An address by Stefan Gleason, Director of Development,
National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation
Delivered to the Economic Freedom forum of CNP
January 23, 1999

Education reformers are rightly concerned about the dismal performance of public schools – for the fact of education decline is too obvious to deny. But many underestimate the potential for teacher unions to derail education reform efforts – even those that take education out of the paradigm of public schools.

First, let’s reflect on how we got to where we are today.

Do you realize that in the last thirty years per pupil spending in public schools – measured in constant dollars – has increased by more than two and one-half times. And what are we getting for it? One indicator is lower SAT scores. Of course, the education bureaucracy has reacted now by changing the SAT base so future comparisons will be meaningless.

And during the same thirty year period of burgeoning teacher union power and falling educational quality, what has been the unchanging cry of the education establishment? Of course it’s more pay, smaller classes, and more spending.

This means more teachers paying more union dues, thereby providing greater political clout for the NEA bureaucracy. Their goal, of course, is political power, not education. The principal means to that end is the funneling of forced dues to politicians who support their agenda. This clout is exercised effectively — and often viciously — to thwart efforts at meaningful education reform.

The basic philosophy of unionism is the protection of the lowest performer (i.e. union opposition to merit pay, can’t fire bad teachers.) This brings the standard of excellence down to the lowest common denominator. That’s why day after day, education quality plummets in any environment where a union has influence. As University of Chicago Economist Sam Peltzman said, “Where unions get a toehold, performance ultimately deteriorates.”

Many advocates of school choice suggest that they’re trying to end-run the unions. But like ignoring the elephant in the living room, they fail to recognize that the union still has a toehold. Let me explain.

Union officials who enjoy monopoly bargaining powers are easily able to inject their influence into charter schools – schools that had sought to break free from the same union power that has devastated public schools.

While the United Teachers of Wichita union has not yet consolidated all of its exclusive representation power over Edison Project charter school teachers, it has used its status with the Wichita school board to exercise considerable leverage over the charter schools. You see, the charter is supervised by the school board. So after attempting to force the school district to cut off funding to the Edison Project altogether, the union won other concessions in return for withdrawing a lawsuit filed to prevent the opening of two new schools. The union believed it had the contractual right to approve working conditions like whether teachers are allowed to work extra hours. The union brass sued to prevent the new charter schools from opening because, as the Wichita Eagle wrote, “it would erode union power.”

In New York, we’ve reviewed a pending charter school bill that has the teacher union’s fingerprints all over it. Under the proposed law, union officials are statutorily authorized to continue to exercise their “representation” powers over teachers who move from public schools to charter schools. This practice is in essence statutory salting, an organizing tool. So with a number of charter school teachers under their thumb, it’s more likely that the union would win monopoly bargaining status at the charter school. But even if the it didn’t, if the enrollment in the charter school exceeds 250 students, the union is automatically awarded monopoly bargaining power. In addition – New York is the only state that makes agency shop mandatatory in any organized bargaining unit. It’s not even a subject of negotiation, so once the union enjoys monopoly bargaining power – it automatically has the power to collect compulsory dues.

With this kind of control of charter schools handed over to union officials, can we expect any different result than 30 years of union control in public education?

Just as union officials have set their sights on charter schools, they’ll be gunning for private schools under a voucher scheme. When vouchers are implemented, the influx of new cash and teachers at private schools make them more attractive organizing targets. Regrettably, the compulsory unionism provisions in the NLRA would allow unions to easily get their claws into private schools, as well.

Simply put, the union has the power to get its hands into everything because they enjoy special privileges granted by law.

So what can be done?

Breaking the grip of the teacher unions is a two-step process. First, we must deprive them of the power to compel membership and the payment of dues. Secondly, we must remove their monopoly bargaining power — the privilege under which union militants are designated as exclusive representatives and permitted to speak on behalf of all teachers.

A recent comment by the Executive Director of the Iowa teacher union illustrates the importance of the first step – depriving them of the ability to extract compulsory dues.

When asked if the Iowa unit of the teachers union would be celebrating the NEA-mandated Lesbian & Gay History Month, Fred Comer, Executive Director of the Iowa NEA, declared: “Hell no, we don’t support it. Iowa is a Right to Work state, we have to earn our membership. If we supported that, we’d lose too many members.”

The second — and most fundamental — step to breaking the teacher union stranglehold is eliminating the most insidious form of compulsory unionism called “exclusive representation” — more accurately called “the monopoly bargaining privilege.” This authority officially granted by 34 states enables union officials to dictate school policy.

What is little understood is the full extent to which union militants use their monopoly bargaining power to exercise sweeping control over everything that goes on in the school – over compensation and assignments given individual teachers, over curriculum, textbooks and standards, and over which teachers get promoted and which ones are held back.

Teacher union power extends to the vital entities like peer review boards, curriculum and professional standards panels and in all other capacities where law, regulation or contract provisions require a “teacher representative.”

You see, whenever a contract, state law or regulation calls for a teacher representative to act in any decision-making capacity, the selection always comes back to the union brass. ALWAYS!

Why? Because in those 34 states the law declares that union officials are the “exclusive representatives” of the teachers.

As a result, it is the radical union hierarchy and no one else who is permanently installed in the driver’s seat.

Thus, it is the militants who get promoted, both within the union structure and on the job, while those teachers who are concerned primarily with education instead of political activism, are shoved aside.

Unfortunately, in the 34 states which have given monopoly bargaining power to teacher unions the effort to organize alternative teacher organizations is also destined to fail. In fact, alternative unionism is a blind alley down which some of our good friends are leading independent educators. The record is clear and long: so long as state law grants monopoly bargaining power to teacher unions, the recognized representative of teachers will be – or will become – a militant trade union, not a professional association.

In fact, that’s exactly why the NEA – over three decades ago a professional teacher organization trying to compete with the AFT — became just like their enemy. You see, to compete for members, they sought and won monopoly bargaining power. The rest is history.

Only three states have been successful in building strong, independent, professional educators groups so far – all three being among the 16 states that do not legalize monopoly bargaining. Those three states are Texas, Missouri, and Georgia.

Most Americans still have a lot to learn about unions in education. Too many people vaguely equate the union with that classroom teacher whom they know and respect, not with the hard-as-nails political entity that dictates school policy.

Most of us in this room recognized the teacher union problem early on and have been working hard to alert the American people to just what is going on in our educational system. I think we can take a measure of encouragement from the fact that today we are being joined by more and more voices who have figured out that the stranglehold of teacher unions must be broken if we are to have genuine reform in education.

The National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation and National Right to Work Committee — are waging a two-pronged attack — legal and legislative — to roll back compulsory unionism.

The Foundation is defending teachers in over 100 cases nationwide. Most of these cases center around enforcement of a Supreme Court principle established by the Foundation that no one should be compelled to pay for union activities unrelated to collective bargaining, like politics.

The Committee closely monitors legislative action in all fifty states, and it is regularly battling toe-to-toe with the union lobbyists across the country as they seek to expand their compulsory dues and monopoly bargaining control over school teachers and other public employees. We are pleased to report that the Committee has successfully stopped the expansion of state-mandated compulsory collective bargaining and its concurrent compulsory dues. We are now working to reverse that trend.

But most of all, we must help our fellow travelers in the fight understand that for meaningful reform to truly take hold, the cancer of compulsory unionism must be removed from America’s educational system.