Government union power cracking as support wanes

Paul Kersey

Labor law expert, occasional smart-aleck, defender of the free society.

Paul Kersey
/ Labor
December 10, 2013

Government union power cracking as support wanes

While teachers unions hold tremendous power, cracks are starting to appear in their foundations.  As Stephanie Simon reports in Politico, both the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers are dealing with new challenges: declining membership, the growing popularity of Right-to-Work laws and a loss of support among the public. As Simon describes...

While teachers unions hold tremendous power, cracks are starting to appear in their foundations.  As Stephanie Simon reports in Politico, both the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers are dealing with new challenges: declining membership, the growing popularity of Right-to-Work laws and a loss of support among the public.

As Simon describes it, union officials are struggling to retain support from a newer generation of teachers who support rigorous teacher evaluations and merit pay – things that unions traditionally have resisted. Teachers have refused to be active, if they join at all.

Losses have been especially sharp in states that have passed major labor law reforms, especially in Wisconsin, which overhauled its government labor law, and Michigan, which passed a Right-to-Work law. Wisconsin’s NEA affiliate lost 19 percent of its members, and its AFT council lost nearly two-thirds of its members when that state made union support optional and placed sharp limits on the scope of collective bargaining.

Meanwhile polls show teachers unions losing the sympathy that they once had among the general public; in one poll, only 22 percent of Americans had a positive view of teacher unions.

The teachers unions’ difficulties are really the fruit of decades of intransigence, which has frustrated taxpayers and even strained relations with traditional progressive allies. Union critics can point to shocking situations like those in New York City’s public schools, where there are 128 documented cases of sexual misconduct by teachers, but the majority of teachers involved remain on the payroll. In their zeal to protect what they think of as due process, teacher unions have become protectors of incompetent and even criminal school employees.

That is an awful record to have to defend.

The two biggest teachers unions still have a war chest that allows them to put up a strong defense. The AFT and NEA have a powerful political machine that is funded by mandatory membership dues.  In Illinois alone, the two unions’ PACs donated $16.8 million to elected officials between 2002 and 2012, and that does not include union lobbying and public advocacy work. Together, the Illinois affiliates of the two main teachers unions have an annual budget of more than $110 million.

But the teachers unions’ power, and the ways they have misused that power, have generated opposition they have not faced before. Moral outrage is a powerful political force, and it is starting to converge on NEA and AFT. Even the unions’ money may not be enough to save them if enough teachers and parents come to see unions as their mutual foe.

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