Unions vs. Children


By and large, teachers are wonderful people who dedicate their lives to helping children achieve their full potential. Their unions, by contrast, have a very different mission.

Take the Great Chicago Library Lockout of 2017, for example. As a parent recently described in the Wall Street Journal, Pritzker Elementary in Chicago had to lay off its librarian due to a combination of budget cuts and lower-than-expected enrollment, so parents volunteered to help out to keep the library open. According to Michael Hendershot, whose daughter attends Prtizker, “There was so much interest that the parent-teacher organization created a rotating schedule of regular volunteers to help out.” That’s when the Chicago Teachers Union (and affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers) intervened:

 But before parents could begin volunteering, a teachers union member filed a formal complaint with the school system, objecting to the parents’ plan. Several weeks later, a union representative appeared at a local school council meeting and informed parents that the union would not stand for parental volunteers in the library. Although the parents intended to do nothing more than help students check books in and out, the union claimed that the parents would be impermissibly filling a role reserved for teachers. The volunteer project was shut down following the meeting and the library is currently being used for dance classes.

Noting that Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, recently declared that “we have an obligation to all children in America,” Henderson expressed the anger and bewilderment that many Pritzker parents are feeling:

The Chicago union’s actions do not match Ms. Weingarten’s rhetoric. How does forcing the closure of an elementary school library square with the union’s stated mission of fighting for children? How does opposing parents who want to volunteer their time so that children can check out books constitute giving parents the voice they need?

The parents are understandably angry, but they shouldn’t be bewildered. As Professor Terry Moe of Stanford University explained in his book, “Special Interest: Teachers Unions and America’s Public Schools,” the union’s main purpose is to protect adult jobs, not advance the interests of children, and the policies they push reflect this. Moe explains:

Almost everywhere, in districts throughout the nation, America’s public schools are typically not organized to provide the nation’s children with the highest quality education.

One example: salary schedules that pay teachers based on their seniority and formal credits and have nothing whatever to do with whether their students are learning anything. Another example: rules that give senior teachers their choice of jobs and make it impossible for districts to allocate teachers where they can do the greatest good for kids. Another example: rules that require districts to lay off teachers (in times of reduced revenues or enrollments, say) in reverse order of seniority, thus ensuring that excellent teachers will be automatically fired if they happen to have little seniority and that lousy teachers will be automatically retained if they happen to have lots of seniority.

These sorts of rules are common. But who in their right mind, if they were organizing the schools for the benefit of children, would organize them in this way? No one would. Yet the schools do get organized in this way. The examples I’ve given are the tip of a very large iceberg. As a result, even the most obvious steps toward better education are difficult, if not impossible, to take.

The rules the unions push often constrain teachers who want to do what’s best for their students. Jonathan Butcher of the Goldwater Institute recently highlighted an example of this all-too-common phenomenon in a review of Ed Boland’s book, The Battle for Room 314:

Room 314 is a memoir, not a policy guide, even though Boland offers recommendations in the book’s conclusion. The author is a 40-something New Yorker who leaves his successful career in fundraising to teach in a New York City public school. He gives an account of his year spent trying to make sense of American teenagers with absent or unstable parents. Boland leaves little to the imagination and tells the story with the same salty language that his students use in class. Be warned, it’s brutal and explicit storytelling at times.

Because this is a book about public schools, Boland’s personal story cannot help but expose familiar policy problems. Halfway through the school year, Boland and his fellow ninth grade teachers plan to reconfigure the classrooms to break up the most disruptive students. The teachers agree to teach an extra period.

Enter the union. The representative says, “If management sees that teachers are willing to work more without more compensation, they’ll hold that against us during the next round of negotiations… We have to adhere to the contract strictly or the whole thing falls apart.” Boland says his class has already fallen apart.

It’s no wonder, then, that some teachers want out of their unions. Unfortunately, about half the states force district-school teachers either to join a union or pay “agency fees” that are often nearly as expensive as dues, but without the benefits. Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court considered the case of ten teachers who challenged the constitutionality of the statute. They argued that forcing them to pay the unions to bargain (supposedly) on their behalf was violated their First Amendment right to free speech, which includes the right not to speak, because collective bargaining with the government is inherently political. Sadly, with Justice Antonin Scalia’s untimely passing, SCOTUS was divided 4-4, so the law still stands.

In the coming year, we will likely see further legal challenges and legislative efforts to help unshackle teachers, giving them greater freedom and flexibility to help kids achieve their potential. We will also see many initiatives to expand educational choice, empowering parents to choose the learning environments that work best for their kids—and leave ones where bureaucrats and unions put their own interests before the children.

Published in Education
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There are 6 comments.

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  1. danys Thatcher

    Is it possible for parents or students to sue districts or the unions for malpractice/harm to the consumers of the education product? The harm would be poorer educational outcomes, threats to student safety, etc that are a direct result of union policies that might be in teacher labor contract. Of course quantifying the damage done to students could be difficult to prove.

    There has to be a way to reform public education.

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  2. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator

    We shouldn’t neglect to use the term corporate greed for this kind of behavior where individuals, who due to a personal sense would not engage in this kind of behavior on their own, will do so as part of the larger corporation (in this case a public employees union).

    And I wish we wouldn’t dignify this behavior by referring to it as union behavior. These are public employee unions, not real unions.  There is a legitimate place for real workers’ unions; there is none for public employee unions.

    And I’ve seen this kind of behavior even outside of a unionized workplace, where regular employees resent volunteers who come in and do work that lessens the need for regular employees. In one case it was laid-off auto workers who had worked at a Michigan plant that closed. They were collecting money; I don’t know if it was regular unemployment compensation or (more likely) some special arrangement in the union contract.  They had a choice of going to the union/unemployment office each day to be available if there was work (zero chance) or spending their time in volunteer service.  It paid the same either way, and these guys preferred being useful to sitting around. But they were resented in some quarters. Having been union workers they understood, but they still preferred to be doing something rather than nothing. They pitched in as if they were on the payroll.

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  3. MarciN Member

    A good and necessary post. Thank you.

    • #3
  4. JimGoneWild Coolidge

    The parents should have gone forward and ran the library. Let the union or the law force them out–in front of cameras. I think the unions would have relented.

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  5. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator

    JimGoneWild (View Comment):
    The parents should have gone forward and ran the library. Let the union or the law force them out–in front of cameras. I think the unions would have relented.

    Not union. Public employee union.

    Back in the very early 80s there was a teacher strike in our district. A couple of the professors at my workplace played the role of scabs and went to the high school to teach science as volunteers. These were your typical Reagan-hating trendy-left professors, but they didn’t appreciate the teacher strike. The public employee union didn’t like it. As far as I know it didn’t make the news. (The professors at the university I worked for are not unionized, and those I knew at the time were against any efforts to unionize. I’m not so sure about the younger generation, but they still aren’t unionized. Support staff are unionized, except for off-campus departments like the one where I worked. I belonged to a real union once (Amalgamated Meat Cutter and Butcher Workmen of America, an AFL-CIO Union, it said on my union card) but one thing that kept me from ever trying to get a job on the main campus was the idea of having to join a union. Many others of my colleagues felt the same.)

    • #5
  6. Arjay Member

    JimGoneWild (View Comment):
    The parents should have gone forward and ran the library. Let the union or the law force them out–in front of cameras. I think the unions would have relented.

    A public employee union?  In Chicago?  I tend to doubt it.

    • #6
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