Friedrich Naumann Foundation Conference on Choice in Education
National Press Club
Washington, DC
October 11, 2002

Thanks. It’s good to be here.

National Right to Work comes at the issue from the angle of individual rights and fighting what is, as most people recognize, the primary obstacle to education reform — government-granted coercive union power.

We’re not against voluntary union participation or voluntary participation in any organization or professional association. But the problem is, over the last 40 years, that the education establishment has granted a tremendous number of privileges to union officials, giving them the power to coerce teachers into union ranks and force them to pay dues as a condition of employment.

I think much of the education reform movement has realized that the union coercive power is the chief obstacle to accomplishing the reforms that are necessary. And dismantling these union special privileges in public schools must be a high priority.

Now, the NEA teacher union 30 or 40 years ago decided that it wanted to effectively control who enters and leaves the teaching profession. Public sector forced unionism is a relatively new phenomenon that started in 1961 in New York City, where the American Federation of Teachers sought its monopoly bargaining power, and started to change the way that education policy was thought about.

Instead of sticking with their original missions of serving as professional associations, they began turning into militant trade unions. And increasingly, the public sector has been unionized since that point.

Union officials, using their government-granted privileges, have been able to block education reform from both the top down and the bottom up. When I say from the bottom up, I’m referring to the fundamental power known as “exclusive representation” which allows union officials to be the exclusive spokesman for all unionized teachers to the school board, and that means that the school boards, have to negotiate with union officials over all issues governing teachers’ working conditions. Increasingly that scope is being expanded to things like curriculum and peer review and teaching standards and certification. And at the same time union officials are, at the local level, very involved in electing the school boards using their political clout and their forced union dues money.

And so what you have in many jurisdictions is, in effect, the union sitting on both sides of the bargaining table. The management is also the politician who is elected with union support. At that point, there’s really no one representing the interests of the people. And as far as those independent-minded teachers who may not be in lock step with the union hierarchy, they’re not represented in that situation either.

In fact, even the National School Boards Association and its state affiliates have been, to a great extent, coopted into supporting this union monopoly modle of running public schools, and they are not very helpful in getting school board members educated about what’s happening or equipped to challenge it.

And, those who are elected by union support, of course, are going to do a lot of the things that unions want them to do naturally. But others are just steamrolled because they don’t have necessarily the background to fight back.

Now, what can be done? Well, there are two fundamental union powers in the public sector that have allowed teacher union officials to be permanently installed in the driver’s seat, so to speak.

The first is the power to compel membership or the payment of union dues. And in 21 states, teacher union officials have this power.

The second, and more fundamentally, is monopoly bargaining, which is the notion that in a school district where the union is either elected or somehow declared as the representative of teachers, regardless of the wishes of some teachers, or even a majority of teachers, the union is designated as the exclusive spokesman for all teachers. And it becomes illegal under that system for the school board or the principals to bargain or to discuss working conditions individually with teachers at all. It’s flat-out illegal.

The first step, breaking the forced union dues stranglehold, if you will, is important in terms of making the union hierarchy more accountable to its members. If a union official has all the teachers’ dues handed to him on a silver platter, then why does he have to care what they think? Why does he have to represent their best interests?

Instead, it’s much easier for the union hierarchy to promote its own institutional interests and its ideological interests which, almost without exception, is very far left and very much in favor of bigger government and all kinds of far out social causes that have nothing to do with educating children.

For example, the NEA union has a position on the International Criminal Court, on a nuclear freeze, gun control, statehood for Puerto Rico, all kinds of things that are unrelated to education.

One good example of why ending forced union dues increases union accountability is the remarks of an Iowa education official on radio a couple years ago. When asked whether the Iowa affiliate of the NEA, would celebrate the national NEA-mandated gay and lesbian heritage month, the union’s executive director said, “Heck, no. We don’t support it. Iowa is a right to work state. If we did that, we’d lose all our members.”

The second and most fundamental step is breaking the teacher union stranglehold is to end the root form of compulsory unionism; exclusive representation or monopoly bargaining. This is the power that forces all teachers to accept union representation whether or not they want it, and the power to force the school boards to bargain, mandated by law, with union officials over all matters governing wages and working conditions, as well as other things.

33 states currently have, for teacher unions, imposed monopoly bargaining by state law, and 10 more allow it or tolerate it at the local level. So 43 states recognize or allow teacher union officials to be exclusive bargaining agents for all employees.

What’s little understood is the extent to which union operatives use their monopoly bargaining power to exercise sweeping control over virtually everything that goes on in schools: Authority over compensation and assignments given teachers; authority over curriculum, textbooks, and standards; authority over which teachers get promoted and which ones are held back.

There’s an unbelievable number of work rules in these collective bargaining agreements which really have a crippling effect on the effective and efficient management of schools.

And in some states, they’re even reaching to actually include curriculum as a mandatory subject of bargaining. In most states the teacher union also has the ability — the exclusive right — to pick who sits on various school committees, whether it be curriculum or peer review or professional standards. So they have tremendous influence already.

