly the most powerful interest groups in American education, perhaps in all of politics.  Union dues alone provide them with astounding sums of cash every year for campaign contributions and lobbying strategies.  They rank first among the top twenty-five all-time donors in federal elections, for example, having contributed $59,354,731—ninety-five percent of which went to Democrats—between 1989 and 2010.  During the 2010 election cycle alone, the NEA spent $40 million, giving $2 million directly to Democratic candidates.  At the same time, the AFT gave $2.6 million directly to Democrats compared to a paltry $8000 to Republicans.

They send armies of well-trained activists to every political district in the country; at any time, they can finance highly effective media campaigns on any topic or for any candidate they like.  “No other group in the politics of education” Moe laments, “representing administrators, say, or school boards or disadvantaged kids or parents or taxpayers, even comes close to having such weaponry.”

So how much of this power is ever converted into policies that actually benefit education?  Unions cause increased spending, for example, but money per se has little if any effect on student achievement.  While student test scores since 1970 haven’t budged, we’ve spent more than twice as many real, inflation-adjusted dollars on every single child.

Unions fight hard for across-the-board teacher pay raises, but who loses when bad teachers are paid more and good teachers are paid less than their actual worth?  Politically powerless children, of course.  And unions love smaller class sizes too, but, contrary to popular belief, normal reductions in class size have almost no impact on students’ ability to learn.

“The unions pursue their own interests,” Moe confirms, “and policies good for the unions are often bad for kids” (“Union Power and Education of Children,” 2006.  In Jane Hannaway and Andrew Rotherham, eds., Collective Bargaining in Education: Negotiating Change in Today’s Schools. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press).  So let’s glance at just a few of the rules that typically show up in collective bargaining contracts:

-Rules requiring that teachers be paid on a salary schedule, based only on years of experience and education, and never on their performance.

-Rules that make it nearly impossible to dismiss teachers for poor performance.

-Rules that mandate complex, time-consuming grievance procedures.

-Rules requiring principals to give advance warning to teachers before visiting their classrooms.

-Rules allowing teachers, not principles, to make decisions about transfers and class assignments.

-Rules limiting the number and duration of faculty meetings and parent conferences that teachers can be required to attend.

-Rules limiting the number of minutes teachers can be required to be on campus.

-Rules guaranteeing teachers a certain number of minutes of “prep time” away from their students.

-Rules limiting teachers’ non-teaching duties, including lunch duty and hall duty.

-Rules giving teachers time off for union purposes.

Unions may claim what’s good for teachers is always good for students, but most people, Moe guesses, “would be absolutely shocked” to know what’s really lurking in the collective bargaining contracts that in no small measure govern their kids’ education and determine their futures.

How Do Teachers Unions Affect Student Performance?

“I find that teachers’ unions are primarily rent seeking, raising school budgets and school inputs but lowering student achievement by decreasing the productivity of inputs.” Caroline Minter Hoxby, as Professor of labor economics at Harvard University in 1996.

The professional, peer-reviewed literature has remained frustratingly silent on the issue.  But fortunately two district and school level studies—as opposed to those at the state level, which tend to be highly aggregated and poorly controlled—have been published in top-quality academic journals.  Each concludes that collective bargaining for teachers has a significantly negative effect on student performance.

The first, “How Teachers’ Unions Affect Education Production,” was a national study published by Caroline Hoxby in 1996 (The Quarterly Journal of Economics 111(3): 671-718).  Hoxby set out to explain three related “empirical puzzles.”  First, and most generally, why did school inputs (government spending) have a significant effect on student outputs (performance) prior to around 1960—when states began granting teachers the right to collectively bargain, but not after that time?

Second, why do the data continue to show no relationship between school inputs and student learning, even after controlling for students’ socio-economic background?  Third, why do metropolitan areas with few opportunities for competition among public schools tend to show more generous inputs—for example, higher per-pupil spending, higher teacher salaries, and lower student-to-teacher ratios (resulting in more teachers and, thus, more dues-paying union members hired), yet, at the same time, poorer student performance?

Hoxby initially noted the precise timing of legislation facilitating teacher unionization and collective bargaining.  She then analyzed district data from across the U.S.—on student dropout rates in particular—to isolate the impact of union activity on student performance.

As the above quote suggests, Hoxby discovered that teachers unions produce two highly regrettable effects—they cause taxpayers to spend more of their income on education and, at the same time, they decrease school productivity.  In other words, the overall impact of unions on society and education is decisively negative.  Unions use their political power and the process of collective bargaining to literally waste our money.

Somewhat incidentally, in a later study, “Pulled Away or Pushed Out? Explaining the Decline of Teacher Aptitude in the United States,” Hoxby and Andrew Liegh from the National Bureau of Economic Research explored why, since 1960, the share of teachers in the highest aptitude category (top five percent) fell from five percent to one percent of total college grads, and the share of teachers in the lowest aptitude category (bottom 25 percent) rose from 16 to 36 percent (American Economic Review 94, no. 2, May 2004: 236-240).

