If You're Against Teacher's Unions Then You're Against Teachers

In a post from four years ago, I wrote this:

[A]s a society we do everything in our power to make teaching as unappealing a profession as possible. In most districts the pay and benefits are laughable compared to other professions. Even worse, there is a deep lack of respect for the work that teachers do. People who haven't set foot in a classroom since their own, typically undistinguished, academic careers, and who wouldn't last five minutes if they ever did enter a classroom, seem perfectly happy to give lectures on how easy teachers have it, what with their nine-month school year and workday that ends at 3:05. Teachers are the only one's blamed for poor student performance. It is never the fault of spineless, unsupportive administrators, or lazy, shiftless students and their irresponsible, enabling parents. The only forces working against all this are the unions, and bless their hearts for doing so.

Nothing has happened in the ensuing four years to make me reconsider this.

I might have added that teachers routinely do work well beyond what their contract requires, often at considerable personal expense. If teachers ever start working to code the schools will have to shut down.

Occasionally, though, some whiny right-wing teacher will start blubbering about the sheer injustice of having to join the union. You see, teacher's unions have noticed that one of our political parties is entirely contemptuous of teachers and is not too fond of public education generally, so they sometimes give money to the other party. The teachers who object to this should be forced to accept whatever contract the district was offering before the union did its work. They'd be lucky to get bus fare.

As it happens, no one can be forced to join a union. But you can be forced to pay a “fair-share fee”. Collective bargaining is expensive, and unions are forced by law to bargain on behalf of all their workers. That includes freeloaders. So it's entirely reasonable to expect everyone to contribute something to the effort.

A 1977 Supreme Court case found that such fees were constitutional. That precedent is currently being challenged before the Supreme Court. A gaggle of right-wing groups managed to find ten freeloading teachers who want the higher salary and better benefits the unions get them without having to pay anything. Their legal argument is that since teacher salaries are paid by taxpayers, anything the union does is inherently political. Therefore, you cannot separate collective bargaining activities from the more overtly political activities the union undertakes. Forcing people to pay fair-share fees is thus an infringement of the free speech rights of teachers.

Whatever. If you care, you can read this for a cogent explanation of why this argument is crap. It hardly matters, though, since the five right-wing ideologues on the Court despise unions and rarely pass up an opportunity to rule against them. Justice Kennedy may be the swing vote in cases involving cultural issues (he did the right thing on gay marriage, for example), but he pretty much always favors management over labor.

The case has had an unusual history, as described here. No factual record has been developed in this case. The lower courts, at the urging of the plaintiffs (the ten teachers), issued summary judgment in favor of the unions on the grounds that the 1977 precedent is still in force. The point was to get the case to the Supreme Court so that the 1977 precedent can be overturned. However, as explained at the link, the lack of a factual record is legally very problematic, and really ought to lead to the petition being dismissed.

It will not be the end of the world if the Court rules against the unions. But it will be one more blow against labor in this country, and one more instance of the endless right-wing effort to shift power upward. In enacting their agenda they need a large supply of useful idiots to vote against their interests, like these ten teachers. Sadly, they rarely have a problem finding what they need.

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Occasionally, though, some whiny right-wing teacher will start blubbering about the sheer injustice of having to join the union. You see, teacher’s unions have noticed that one of our political parties is entirely contemptuous of teachers and is not too fond of public education generally, so they sometimes give money to the other party. The teachers who object to this should be forced to accept whatever contract the district was offering before the union did its work. They’d be lucky to get bus fare.

Up front comment: I'm in general support of your position. What follows is merely a quibble.

I believe you are mischaracterizing the issue here. From reading your links, it appears the plaintiffs are complaining about being forced to contribute for unionized non-political action. Stuff like the cost of contract negotiatiors and union legal representation in case of a suit against the teacher. It would indeed be illegal for the union to force members to pay for campaign contributions. Here is the relevant quote from your linked article by Ann Hodges:

Most of the decisions involved in collective bargaining and contract administration, such as how to allocate paid leave or overtime work, have no ideological component. And charging objectors for activities that do, such as candidate advocacy and almost all lobbying, is impermissible.

So, if the California Teachers Association is charging nonunion teacher Mr./Ms. Friederichs for (illustrative example only) union donations to Dianne Feinstein's campaign, AIUI that would be illegal and CTA should lose that case. But if they're charging Mr./Ms. Friederichs for union administrative costs, then they should win. At least, that's how I understand Ms. Hodges' article.

Oops, typo in middle paragraph reverses my meaning. It should read "It would indeed be illegal for the union to force non members..."

While it is true that unions' work has a political tinge, no matter how carefully sequestered the contribution aspect, isn't that the purpose of a union...to influence the debate over workers' rights? It is well-trodden ground that a 40 hour workweek, sick leave, overtime pay, equal work for equal pay and government run employment rights and safety investigative programs are union achievements. It is also well known that unions have their people doing the job and often find better ways of doing it to share with management. It is only arrogance and greed that cause opposition to unions.That is why VW wanted unions in their US plants.

I only wish that these plaintiffs would realize that their collective noses are about to be neatly severed from their faces...by their own hand.

By BobFromLI (not verified) on 12 Jan 2016 #permalink

Classic case of cutting off your nose to spite your face. Pseudo-Libertarianism and Ignorance of history should disqualify these "teachers" from the classroom. They could go teach at a religious school with no benefits, salary or job security - what' stopping them.

Can I not pay my taxes, since I don't like some of the things my government does?

By Michael Fugate (not verified) on 12 Jan 2016 #permalink

This effort is clearly designed to weaken unions.

It would be an interesting development if unions could be allowed to provide services only to its members and not to non-members. They could be allowed to fend for themselves and represent themselves. You would thus have two groups - the union members and the would be true free-riders who opt to represent themselves and no doubt forgo their higher pay and pensions as well.

There seems to me to long have been an "us against them" mentality between unions and management in this country (USA). As a previous commenter stated, it does not have to be that way and isn't in all countries, and as the title of the post suggests, it is based on negative feelings between management and workers.

For a brief period at the beginning of my career at GE I served under and with managers who had fought in WWII. They tended to be loyal to their employees, would support and fight for them, and viewed them not only as necessary but as the source for future managers, whose careers should be nurtured by sending them to various sorts of training, such as "The Art and Science of Welding" and giving them opportunities to lead projects. Then came Neutron Jack Welch, and the people he selected hired people under them until it trickled down to the unit level. (Or almost - at the unit level actual work needs to be done so it is not so easy to dismiss the contributions of workers - a few unit managers were able to, however).

The horrors of WWII necessarily fostered a "we're all in this together" spirit for a while here. As Theodore Sturgeon suggested long ago, and Paul Krugman more recently, a simulated invasion from outer space might be the only way to get that spirit back.

(Sorry, that's all I've got by way of a solution. Yes, I'll continue to vote and donate to campaigns and write the occasional letter to Congress, but it hasn't had anywhere near the effect I hope for.)

Diane Ravitch, arguably an expert in US education policy, argues that much of the "school reform" today is really a right wing attempt to undermine public education, particularly teacher's unions. Part of the strategy is to blame teachers, teachers' unions, and public schools for problems that are actually caused by widespread social dysfunction.

Any thoughts?

By Greg Esres (not verified) on 12 Jan 2016 #permalink