It is tough to be a union these days. Besieged on all sides from Republicans AND Democrats, the public, and businesses unions have been under assault since Obama took office. Once able to count on the solid support of Democrats, unions have found that Democrats don’t feel they need to walk in lockstep with them to win elections anymore.
It’s not surprising to note unions fighting with the GOP. In Wisconsin, unions spent millions to defeat Scott Walker only to fail three times. Both Michigan and Indiana became a right to work states in 2012. Wisconsin appears set to join them in the next few weeks. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie partnered with than Newark mayor Corey Booker (now Senator) to expand charter schools in the city. In all cases unions, particularly teachers unions, opposed such efforts. But Democrats are also increasingly in conflict with teachers unions.
Take the case of Chicago’s Rahm Emanuel. A seasoned politico, the former Obama administration official won his inaugural mayoral race with strong backing from the NAACP and Chicago’s Teacher union. Since that time it has gone nowhere but downhill. Elected in 2011, a mere year later Emanuel engaged in a tussle with unions that ultimately saw them go on strike before some of their demands were met. Emanuel got significant concessions as well.
Now, as he gears up for his reelection, his shaky prospects appeared tied to his education agenda which has cut salaries and pensions for teachers and closed dozens of low performing schools. Unions have spent heavily to defeat him but his challengers are subpar at best. The only question is whether Rahm can hit 50% and avoid an embarrassing run-off.
Chicago is not an isolated incident. Reflecting perhaps the only ideologically conservative aspect of Obama’s administration former Obama officials have embarked on attacking teachers unions over things they see as detrimental to education including tenure, outrageous salaries and overly generous pensions.
Obama has also jumped on the education reform bandwagon, His education effort Head Start which emphasized student achievement and teacher evaluations to be based in part on student performance has never been embraced by the AFT and NEA. Common Core, strongly supported by the President, has enraged both unions and conservatives, though for different reasons.
Other Democrats have taken on teachers unions but in less direct ways. Mario Cuomo’s reelection bid in 2014 was complicated by a contentious primary where his lack of support for teachers and support of charter and private schools was attacked. Now, Cuomo has proposed a 2015 budget that would make a conservative proud including expanding the number of charter schools to 560 from 460 and using teacher evaluations to fire bad teachers and limit tenure. Unsurprisingly, unions have balked and attacked the Governor.
But teachers unions
are increasingly finding their support isolated. Instead of working with administrators and politicians many unions are increasingly in conflict with such individuals. They also are losing the public. California illustrates such a trend.
In 2012, Students Matter, a nonprofit group founded by Silicon Valley entrepreneur David Welch, filed a lawsuit against California’s tenure system on behalf of nine inner city High School students. The suit alleged that California’s tenure system kept poor teachers from being fired, better teachers from being hired and disadvantaged poor and minority students stuck in failing inner city schools.
In June 2014, California judge Rolf M Treu agreed stating, “Evidence has been elicited in this trial of the specific effect of grossly ineffective teachers on students. The evidence is compelling. Indeed, it shocks the conscience.”
Unions have found an ally in Democratic Governor Jerry Brown who appealed the ruling in an effort to get support for his reelection bid. Treu did stay his decision until the appeal by Governor Brown made its way through the process.
Such a case from California illustrates how little support unions are receiving from the once friendly public. Polls consistently show voters value and respect teachers but they see a clear distinction between a “teacher” and a “teacher’s union.”
In 2012 Harvard’s Program on Education Policy and Governance asked both teachers and the public how they felt about teachers unions. They did it in two ways. They asked the following, “Some people say that teacher unions are a stumbling block to school reform. Others say that unions fight for better schools and better teachers. What do you think? Do you think teacher unions have a generally positive effect on schools, or do you think they have a generally negative effect?” Participants were asked to choose one of five responses: very positive, somewhat positive, neither positive nor negative, somewhat negative, and very negative.
Between 2009 and 2011 participants generally were more favorable to unions but in 2012 the numbers flipped. Whereas in 2011 29% of the public held a very positive view of teachers unions only 22% did in 2012. Most striking, in 2011 58% of teachers had a positive view of teachers unions but in 2012 that number dropped to 43%. However, when given only two options 71% of teachers gave their unions a positive image while the public split down the middle: 51% said unions had a negative impact, while 49% said their effect was positive.
The nuanced views of the public can be displayed by a simple example here in Idaho. In 2011, the Idaho legislature passed what was termed the Luna Laws. These laws mandated tenure be eliminated, collective bargaining further limited and all students to take at least one online class. The IEA with help from the NEA and AFT fought back and launched a petition to have a referendum on the laws.
While the laws all fell in 2012 it is notable how the laws were attacked. No mention of unions were made in advertisements for repealing the laws but rather the laws would harm teachers and students. And while the laws fell virtually every Republican in the legislature who voted for the laws was reelected. Many of the Luna Law ideas were re-passed in 2013 and have yet to breed much controversy.
It is unclear how one views teachers unions significantly impacts their votes. But both liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans are clearly becoming united around the idea our education system needs serious reform. Unions, defending the status quo, are increasingly losing allies among both the public and political parties.