Initially, they expected to prove the “pull” hypothesis, proposing that increasing pay parity with men in nonteaching occupations began to draw women out of teaching.  But the evidence proved otherwise.  Instead, smart people were being “pulled” out of education because of increasing compression of teachers’ pay.  Good, bad, or ugly, all teachers are essentially treated alike.  Why?  Because unions not only defend ineffective teachers, they routinely oppose merit pay for exceptional teachers.  Unions and collective bargaining, Hoxby and Leigh discovered, deserve much of the blame for the dumbing-down of educators as well as their hapless students.

But Terry Moe would publish the second and most revealing study on point.  In “Collective Bargaining and the Performance of the Public Schools,” he addressed the issue from a new angle (American Journal of Political Science 53, no. 1, January 2009: 156-174).  Using a large, random sample of California school districts—all of which engaged in collective bargaining, Moe carefully probed the actual contents of the resulting labor contracts.

He then coded the many rules contained therein according to their “restrictiveness,” the degree to which the rules shackled the hands of school administrators—precisely the people we elect to ensure quality education.  The most restrictive rules, by Moe’s lights, gave teachers the right to make voluntary transfers (thus denying administrators the opportunities to send good teachers where they were needed most), limited the number of students that teachers were required to instruct, and thwarted the teacher evaluation process.

Finally, Moe applied a second variable—the California Academic Performance Index, which assigns each school a score determined by the performance of its students.  He then framed the issue concisely as such: “whether, in using their power to secure rules that advance the occupational interests of their members, the teachers unions are (unintentionally) limiting the public schools’ capacity to educate children.”

After controlling for an extended list of variables pertaining to student backgrounds and the traits of particular schools and districts, Moe concluded that “collective bargaining does indeed have negative consequences for student achievement, and that the effects are concentrated on precisely those districts and schools—large districts, high-minority schools—that, over the years have been the worst performers and most difficult to improve.”  So, although almost everyone suffers because of teachers unions and collective bargaining rights, minority kids confined to big cities suffer the most.

“It follows,” Moe adds hopefully, “that efforts to boost achievement in these contexts, as well as to reduce the achievement gap between whites and minorities, need to recognize that collective bargaining may be part of the problem—and that it deserves to be taken seriously as a target of reform.”  Short of actually abolishing teacher collective bargaining rights, he advises, “reducing the restrictiveness of labor contracts could have significant payoffs for public education.”

Like everyone else, public employees will fight to protect and enrich themselves and they’ll use all available political means to do so.  We can’t judge them too harshly for that.  Nevertheless, they shouldn’t be too surprised when the polity finally says enough is enough.  Concerned citizens have ample moral and economic grounds to restrict or, depending on union flexibility, even abolish their rights to collectively bargain.

The social stakes are astronomically higher yet in the context of public education.  Parents and students are especially justified in taking action to guard themselves against the teachers unions’ many excesses.  But average taxpayers have ample cause for concern, if not outrage, as well.  Collective bargaining rights for teachers lead to intolerable waste, even in times that scream for fiscal discipline.

Union demagogues and their political devotees have abused their own members and constituents in recent months too.  By accusing the perceived opposition of wholesale “union busting,” or of mean-spirited attempts to “balance the budget on the backs of middle class workers,” they only drive painful and unnecessary wedges between educators and stout friends of education who recognize the urgent need for reform.

Casual discussions over public employee and, especially, teachers unions frequently degrade into envious, even spiteful, pay and benefit comparisons.  This article is not so inclined.  Even so, public employment—like its private counterpart—should never guarantee any particular salary or benefit, much less future employment, and it should never resemble a public works project.

Teachers might not be directly competitive themselves, but they above all others must help their fellow Americans compete in what has proven a highly complicated and transitional economy.  In return, we should reward effective educators who serve their societies by finding ways to raise their students’ games.

But make no mistake—like everyone else, teachers will have to accept performance standards and the real-world pressures that attend them.  Good teachers deserve both our financial support and our admiration.  But we can no longer accept mediocrity in public education.  Bad teachers should meet first with diminished returns and then with a swiftly executed pink slip.



2 thoughts on “The Question of Public Sector Collective Bargaining and Teachers Unions.

  1. Gerald

    The union thugs are back in WI, now trying to keep forced union membership alive. They have no arguments, only fear-mongering. And the politicians are if full partisan mode again. This is why two parties don’t work.


  2. Don W.

    It may be that worker compensation may suffer, or that some employees may “freeload” on union induced wages, should “right to work” pass. But that doesn’t justify forced dues paying. What it means is that unions might have to work a little harder to prove their value to all workers, not just a few or not just a few in certain positions.



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