The Teachers Menace: Compulsory Unionism

“I want to urge devotion to the fundamental of human liberty—to the principles of voluntarism. No lasting gain has ever come from compulsion. … [T]he workers of America adhere to voluntary institutions in preference to compulsory systems which are held to be not only impractical, but a menace to their rights, their welfare and their liberty.”

That’s not Ronald Reagan’s view of compulsory unionism, but that of Samuel Gompers—the father of the modern American labor union movement. However, it’s not a philosophy you will find etched on the gray marble, multi-storied headquarters of Pennsylvania’s most powerful labor union, the Pennsylvania State Education Association. They are no respecters of the “fundamental of human liberty.”

As a former teacher and public school board member, I was a first-hand witness to the “impractical” and negative impact of compulsory unionism on the teaching profession. I quickly found that the modern-day, compulsory labor union movement treats teachers not as professionals, but as assembly line workers.

So although the early American model of unionization might still work for automobile workers and candy makers, compulsory unionism in public education has primarily served to harm teachers and hurt the teaching profession. It has driven some of the best educators out of our public schools, while preventing others from getting in.

While I personally refused to join a union as a teacher, I fully support every teacher’s right to voluntarily join and pay dues to a labor union. It’s a right clearly protected in our Constitution’s Bill of Rights.

I am, however, equally opposed to compulsory unionism. No person should be forced to join or pay dues to a labor union as a condition of employment. Clearly, Mr. Gompers would concur that compelling teachers to join and financially underwrite a labor union against their will is a “menace to their rights, their welfare and their liberty.”

Ironically, union bosses frequently lament the fact that teachers are not compensated as well as doctors, lawyers, or engineers. But unlike other white-collar occupations, teaching remains one of the few professions where salaries have little or nothing to do with competency, demand, or performance. This condition exists because of the labor unions—not in spite of them. Instead of allowing teachers who excel in the classroom to seek higher compensation based on merit, standardized union contracts serve to protect institutional mediocrity and reward incompetence in the classroom.

Fortunately for teaching professionals, the introduction of the “Pennsylvania Open Workforce Initiative” provides the first step in freeing teachers from compulsory unionism in our schools. One day, our best educators may finally be able to reap the professional rewards already earned by doctors, lawyers and engineers. Likewise, maybe a few doctors and engineers will one day be permitted to take their skills and knowledge into a public school classroom.

Of course, not all force is bad. Freeing teachers from compulsory unionism will force schools to compete in attracting and retaining good teachers. Administrators would be forced to provide appropriate financial rewards to teachers who excel or risk losing them to a competing school. Mediocre or incompetent teachers would be forced to improve their skills or choose another line of work. Such force in all of these cases serves to benefit everyone except, of course, poorly performing schools, bad administrators, and unprofessional teachers.

By unleashing the entrepreneurial spirit in public education via removing the compulsory power of labor unions over teachers, professional opportunities would become endless for good educators. Teachers could choose to continue working for a school district, but preserve the option to partner with other educators to form for-profit and non-profit consortiums or “private practice” instructional ventures.

But the greatest benefit of liberating teachers from compulsory unionism is that by finally treating educators like other professionals, we would also vastly improve educational opportunities for every child in Pennsylvania.

No, schools aren’t factories, teachers aren’t assembly line workers, and children are certainly not widgets. It’s time we stopped labor unions from treating them that way.

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Matthew J. Brouillette, a former teacher and public school board member, is president of the Commonwealth Foundation, a non-partisan, non-profit research and educational institute located at the foot of the Capitol in Harrisburg.