Ask The Experts: Teacher Appreciation Week? How Teachers Unions Got in the Way

It’s Teacher Appreciation Week, 2021 style: Some schools are open part-time, some parents have pulled their kids out of public schools and everyone is looking at the education system and wondering why we can’t do better.

Teachers are critical—they are responsible for ensuring our young people are learning how to think and engage with the world, and how to have successful lives. Many teachers are dedicated to this purpose and it is worth celebrating their tireless efforts. As we take time this week to salute our teachers, it’s also a good time to take stock of why our teachers haven’t been able to shine as brightly as they could in 2021: teachers’ unions got in the way.

 To help sort out why this is the case, I checked in with three experts who understand exactly how the teachers’ unions have not been on the side of teachers, students and parents as we all navigated through the pandemic. Patrick Hughes (Liberty Justice Center), Mark Mix (National Right to Work Foundation) and David Osborne (Americans for Fair Treatment) have been dealing with teachers frustrated with their unions for years. They shared what they have been seeing.

1. In what ways have you seen the teachers’ unions influence decisions about when and how to reopen our public schools? 

Patrick Hughes: Teachers’ unions stand in the way of reopening America’s public schools. And not because they have some special insight into how to keep people safe and protected from COVID. Across the country, teachers’ unions are leveraging reopening discussions to advance political issues that have nothing to do with COVID. Chicago teachers’ unions pushed to “defund police” and for “rent abatement” in their reopening discussions. Los Angeles teachers’ unions urged “Medicare for All,” a wealth tax and moratorium on charter schools.

Who doesn’t have a voice in the reopening discussions? Parents. That’s why the team here at Liberty Justice Center stood up for parents in Arizona, Idaho, Virginia and Chicago who faced teachers’ unions that either took or threatened illegal strikes to keep schools closed. The sad reality is that over the years, teachers’ unions have bankrolled politicians who rewarded them with the political upper hand in public education. Stopping the unchecked political power of these private organizations was at the heart of the Janus Supreme Court decision and this year has only highlighted how critical that work continues to be.

Mark Mix: At its core union monopoly bargaining (also called “exclusive representation”) in the government sector is inherently anti-democratic because it forces elected officials to “negotiate” with union bosses over public policy, including how government schools are run. That has always been true, but the response to COVID from government union officials in general and teacher union officials in particular only reinforces how union officials wield their government-granted exclusive representation powers to undermine and oppose policies that are in the interest of the public, taxpayers and students. There are examples of this across the country, but among the most egregious were sweeping demands by United Teachers Los Angeles union officials that included a wealth tax, defunding the police, Medicare for All and a moratorium on charter schools all as a condition of reopening Los Angeles public schools. 

David Osborne: Unfortunately, in many school districts, teachers’ unions have monopoly control over important decisions like school re-openings. Pennsylvania’s largest teachers’ union was caught red-handed encouraging its local affiliates to file grievances whenever school districts moved toward in-person instruction. It has attacked local health officials and prevented teachers from publicly advocating for a return to school. 

Because unions serve as exclusive representatives for many of our public servants, they make one-size-fits-all demands and prevent local elected officials from making very complicated, region-specific decisions informed by teachers and support staff. We’ve worked with teachers who’ve wanted desperately to see their students face-to-face, but we’ve also worked with teachers who’ve been worried about their health in an uncertain environment. Union officials have largely ignored the teachers they’re supposed to represent.

2. What are some ways that concerned parents and your organizations have been able counter these tactics from the teachers’ unions? 

Patrick Hughes: The Liberty Justice Center is representing parents who are standing up to teachers’ unions and demanding their schools reopen. One of the ways we’ve helped parents is by filing lawsuits to stop the illegal strikes and sickouts that the teachers’ unions are using to keep schools closed. For example, in January of this year it became clear that the Chicago Teachers Union was on the verge of using a strike to keep Chicago Public Schools closed. The Liberty Justice Center partnered with parents to take on the union. We offered our parents and attorneys to the news media, who highlighted that a strike would be illegal under Illinois law and violate Chicago Teachers Union’s contract. The 10 parents we represented were ready to file a lawsuit if the union waged an illegal strike. Ultimately, CTU agreed to return to school and admitted to its members that they’d face “legal repercussions” if they went on strike.

