Although unions have been around since the 18th century to protect the rights and safety of workers, public employees have only recently benefited from the structure. The goal of a public or private union is essentially the same: to improve the working conditions of each employee, provide them with a grievance system to protect their employment, and ensure that safety is a top priority.
The first unions for teachers in the United States began to form in the year is right before the Great Depression. These public labor unions appeared because the local government was usually considered the employer, and they wanted to get as many resources as possible from their teachers for the least amount of money.
Although the cost of rising wages is supported by taxpayer funds in most circumstances, the pros and cons of a teacher’s union must look beyond the financial implications for each party. Students must also have a safe and effective classroom which allows them to learn. When we support a teacher, then we are also providing resources for the children in our communities.
List of the Pros of Teacher’s Unions
1. It allows a teacher to ensure their job receives due process protection.
Teachers who have the protection of the union do not automatically gain tenure or a job that they can keep under any situation. The presence of the union ensures that any problems that occur in the school or institutional setting can receive a proper review. There are specific guidelines that all parties must follow to ensure that the correct outcome occurs. Teachers cannot lose their job at the whim of a district or government official, while the administrators can still hold under-performing workers accountable to their actions.
2. Teachers can speak out on policy without being afraid of reprisal.
The presence of a union allows a teacher to express their thoughts or opinions to their administration without fearing reprisal in some way. This advantage gives everyone an opportunity to become advocates for a better educational environment. Teachers can come together in one voice to demand changes which would benefit their students without fear of exclusion or termination.
Teachers are the workers who are in the classroom all of the time. They are the people who see and understand what students require to maximize their educational opportunities. If there is a disagreement on what is necessary, the presence of the union allows for a healthy debate without worry.
3. You can sometimes deduct the union fees from your taxes as a teacher.
Most teachers who join a local union must pay monthly fees to receive this representation. Some might charge new employees an initiation fee during the initial orientation period of a new job. There might be annual maintenance fees to consider as well. Although the cost of this benefit can be up to 5% of a teacher’s overall salary, the charges are often tax deductible.
The gains in wages that a union provides will help to offset this cost as well. Teachers who receive consistent representation can earn about 10% more than what non-union employees earn. Although the costs of membership can be high, the presence of a teacher’s union still creates a better income even after the fees.
4. Schools with a teacher’s union typically perform better than those without one.
The nations of the world which have complete unionization for their teachers are also the regions where educational achievement is at its highest. Singapore and Finland have 100% unionization rates and lead the world in multiple learning categories. When you look at the difference between states with high unionization rates for teachers and those with lower ones, it is the former which tends to produce better and more consistent results.
Only Virginia ranks above the national median in terms of educational outcomes in the United States without having a strong union presence in the classroom. 70% of the states which do not have teachers’ unions make up the bottom tier of the U.S. educational rankings.
5. The presence of a union helps to bring teachers, administrators, and parents together.
When we embrace the diversity that we bring to the table in our mutual humanity, then it is possible to let our strengths create some fantastic results for the next generation. People who can work together in a safe environment can work to create meaningful changes that receive faster implementation when compared to those who work independently or apart. The presence of a union allows for teachers to advocate for their students, find resources for their district, and advocate for local, state, and national supports all at the same time.
When there is a teachers’ union that supports a school, then it gives everyone an opportunity to push for positive outcomes through public education. There might be benefits available for teachers in better workplace safety and wages, but it is the students who win with access to a better curriculum and more effective learning opportunities.
6. There can still be the possibility of tenure in some situations.
Tenure gives a teacher an opportunity to avoid the dangers of probation when they gain employment with a public school district. This structure, if included as part of the collective bargaining agreement, guarantees a process of rights that ensures a complete review of employment status if the quality of a teacher’s work comes into question.
Most teachers who work in public school settings can achieve tenure in about three years, although some institutions may require 5-10 years before evaluating the status of an employee for this benefit.
7. Unions protect teachers from evolving political perspectives.
When there is a change in power in the United States, then the priorities of the new political party take over. Republicans and Democrats can see the purpose of education in very different ways, impacting the overall teaching environment and salary expectations that are available from year-to-year. The presence of a teachers’ union works to counter these differences by providing a consistent foundation from which to work.
Teachers in non-union districts have seen their raises and promotional opportunities tied to student testing performance. Curriculum changes have been demanded at times, requiring compliance with religious dogma, extreme secularism, and problematic assignments. Unions cannot make all of these issues disappear, but they can certainly reduce the adverse impacts that they try to cause.
List of the Cons of Teacher’s Unions
1. The union might fail in their representation requirements.
It is not unusual for a public union to rely on shop stewards or their equivalent to communicate the needs of each location to the general representative body. Because there are no union officials involved with the daily work of being in the classroom, what a teacher feels is an important issue to review may not be a feeling which is shared by their representative. The amount of work that it can take to get some unions involved in the fight to create needed change can be extensive in some communities, often negating the efforts of the teachers.
