Both the NEA and AFT will hold their conventions this summer. One should expect them to be solemn affairs. The nation’s two largest teacher’s unions and unions in general across the country have come under increasing fire. In Wisconsin, teachers lost the right to bargain for their wages and health benefits. Indiana and Michigan became right to work states. Unions are also dealing with declining revenue, falling membership, damaging court cases and the defection of many formerly loyal Democratic allies. They also have come under fire from wealthy education reformers who see them as an impediment to improving education.
The NEA and AFT took a huge hit last Tuesday when a California judge struck down five laws in California they supported to protect teachers jobs. The Supreme Court is also set to announce its ruling on Harris vs. Quinn from Illinois that could devastate unions revenue streams. Recently, several well-funded advocacy groups launched a massive campaign to paint unions as the problem in education and mobilize the support of parents.
The education unions are also divided. The NEA and AFT are split between members and leaders who urge compromise and others who urge an all out brawl. This debate has led to the formation of the Badass Teacher’s Union. Smaller than its older siblings, the union promises to fight for member rights and does not support compromise to achieve its goals. This divide has not aided unions in their attempts to portray themselves as pragmatic and essential to protecting the middle class.
Few people would argue teachers are not valuable. But get into a discussion with somebody on the value of teacher’s unions and that conversation could change quickly. Teacher’s unions have done themselves no favors in the actions they have taken and laws they have championed. This is what led to the lawsuit in California, with the plaintiffs arguing laws such as tenure and seniority denied many children a quality education. The judge agreed and in a blistering opinion blasted unions for denying minority children access to a quality education.
Unions may only be protecting the interests of their members but they do themselves no favors by doing so. In 2009, 43% of Americans viewed unions as a negative force in education while only 32% said otherwise. This has also led to fading clout in elections. The NEA and AFT spent heavily to defeat Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker (R) in the summer recall election of 2012 and were badly defeated. More recently, unions spent almost $5 million to boost CA Superintendent of Education Tom Torlakson. Torlakson’s margin of victory was far from impressive and he will square off with Democrat Marshall Tuck, a former charter school executive, who might benefit from the recent state ruling.
Unions have also lost the support of traditional media allies. The NYT’s editorial board and LA Times took the unions to task for even defending California’s laws, calling them “indefensible.” Numerous Democratic politicians have also distanced themselves from the teacher’s unions. The President is on record supporting charter schools and rewarding good teachers to the detriment of an established, seniority system. Even hardcore liberals such as the now deceased Teddy Kennedy passed laws that required teachers to be held accountable for their students successes and failures. If the Supreme Court rules that unions cannot demand dues from non-members who benefit from a union’s collective bargaining work, unions ability to collective revenue would be severely curtailed. Union membership has already declined significantly since the dawn of the new century.
Unions also cannot count on the continued support of the Democratic Party. In 2007, a group of wealthy donors teamed up together and formed Democrats for Education Reform. There goal; to elected a new breed of pro education Democrats willing to pursue policies such as expanding charter schools, weakening or eliminating tenure and holding teachers accountable for their students results. It worked. Big name mayors such as Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter, former LA Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed and Senator Corey Booker have side with DFER.
All these men have something in common, they have taken on the unions. In Chicago, Emanuel allowed teachers to strike and was ultimately able to lower their salary increase and improve teacher accountability standards. In Philadelphia, Nutter approved the expansion of charter schools and lowered tenure rules for the lowest performing schools. Before Booker was elected to the Senate, as mayor of Newark, NJ, he worked with NJ Governor Chris Christie (R) to implement significant reform in the city’s education system. Booker left and unions claimed victory in electing a pro-union, anti-reform mayor. Unions also have an ally in NYC Mayor Bill De Blasio. However, De Blasio has run smack into the education reform movement and Governor Mario Cuomo in trying to close down charter schools and fund pre K education through a local tax on millionaires.
The unions internal divide has also hurt their cause. This divide has led to an increasingly militant attitude toward teacher pensions and benefits and soured the public on unions. Internally, the rift has revealed deep divisions over tenure, preserving a traditional pension system, charter schools and the Common Core Standards.
To make up for the loss of traditional membership the NEA and AFT have welcomed into their ranks a large number of new members from non-teaching professions: nurses, along with public defenders, dental hygienists, police officers and even lifeguards. The unions now have to represent these members interests and another divide has occurred over what interests the unions should represent. Traditional members see their interests being crowded out in the name of survival of the union. This ultimately weakens the voice of teachers unions.