Unions the Major Obstacle to Market-Oriented Reforms
Those familiar with the school reform movement, and with this newspaper, are keenly
aware of the key role--sometimes positive, more recently quite negative--that teacher
unions have played in school reform debates nationwide. Perhaps no one is more keenly
aware of the unions' significance in these debates than Myron Lieberman, chairman of the
Education Policy Institute and a senior research scholar at Bowling Green State
Lieberman is the author or coauthor of over a dozen books and scores of articles on
education policy and teacher bargaining. He is also a life member of the NEA and a retiree
member of the AFT. He was a candidate for national president of the AFT in 1962, receiving
roughly one-third of the convention votes. He has been a frequent delegate to state and
national teacher union conventions. He also has served as a labor negotiator for school
boards in Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, Arizona, California, and New Jersey,
handling grievances and unfair labor practice complaints as well as contract negotiations.
He spoke recently with School Reform News managing editor George Clowes about his
Clowes: Can you provide us with a brief history of unionization
among teachers: when it happened, how it happened, and why?
Lieberman: As I point out in my forthcoming book, The Teacher
Unions, although teacher unions have existed since the nineteenth century, it was not
until the 1960s that membership in the teacher unions mushroomed. The American Federation
of Teachers, or AFT, was formed in 1916 as a result of the Chicago Board of Education
placing a prohibition on teacher union membership. In the growth spurt that followed, for
a brief time membership in the AFT exceeded that in the National Education Association, or
NEA, which had formed much earlier, in 1857. Although there was a decline in membership
during the 1920s, AFT membership increased steadily through the 1960s, with about 5
percent of all teachers as members.
The NEA was formed by school superintendents in 1857. It was an anti-union organization
until the 1960s. Although teachers were often required to join the NEA, its local dues
were quite low. NEA membership provided few benefits to teachers, since the organization
was controlled by school administrators.
In 1961, the United Federation of Teachers, the AFT affiliate in New York, was selected
by a vote of the teachers to represent them in collective bargaining. Because of the way
the New York City election was conducted, the union represented all teachers rather than
one segment of teachers, such as elementary, junior high, or high school. This pattern has
continued to the present time. The AFT also advocated the teachers' right to strike and by
1969, the NEA had embraced this also.
Although the AFT led the effort to achieve collective bargaining rights, the NEA soon
followed and both organizations greatly increased their membership as a result. As the
collective bargaining agent for teachers, the union became the exclusive representative of
the teachers, who were then not permitted to negotiate individually for terms and
conditions of employment. Over time, most non-members joined the union that was their
exclusive representative. The critical years for the NEA were 1962, when it decided to
compete with the AFT, and 1972, when it adopted unified dues and a new constitution,
eliminating administrators from the union structure.
Clowes: Can you speculate on what might become of the American
Federation of Teachers, now that its president of over 20 years, Albert Shanker, has
Lieberman: Since one-third of AFT membership is in New York, that's
where the next president of the AFT probably will come from. I expect that the NEA and AFT
will merge in the next few years, with a loose affiliation with the AFL-CIO. I say that
even though the likely candidates for the AFT presidency don't possess Shanker's strong
commitment to the AFL-CIO. Shanker himself was instrumental in bringing about national
merger discussions between the NEA and the AFT in 1993. And although these discussions
broke down in December 1994, they have been revived recently. Last year, Bob Chase, the
new president of the NEA, said that these talks had been taken up again with the aim of
bringing about a merger between the NEA and the AFT.
If, in the meantime, a few of the larger AFT locals go over to the NEA, it could signal
the demise of the AFT.
Clowes: What has been the impact of unionization on teachers and
Lieberman: The unions assert that the impact of unionization has been
beneficial to teacher welfare and student achievement. The first claim is
doubtful--improvements in teacher welfare are marginal, and have come at the expense of
other needs, such as better facilities and instructional materials. The impact on student
achievement has been negative, despite union claims to the contrary. Let us not forget
that teacher unions were established to promote teacher welfare, not educational
achievement. It would be remarkable if an organization established to redistribute income
to teachers turned out to be optimal for increasing productivity.
Clowes: Teacher unions have been a powerful force opposed to
educational choice, or vouchers, and similar school reform efforts. Why is that?
Lieberman: Unions cannot flourish, even survive, if there is
competition among the producers, who employ services provided by union members. We have
seen this over and over, in dozens of different industries. The NEA/AFT are well aware of
this, hence their strategy is to defeat and denigrate school choice and contracting out in
every way they can.
Clowes: Must the unions be worked with, or through, or against?
What strategies do you recommend to reform activists who are facing union opposition?
