We entrust our teachers to open the eyes of students.  We task them with showing our students the value of knowledge and how studying and learning will lead the way to a successful career and life.  You would think that teachers, as a group, would be smarter and more open to learning, than the average person.  Since teachers and teacher’s unions have been in the news lately, I have a few questions.

1.  Why are the teacher’s unions fighting so hard?

The law just passed in the Wisconsin legislature and signed by Governor Walker bans the Union “check-off.”  That means that members of the public employee unions will not see their dues payments automatically withdrawn from their pay.  Now, not all union members will decide to pay their dues.  Union leadership will have fewer dollars to pay themselves and fewer dollars to buy influence.  Just consider that 93% of all public employee union political contributions last election went to Democrats.  If you assume that less than 93 % of union members are Democrats, it stands to reason that quite a few will not want to see their union dues paid to candidates or causes against their will.  Teachers are a diverse group and many don’t like the way their forced union dues are being used.  Many will withhold their dues payments.  Almost half of Wisconsin’s union members voted Republican so this represents a potentially huge loss of union funding and power.  How much will the teacher’s unions lose in dues payments?  Is it enough to fight over?

2.  Why is the Wisconsin situation unique?

It isn’t.  In fact, many states have laws that limit the power of unions.  Ever since the Taft-Hartly bill passed in the late 40s, closed shops have been illegal.  That means that it is illegal to require union membership to hold a job at a workplace with union represented employees.  Through many years, liberal lawmakers have been able to corrupt the intent of Taft-Hartley by making it legal to contract with a company (or government agency) to require that employees in a union shop abide by union rules, including the payment of unions dues. Many states already have laws like the one just passed in Wisconsin and many more are planning to pass similar laws.  Should the unions be worried?

3.  Why is private industry union affiliation shrinking so throughout the country?

Increasingly, workers have seen that they are not being represented by their unions.  Union dues take a big chunk out of wages.  Not all members support the politics of their unions and don’t want their money spent to back political goals that do not align with theirs.  Though public employee unions are the one area where unions are actually growing, not shrinking, it looks like that too will soon change.  Take the example of the teacher’s union in my town.  The union is pushing for increases in pay and benefits that will only be affordable to the School District if they eliminate 40 teacher positions.  That means that union action will cost 10% of the member-teachers their jobs.  Most of those in the 10% will think twice before joining a union again.  In a couple of years the contract will be negotiated and a new group of maybe 10% will be disenfranchised.  In general, unions have shifted focus from working to improve working conditions for members to working to increase the political power of the unions.  Many job holders (witness the 46% noted above) are not happy with the new direction.  Is government employment the only place Unions still have something to offer to workers?

4.  Why do we still think of teaching as a profession rather than just an occupation?

We don’t.  Since teachers have joined unions, much of the general public has begun to view them as job holders, not professionals.  Teachers were held on a pedestal as examples of the noble profession dedicated to the welfare of their students.  Today they are often seen as dissatisfied, self-interested workers.  An interesting result is that rather than encouraging teachers to excel and lead the way to higher learning, we see a body of people seeking the lowest common denominator.  Joe Klein, the former head of New York public schools recently revealed that over the past ten years, more teachers in their system have died on the job than have been fired.  He confessed that it was almost impossible to fire a teacher.  Why?  Tenure.  Once hired and after a very short period, teachers are granted tenure which basically means they have a job for life.  Name any other profession where that situation exists*. Originally, the argument for tenure was “academic independence.”  It was thought that a professor could only be an independent thinker if he was freed of the worry of his views offending his superiors.  How interesting is it that today we have turned that original idea on its head.  Today, tenure is buying us teachers, most of whom think alike (at least in public) and toe the union line so they don’t run afoul of their real bosses, the unions.  Do other professionals have tenure or guaranteed jobs?  Doctors can, and do, lose licenses or get fired for substandard work.  Attorneys get disbarred or let go by their firms for poor or unethical work.  Where else but in the schools can you bring your problem with alcohol to work and not be fired without a process that takes as much as a couple of years?  Unionized teachers are professionals?

5.  Are many, if not most, teachers being ‘worked’ by the unions?

For a good part of the past generation or two, teachers have not had the respect or pay that their vital role in society should garner them.  Now because of a few bad actors and the actions of most teacher’s unions, a backlash is forming that will further hurt teachers.  Teachers joining unions (though often against their will) to fight for more pay and benefits during a recession is a dumb move.  The unions, through the power of their money and through peer pressure, are pushing demands that most teachers know are not reasonable.  I would hope most teachers would have more sense and would speak up in their unions to express their displeasure.  The general  workforce, 10% of which is out of work, is not likely to sympathize with teacher’s union members who complain that they have to live with only a 2% cost of living increase.  I think teacher’s unions are going a long way to paint a very negative picture of teachers today.  I think teachers are being ‘worked’ by their unions. Maybe laws like the new one in Wisconsin will limit the numbers of teachers being preyed upon by the unions.  I hope so.  Since I believe most teachers are dedicated to helping youth, it will be a big step forward if they are not represented by unions.  The president of the NEA said, “When school children start paying union dues, that‘s when I’ll start representing the interests of school children.”  Is that what teachers really want?

* – bonus points if you mentioned Supreme Court Justices.