The Shrinking Teacher Union Brand
Teachers unions are losing members, but stubbornly stick with the same old product.
Earlier this month, the Bureau of Labor Statistics informed us that in 2014 – for the second year in a row – that there are fewer unionized than non-unionized teachers in the U.S. The reasons for this are many: more right-to-work states, a population shift to right-to-work states, an increase in mostly non-unionized charter schools and an uptick in the number of families availing themselves of school choice opportunities and sending their kids to private schools. Mike Antonucci writes, “Of the 4,535,249 teachers employed in elementary, secondary and special education in 2014, only 49 percent were union members. And the unionization rates for pre-k, kindergarten and higher education were much lower.” Antonucci also points out that while there were 34,921 more teachers overall in 2014, the unions were able to recruit only 10.7 percent of them.
By the way, it’s not just the teacher union brand that is suffering. According to the latest data, all union membership sagged to 11.1 percent, a drop from 11.3 in 2013, with just 14.6 million wage and salaried workers maintaining membership. The rate of union affiliation has been sliding for 30 years now. It did grow slightly from 12.1 percent in 2007 to 12.4 percent in 2008, but that was the only bright spot in some time for organized labor.
So in the smoke-free equivalents of smoke-filled rooms across the country, union kingpins are chewing on that old question, “What are we gonna do about this?!”
Well, where right-to-work legislation and litigation advance, unions will actually have to become responsive to the wishes of their members and make joining more attractive to would-be members. But as long as we have a forced-dues model throughout much of the land, most thoughts aren’t going in that direction. To be sure, many teachers, especially the younger ones, resent many union-mandated conventions like “last in/first out” as well as many aspects of the typical union contract strait-jacket. But politics plays an important role in the problem for teachers of all ages.
Politically speaking, responsiveness to its members has never been a hallmark of the teacher union elite. A small vocal and radical few determine policy for the larger group who are either ignorant of their actions, apathetic about politics, or they are intimidated by the more vociferous members. If you have any doubts about union-leadership politics, just look at the presidents of large union locals like Bob Peterson (Milwaukee), Alex Caputo-Pearl (Los Angeles) and Karen Lewis (Chicago) – all socialist-leaning, community-organizing practitioners. While not every state and local union leader falls into this category, an overwhelming majority do, despite an internal poll by the National Education Association which found that its rank-and-file is slightly more conservative (50 percent) than liberal (43 percent) in political philosophy.
In a recent piece, Bob Peterson, who doubles as a 5th grade teacher, sounded alarm bells, writing, “If Teachers Can’t Make Their Unions More Democratic and Social Justice-Minded, Public Ed Is Doomed.” At the same time he is asking unions to become more inclusive by becoming “democratic,” he rails against Scott Walker, Paul Ryan, conservatives, white-populated areas of the state, right-wing Republicans, privatization, corporate reformers, charter schools, vouchers, etc. Peterson’s union model would include efforts to raise the minimum wage, expand healthcare coverage and voter rights, implement incarceration reform, and stop “unfair hiring practices at a major federal housing project.”
When unabashed leftist – a community organizer in teacher’s clothes – Alex Caputo-Pearl became president of the United Teachers of Los Angeles least year, he talked about the importance of “social movement unionism.” Not surprisingly, socialists are very supportive of his agenda. Socialistworker.org describes him as a “veteran union militant and community organizer” and explains that Caputo-Pearl’s organizing plan includes “… increased member involvement in political action, and putting a priority on linking community-based social justice demands to our contract negotiations.”
And then there is Chicago Teachers Union chief Karen Lewis who, like Peterson and Caputo-Pearl, believes in bringing class warfare into the classroom. As reported by EAG News’ Kyle Olson, she alludes to a “lesson’ that the aforementioned Peterson uses:
‘People always talk about how that there’s no politics and values in math. That you can teach math and there’s no place for social justice. So let me tell you how Bob deals with that,’ Lewis said.
She went on to describe a math story problem about money and the cost of pencils.
‘That’s a very political statement because it’s all about consumerism – it’s about buying stuff, right?
‘Bob Peterson tells them about José working in a factory making piecemeal clothes. He uses the same numbers and gets the same answer. And yes, math is political, too.’
So no, it’s not about unions becoming more responsive to its members, but rather forcing a left-wing agenda down teachers’ – and students’ – throats. In other words, if you are a conservative, moderate, apolitical teacher or just don’t think the unions have any business getting into non-education issues, “Shut up … but keep those dues coming, and be sure to indoctrinate the kids while you are at it!”
The bottom line is that the Bob Petersons, Alex Caputo-Pearls and Karen Lewises of teacher union-world certainly don’t represent all, or even a majority of teachers. And it seems that those who don’t agree with their union’s mandatory work rules and their leader’s strident political philosophies are finding other places to work. As right-to-work laws spread across the land and school choice policies advance, teachers will have more options and won’t be forced to buy the fading teacher union brand.
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.