The right to quit could give teachers unions their credibility back

Paul Kersey

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

Paul Kersey
/ Labor
November 21, 2014

The right to quit could give teachers unions their credibility back

What could be a lively debate among educators has become a dull monologue directed by entrenched union officials. Teachers unions have a lot to learn from other professional groups.

On Nov. 17, Lydia Phyllis of the Washington Post asked if teachers unions couldn’t work more like the American Medical Association, or AMA, the largest association of physicians in the country.

Under current labor law, the answer is no. Without significant legal reform, the two groups will remain fundamentally different.

The AMA is a voluntary association of highly trained professionals who are free to leave if they disagree with the group’s political positions. The National Education Association, or NEA is a union for teachers who often have little choice but to support it. The same is true of the American Federation of Teachers, or AFT. Most teachers must join a union or pay an agency fee as a condition of employment.

The difference between the two organizations reflects a fundamental difference in how we treat the two professions of medicine and teaching. Medical doctors are presumed to have a high degree of autonomy. While many work for large institutions such as hospitals, they are presumed to be capable of speaking for themselves both in their workplaces and in the public square. Depending on circumstances, doctors may differ in opinion on the best way to deliver health care or the merits of legislation like the Affordable Care Act, or ACA. Differences of opinion are allowed and are worked out through open debate. By contrast, teachers in public schools – in Illinois and most other states – are assigned a single representative that is presumed to speak for all the teachers in their district.

Collective bargaining law mandates that only one union can represent teachers in any district. The authority to represent all teachers, and collect mandatory dues and agency fees, has made the teachers unions powerful. But this has come at a terrible cost to teachers themselves, as the public does not always hear the full range of teachers’ voices. Individual teachers might have different and innovative ideas for improving education, but their ideas are drowned out by the power and money that goes to their union. What might be a lively debate among educators has become a dull monologue directed by entrenched union officials.

The success of the AMA shows that there is more than one path to influence; a professional association can accumulate respect and even clout without silencing critics within its profession and without forcing anyone to support it. When the AMA pronounces its opinion on issues relating to health care, even its opponents must acknowledge that it likely does speak for the medical profession as a whole. If it takes too many positions that are contrary to the opinions of doctors, those doctors will quit.

That doesn’t make the AMA infallible, but it does make the AMA formidable. Its opinions are not to be dismissed lightly. Even when the AMA gets something wrong, the fact that doctors can leave creates a correcting mechanism. The AMA was an early supporter of the ACA, but since its passage it has become more critical of the health-insurance law. The group has been forced into taking these steps because doctors quit and even set up alternative groups to represent them.

By contrast, the critics of the NEA and AFT feel justified in dismissing the claims of the unions precisely because they know their members are not always free to leave. You might hear a teachers union official take a position on public education, and still, with good reason, wonder what other teachers really think.

Teachers are in a quandary because of a labor law that gives unions access to mandatory dues and fees and blanket representation powers. As long as the law is not changed, they will be stuck in a place where their unions are powerful but their own voices are not heard. Teachers would benefit from a labor law that gave them more freedom to choose – as individuals – who will represent them. A right-to-work law for teachers would allow them to at least withhold their dues from union officials they don’t agree with.

Money and power are not the same thing as credibility. The teachers unions have money and power. But the AMA has credibility that teachers unions will never be able to match. Freedom has served doctors well. Freedom could serve teachers well too.

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