Collective bargaining hurts teachers and students

By Larry Sand
January 15, 2019

Using a model from the Industrial Era, teachers in Los Angeles are striking.

I have written about the subject many times, but it is worth revisiting as Los Angeles teachers are striking over a one-size-fits-all collective bargaining contract that is harmful to all concerned.

Collective bargaining, a term first introduced into the lexicon by socialist Beatrice Webb in 1891, is a process of negotiations between employers and employees aimed at reaching agreements that regulate working conditions. The term refers to the sort of collective negotiations and agreements that had existed since the rise of trade unions during the 18th century, where workers were commonly represented by a union, and the agreements reached by this arrangement set wage scales, work rules, etc.

But does this 18th Century industrial model serve teachers and students in the 21st?

No, says researcher and education policy expert Greg Forster. He writes that collective bargaining is not a good fit for k-12 teachers. “Teachers are like doctors and lawyers. Standardizing the work they do into a one-size-fits-all mold creates major headaches for them.” Collective bargaining agreements (CBAs) demand standardization, “so processes and outputs can be specified in labor-management negotiations.” He maintains that unhindered by collective bargaining, private school teachers nationally are more likely to have control over selection of textbooks and other instructional materials by 53 to 32 percent; content, topics and skills to be taught (60 to 36 percent); performance standards for students (40 to 18) curriculum (47 to 22) and discipline policy (25 to 13).

In Oklahoma, Forster found that while public school teachers earned more than their private school peers, the former had less job satisfaction. In fact, compared to public school teachers, more educators in the private sector planned to teach as long as they could, would not leave their job even if one with a higher salary came along, and rarely felt that teaching was a waste of time. Also, he found that private school teachers were more likely to be satisfied with their salaries (51 to 46 percent) even though they are lower than those of educators in the public sector.

While Forster found that teacher pay was higher for public school teachers in Oklahoma, the same is not true nationally. “Wage compression” occurs when the salaries of lower paid teachers are raised above the market rate, with the increase offset by reducing pay of the most productive ones. “Why strive to become better if I am not going to be compensated for it?” is the attitude of many. Mike Petrilli of the Fordham Institute takes it one step further, claiming CBAs hurt the bottom line of all teachers. He compared teachers’ salaries in districts across the country that allow collective bargaining with those that don’t. He found that teachers who worked in districts where the union was not involved actually made more money than those who were in collective bargaining districts. According to Petrilli, “Teachers in non-collective bargaining districts actually earn more than their union-protected peers – $64,500 on average versus $57,500.” While Petrilli’s study was from 2011, research from Michael Lovenheim  in 2009, Andrew Coulson in 2010, and Augustina Pagalayan just last year bore similar results.

CBA’s also hurts students. “The Long-run Effects of Teacher Collective Bargaining,” a study by researchers Michael Lovenheim and Alexander Willen, was presented at the annual American Economic Association meeting in Philadelphia in January, 2018. Their carefully constructed analysis examined labor market outcomes and educational attainment for 35-49-year-olds. They found that teacher collective bargaining worsens the future labor market outcomes of students. In states that have collective bargaining laws for all 12 grade-school years, earnings are reduced “by $800 (or 2%) per year and decreases hours worked by 0.50 hours per week. The earnings estimate indicates that teacher collective bargaining reduces earnings by $199.6 billion in the US annually. We also find evidence of lower employment rates, which is driven by lower labor force participation, as well as reductions in the skill levels of the occupations into which workers sort.” The study found that minorities are especially negatively affected by collective bargaining.

The Lovenheim-Willen study was not the first to detail CBA’s harm to students. In 2007, Stanford professor Terry Moe reported that collective bargaining “appears to have a strongly negative impact in the larger districts, but it appears to have no effect in smaller districts….”

Caroline Hoxby, Professor of Economics at Stanford University, made a three minute video in 2009 in which she explains in plain language how CBAs stifle any management flexibility in determining the best slot for a teacher at a given school, as well as denying schools the opportunity to get rid of underperformers.

While collective bargaining is wrong for teachers who want to be considered professionals and is harmful to students, it is the teachers unions’ raison d’être. Please keep this in mind when you hear sound bites from striking teachers in Los Angeles who claim to be underpaid, undervalued and/or have walked out “for the children.” Their anger may be justified, but the villain is not the school district or its superintendent.

Larry Sand, a former classroom teacher, is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network – a non-partisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers and the general public with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues. The views presented here are strictly his own.