2. It can cost a school district a lot of money to remove a terrible teacher.
Because due process requires the administration of a school to pursue specific remedies that seek to improve teacher performance, anyone protected by tenure or an equivalent rights process can be challenging to remove from their position. This disadvantage is especially prevalent in situations when the collective bargaining agreement is robustly in favor of the teachers instead of the management.
It can take up to 24 months to fully remove a teacher from the staff rolls, even if a disciplinary action process was followed correctly. When you combine the costs of finding a substitute teacher, paying the salary of one that is on leave, and the investigation expenses involved in these processes, it can cost upwards of $250,000 to remove one underperforming employee from the school.
3. Taxpayers do not receive direct representation during the negotiation process.
Because the United States operates through representation instead of as a direct democracy, the negotiation process for a collective bargaining agreement requires local politicians to protect the best interests of the taxpayer. Communities do not have the right to send their own representative to work with teachers, administrative staff, and governing officials to advocate for themselves.
If the elected officials are not experienced in the negotiating process, then the union can achieve costly concessions that drive up the costs of local education. No one has a problem paying a fair price for a good classroom, but there also can be problems that occur when there is too much money available.
4. Public unions can spend monetary resources on non-educational needs.
Teacher’s unions will often take some of their financial resources to lobby governments, support specific candidates, and take other actions that some teachers might not support. If you support conservative ideology and the union donates money to a Democratic liberal candidate, then there may be nothing that you can do to change that situation. Your money goes toward something you don’t want.
There has been a shift in local laws in recent years that changes this disadvantage, allowing teachers to direct their political contributions to a candidate of choice. Some people can even refuse to hand over the portion of dues that would go to these efforts if they do not agree with them. It is still a problem for many; however, and this problem is not likely to go away any time soon.
5. The presence of a union changes the learning process in the classroom.
Jahana Hayes, who was a candidate for the House of Representatives and the 2016 National Teacher of the year, says that people can be defensive about their employment opportunities in the classroom. “I think people are incredibly protective of the profession,” Hayes told the CT Mirror in October 2018. “Look, I get it. But it’s not enough to say we only want it one way.”
Unions often dictate the one path that teachers can follow to create a learning environment. Although this process can provide consistency, it can be an outcome that encourages constant failure. There must be enough flexibility within the union itself to allow for helpful changes without disregarding salary, benefit, or safety expectations.
6. Unions ask teachers to perform specific actions without compensation or involvement.
Alexandra Bradbury, who is the co-director and editor of “Labor Notes,” write this observation in March 2018. “Members might be asked to show up at a rally, phonebank, knock on doors, or have their photo in the union newsletter, but they are not part of making the strategy. When members are treated like a faucet that leaders can turn on or off for effect, they’re not really being organized – just mobilized.”
People do not stay involved for a long time if there is no real input available to them. Unions often dictate actions instead of encouraging discussion. That is why some teachers decide to opt out of representation even if it is available.
7. Collective bargaining agreements can be in effect for a long time.
Most collective bargaining agreements for teachers through a union are for two years, with options to renew or adjust the language as needed at that time. Some agreements are enforced for 5 years or more, which can lock all parties into a contract which may not be beneficial. When there are fewer opportunities to renegotiate the terms of a CBA, then the classroom loses an opportunity to evolve. It creates a struggle between the teachers and administrators where the kids are the ones who get caught in the middle.
8. It can result in fewer educational opportunities for the community.
One of the most common methods for unionized teachers to place pressure on their administration during a contract negotiation is to strike. Most districts will say that their staff will walk out for a single day, but it can also go for an extended time. Some teacher strikes can be lengthy. In the spring of 1981, teachers in Ravenna, Ohio, were on strike for 85 school days. Another strike in 1987 in Homer, Illinois lasted for eight months.
Issues like these were why collective bargaining was instituted in the first place for teachers. When there are mutual good-faith negotiations that can occur with the intention of reaching an agreement, then the classroom can stay open.
Verdict on the Pros and Cons of Teacher’s Unions
A teacher’s union may not be the most popular supportive structure in the educational world today, but it is a resource which can lead to better learning opportunities. The countries where there are the highest levels of unionization tend to see the best student outcomes.
There will always be outliers who attempt to take advantage of the unionized structure. The pros and cons of teachers’ unions must look at the overall good that is possible instead of the impact of a handful of people on the system. When we take this perspective, it becomes clear that in most communities, the presence of a union for teachers is helpful.
Keith Miller has over 25 years of experience as a CEO and serial entrepreneur. As an entrepreneur, he has founded several multi-million dollar companies. As a writer, Keith's work has been mentioned in CIO Magazine, Workable, BizTech, and The Charlotte Observer. If you have any questions about the content of this blog post, then please send our content editing team a message here.