But in California, for example, that wasn’t enough. It wasn’t enough to pick the curriculum committee. They now want the curriculum to be a mandatory subject of bargaining. And there is a bill pending this year that dealt with that. It didn’t pass, but they’re coming back next year.

In most states, the law declares, as I mentioned, that it’s illegal for a teacher to bargain individually with his own employer. And this is important because, instead, teachers have a one-size-fits-all contract imposed on them that discourages merit, discourages excellence. Some of the best, brightest, and most productive teachers are disenchanted in this kind of environment and leave the profession.

I recently heard it said that the last saving grace of public schools is the altruism of many excellent teachers who’ve stuck around despite this system.

Union officials go in there and negotiate, for example, against merit pay. They’re opposed to merit pay. And this, of course, is directly against the interests of the best and brightest teachers. This example is one of many that puts the lie to the idea that union officials represent the best interests of teachers.

So, those teachers who are especially involved in union issues and are most activist and militant are the ones that are favored by the union hierarchy for positions within the school system, who get the support of the union for promotions and so on. Meanwhile, those independent-minded teachers who are more concerned with teaching rather than activism are often shoved aside.

As I mentioned, in the early ’60s the AFT first sought this power in New York City. And the NEA at that time was a professional association that was not a union. Albeit the NEA was somewhat left of center, they did have an anti-compulsory unionism wing within the NEA headquarters. Our president, Reed Larson, talks about having actually been there in the early ’60s.

And at the point in the early ’60s when the AFT started competing in cities for this monopoly bargaining power, they found that they could effectively take members away from the NEA because when you have a union as the exclusive spokesman, even if you don’t have to join the union or pay dues to the union, that’s the only game in town. And the NEA started losing members.

So ultimately, the militants within the NEA took over the organization and turned it into a union after realizing that obtaining monopoly bargaining recognition was the only way to survive. Today, the NEA and the AFT combined have 80 percent of America’s teachers under these union collectives.

The point is, it’s not necessarily the people running the system that cause all the problems. It’s the system itself. And you’ll find that in the few states where unions do not have monopoly bargaining and forced dues privileges, independent professional associations that are focused on school reform and professional development flourish.

In fact, in Georgia and Missouri, and I believe Texas also, the independent professional educators’ groups — which are generally right of center, and are very sympathetic and active in school reform — those groups are actually larger NEA and AFT union affiliates, in those states.

However, if those states were to change those laws, these independent professional teacher groups would be devastated. Or, as an alternative, they’d have to become like the enemy and compete for that monopoly toehold, as the NEA did 30, 40 years ago.

National Right to Work is an organization that represents individual teachers in fighting back against union abuse. We have about a hundred legal aid cases around the country. And we’ve gone to the Supreme Court several times on behalf of teachers and cannot be lawfully compelled to pay union dues that are spent for non-collective bargaining activity.

But this has been a very difficult thing to enforce because it’s like trying to recover the stolen loot rather than preventing the theft. The courts have not at this point had the courage to address head-on the constitutionality of monopoly bargaining.

The National Right to Work Committee is working to roll back these laws that we talked about, and we have a lot of work to do. It’s a lot of hand-to-hand combat but we’re making some progress in several key states. The Committee passed a Right to Work law in Oklahoma last year, and it hopes to pass one in New Hampshire and Colorado, and repeal monopoly bargaining in other states.

That would be real progress. But these core union privileges are jealously guarded, and so it’s a very high priority of the union hierarchy to defeat any effort to challenge their power.

Just a couple final points regarding how union coercive power has been used to derail or thwart, education reform efforts even after these reforms are on the books. Of course, union officials try to prevent school reforms from ever becoming seriously considered or passing in the first place.

But where they have been instituted, there have been some problems also. For example, United Teachers of Wichita has exclusive representation power in the public schools, and the public school board awards the charter to prospective charter schools.

So that means that the union, while it may not have the exclusive bargaining power to control the way that the charter schools are run, has tremendous clout with the granting authority of the charter, and used it very effectively to try to stop the opening of charter schools and then get some concessions on working conditions and so on within the charter schools.

In New York there was a charter school law that passed a couple years ago, and it was almost as though the union wrote the law because it requires that after 250 students get into these charter schools, the union is automatically declared the exclusive bargaining agent on behalf of all teachers. And in New York, you also have to pay dues if the union is the exclusive bargaining agent.

So in that situation, you know, we’re importing a system after the school gets to a critical mass that has helped to ruin the public schools. And so that’s a problem. I’m not sure if any of them have reached that threshold at this point, but we know that that could be a problem once that happens.

So under the private sector also, under the National Labor Relations Act, as vouchers might become more prevalent, private schools can also be unionized under the same type of laws that exist in most of the states. And so that’s a problem, you know, ultimately down the road that needs to be addressed.

I guess the bottom line point of my remarks is that in order for meaningful education reform to take hold, we have to address the government privileges that hand union officials this unique power not exercised by any other individuals. Because so long as they have that power, they’ll be installed in a place where they can derail education reform.