Lieberman: The power of teacher unions to block reform must and can be
weakened in a variety of ways. The unions are the major obstacle to market-oriented
education reforms such as school choice and contracting out. They are also opposed to
lowering the terminal age of compulsory schooling, home schooling, and other reforms that
are urgently needed.
The primary strategy must be to weaken the teacher unions financially so that they can
no longer intimidate school boards and legislators. The ways to achieve this are: to
reduce union revenues; to eliminate taxpayer subsidies that the unions receive but which
should never have been given in the first place; and to impose on the teacher unions the
same reporting and disclosure requirements that are imposed on private sector unions under
the National Labor Relations Act.
Clowes: How can we reduce union revenues and eliminate taxpayer
subsidies to the unions?
Lieberman: The agency shop fee is probably the most important source
of union revenues after membership dues. These are fees paid to the union by non-members
who do not want to join the union, and the fees are often clearly excessive. Legislation
is needed to remedy this situation, or, failing that, it's essential to litigate and to
publicize corrupt practices. In addition, the NEA avoids at least $1.4 million in property
taxes on its tax-exempt building in Washington, DC--an exemption no other labor union
enjoys and which should be repealed.
Other taxpayer subsidies to the teacher unions that should be terminated are time off
with pay to conduct union business, payroll deduction of union dues, PAC contributions at
no cost to the union, and taxpayer funding of pension contributions for NEA/AFT staff who
are teachers on leave from school district employment.
Finally, unions should be required by law to provide to their members on a regular
basis reports and disclosures concerning union assets, income, expenditures, and so on,
just as private sector unions are required to do under the Landrum-Griffin Act.
Clowes: Is the union leadership representative of membership on
Lieberman: THE NEA/AFT devote substantial resources to polling their
members. It is a fallacy to assume they are out of touch with their membership. The
problem is that membership attitudes are based on misinformation or lack of information
due to the need for the union bureaucracies to protect themselves.
"Representative" is ambiguous. For example, 35 percent of NEA members are
Republicans, and another 35 percent consider themselves independent. Yet 98 percent of
NEA-PAC and AFT/COPE funds go to Democrats. In that sense, union leadership is not
"representative" of membership attitudes.
Teacher attitudes on education reform are shaped in large part by union propaganda on
the issues. This is why teachers believe, erroneously, that school choice is a threat to
Clowes: Do you know of "campaign strategies" that would
allow reformers to reach teachers who might be amenable to more radical proposals?
Lieberman: Yes, I do. There are several strategies that could be
effective. The problem is that the conservatives don't know very much about the NEA/AFT,
hence are not prepared to take advantage of union vulnerabilities.
Clowes: In Public Education: An Autopsy, you are critical
of the incompetence of the educational choice movement. Could you explain your concerns?
Lieberman: California's Proposition 174 provides a good example of
this incompetence. This was a school voucher proposition that was on the ballot on
November 2, 1993. It was defeated 70-30, in spite of polls showing a majority of parents
in California were in favor of school choice. The initiative failed for a number of
reasons, including disorganization, underfunding, lack of business or Republican support,
and poor drafting. Education is not a major concern of the Republican Party: there are no
staff members in the National Republican Committee assigned to education issues.
Initiative supporters demonstrated a remarkable lack of sophistication about their
union opponents. They did opposition research far too late in the campaign, and they
completely underestimated their union opponents.
Clowes: What is your assessment of such reforms as charter schools
and private scholarship/ voucher programs? Are these steps in the right direction?
Lieberman: Charter schools could be helpful if they provide broad
scope for schools for-profit, do not depend upon establishment approval, and avoid
compulsory unionization. Few charter schools meet these criteria. For this reason, and
although I hope I am mistaken, I believe that the potential of charter schools is
I do not oppose the private scholarship movement and the motives behind it are
commendable. Nevertheless, I believe its potential for systemic improvement also is
Clowes: What steps could be taken by the readers of School
Reform News--state elected officials, journalists, parents, and school reform
activists--to improve the quality of education in the U.S. today?
Lieberman: My answer is spelled out in several books and articles. I
would emphasize that weakening the veto power of the NEA/AFT over education policy is an
essential condition of significant progress, but it is not a sufficient condition. The key
to improvement is market competition. That has been the key in other industries and I see
no reason why it is not in education.
Clowes: What one message would you like most to communicate to
School Reform News readers about education issues?
Lieberman: I hope we can rise above the buzz word level, examine the
realities of our education situation, and scrutinize the remedies more realistically. With
phrases such as "Every child can learn," "World-class standards," and
"Parental involvement," there is very little substance to debates over education
policy, especially among conservatives. Few conservative leaders have a strong background
in education or the union movement. Their gullibility in these areas, and their chasing
after symbolic victories, such as school prayer, that have little or no substantive
impact, are major advantages for supporters of the status quo.