Conventional wisdom tells us unions are good for teachers. But is this true? While teachers’ unions have certainly benefited union leadership, rank and file teachers should carefully evaluate the pros and cons of membership.
How are Dues Spent?
According to the PSEA’s financial reporting, only 19.7 percent of the union’s spending went to “representational activities” like collective bargaining negotiations, handling grievances, and arbitration proceedings. A whopping 70 percent of the PSEA’s overall spending was gobbled up by the union in the form of compensation, general overhead, and multiple union leadership conferences.
Based on PSEA’s calculation of “fair share” fees, approximately 34 percent of dues goes to political, ideological, and similar activities NOT associated with the union’s direct representation of workers. While union dues are not allowed to be spent on certain political expenditures, they are used for a variety of political activities (lobbying legislators, get-out-the-vote drives, election mailers, PR campaigns, etc.). In 2016-17, the PSEA spent nearly $2.9 million of member dues on “political activities and lobbying.”
Similarly, the NEA spends a significant amount of dues money on political activities—at least $45 million in 2016-17. The actual amount is even higher since millions more were reported as “contributions, gifts and grants.” Among NEA’s recent recipients were “progressive” groups such as Media Matters for America, For Our Future Action Fund, Human Rights Campaign (LGBTQ advocacy group), and Emily’s List (pro-abortion PAC).
Many of these concerns would be solved with a local-only union option for teachers. This would enable them to bargain as a group without getting mired in the politicization of the NEA and PSEA. Unsurprisingly, the NEA and statewide unions have fought back when teachers have attempted to free their local union.
Former teacher Morgan Knight Hermann says she quit teaching because teachers are not viewed as professionals. Perhaps this is because they are treated like interchangeable widgets by the very organizations that purport to represent them. Instead of basing pay on merit, like most professionals, teachers are paid for years on the job and degrees accumulated. Unlike most professionals, teachers cannot negotiate their own contracts. Then, when there is a dispute, unions ask them to strike—putting the kids and families in their community at the mercy of closed-door negotiations teachers can’t even be a part of.
Union leaders at the state and national levels benefit from this mentality. By treating teachers as a collective group who cannot negotiate as individuals, teachers are kept dependent on the unions. Empowering teachers to negotiate their own contracts—just like engineers, accountants, and other professionals—would greatly weaken the power of the union.
Outside of government, most workers are hired and evaluated as individuals, even in very large companies. There is no reason to believe that teachers who choose to cannot likewise be treated as professional individuals rather than as a single unit no matter how they excel in their vocation.
Teachers’ unions claim teachers’ wages have stagnated, particularly compared to other professions. This begs the question: If wages have stagnated, what have unions actually accomplished for teachers?
The careers cited as having higher pay are not union dominated. They are largely professions in which individuals bargain for their own salaries and benefits and have a variety of workplace alternatives.
Unions fight against the very things that drive higher wages.
Competition among schools, in addition to giving students more options, would enable teachers to choose among multiple employers. The current government-run monopoly limits opportunities for teachers. Studies have shown that school choice competition results in higher salaries for teachers in public schools. Moreover, choice empowers teachers to seek the educational environment that best suits them. Despite these benefits, union bosses fight choice because it weakens their power since many private and charter schools are not unionized.
Union leaders, on the other hand, are not suffering from stagnant wages. The 74’s Mike Antonucci reported that the National Education Association is planning budget cuts that affect nearly every area: vacant staff positions not being filled; reductions in travel, publications, and office expenses; and even a 9 percent cut in cash grants to state and local affiliates. In a blatant display of hypocrisy, the exception to the union’s cost cutting is salaries for executive officers:
The base salary for NEA president Lily Eskelsen García will increase to $293,434. NEA’s vice president and secretary-treasurer will each receive $257,954. Additionally, all three executive officers receive cash allowances equal to 40 percent of their base salary — at least $103,182 each — to cover benefits and living expenses.
Once again, union leadership is looking out for itself rather than its members.
Until recent years, pensions have been the third-rail in education politics. Decades of promising too much and saving too little has resulted in massive unfunded pension liabilities that are usurping an ever-increasing share of education spending. Last summer politicians finally began dealing with the problem by passing pension reform.
While these reforms were significant and will reduce future liabilities, the teachers’ unions lobbied to prevent more meaningful reform from passing. The unions’ insistence on retaining defined benefit pensions flies in the face of data showing that most teachers do not stay in the system long enough to receive full retirement benefits. A flexible, portable retirement plan would be more beneficial to the majority of teachers.
Furthermore, pension liabilities are harming teachers by reducing take-home pay and forcing layoffs. The amount states and districts spend on pensions has increased approximately 261 percent over the past 15 years. A recent report by The 74 estimates teachers’ salaries nationwide could be on average 7 percent higher had that money been allocated to teachers’ paychecks instead of in the pension system. In Pennsylvania, that hypothetical salary increase would be considerably more than 7 percent. These estimates help illustrate the unseen cost teachers are bearing in exchange for a benefit most will never fully realize.
Challenging conventional wisdom is never easy. For years, teachers have been told unions are looking out for them. But when we look at specific areas that impact teachers the most, union leadership is not working towards teachers’ best interests. The recent Supreme Court ruling recognizing teachers have the right to teach without being forced to join or pay a union is a golden opportunity for Pennsylvania teachers to re-evaluate their union membership. Whatever option teachers choose, they deserve to know the facts.