Mark Mix: The past year has exposed parents and the public at-large to the repercussions of the infamous quote by Albert Shanker, longtime president of the American Federation of Teachers: “When schoolchildren start paying union dues, that’s when I’ll start representing the interests of schoolchildren.” The inflammatory comments by current AFT President Randi Weingarten when pushed in an interview about the frustrations of parents regarding union opposition to schools reopening is yet another example.

One key way to push back is to remind the public that despite the claims of union bosses like Weingarten, many teachers oppose what union officials do in their name. Teacher union efforts to undermine the Janus v. AFSCME Supreme Court precedent in particular show how union officials put their own power and influence ahead of those they claim to “represent,” often in violation of the First Amendment. For example, two ongoing National Right to Work Foundation Janus enforcement cases for teachers against the Los Angeles and Chicago teacher unions were brought by teachers who originally sought to cut off union financial support when they rebuffed union strike demands that they felt were not in the best interests of their students. As the public is reminded that teacher union official priorities and rank-and-file teacher priorities are not the same and in fact are often at odds, teacher union bosses will not be able to hijack the respect the public has for most classroom teachers in order to push the union’s self-serving agenda.

David Osborne: For many teachers’ union officials, the pandemic represented a perfect opportunity to push previously unthinkable demands on local school districts. Union demands included a national $15 minimum wage, defunding the police and a wealth tax. And whenever local school districts seem to meet more reasonable demands—like sanitation or vaccination goals—the union ended up moving the goalposts.

I think the union overplayed its hand, and parents are beginning to see union officials for what they are: political power brokers with no particular interest in educating children. It’s still difficult for parents and taxpayers with generational union ties to imagine that teachers’ unions could be so destructive, so we’ve worked with teachers and parents to tell their stories. But for teachers most familiar with the dark turn their union has taken, the most impactful choice they can make is to stop financially supporting their unions by withdrawing their membership and ending dues payments. 

3. If the teachers’ unions role is to represent public school educators in collective bargaining and discussions with their state employer, what can be done to reduce their powerful intervention in issues such as reopening schools?

Patrick Hughes: First, we need to give parents a voice and demand that parents’ point of view about how to educate their children trumps all others. That’s why we’ve partnered with parents across the country, giving them legal muscle to hold elected school officials accountable and empower them to sue unions that use illegal means to keep their kids out of school. Second, we must combat the monopoly that teachers’ unions have over education in America by increasing and championing options for students to attend independent and private schools. Our attorneys are protecting and expanding school choice through strategic litigation. In these legal fights, our opponents are almost always teachers’ unions or people recruited by teachers’ unions – no matter if we are defending state scholarship programs for low-income students or even COVID relief for independent students and schools. In our school choice cases, we continue to highlight the unions’ relentless efforts to maintain their monopoly on education at the expense of kids and families. 

Mark Mix: The ultimate solution is to end government monopoly bargaining, either through the courts because it violates the First Amendment protections for free speech and freedom of association for teachers forced under unwanted union monopoly “representation,” or by state legislators who see the detrimental impact of granting one special interest group such unique powers that let them effectively veto the will of the voters’ elected representatives. Currently in many states teacher unions are not granted such powers, and it doesn’t mean teacher unions don’t exist, simply that their role is as a voluntary association that can lobby for the interests of its members, no different from any other interest group. That is the proper role for teacher unions because, among other reasons, the education of future generations shouldn’t be a subject of bargaining negotiations with teacher union bosses.

David Osborne: I’d like to say that the democratic process is available to those who are dissatisfied with their local politicians, but many parents have told me that their increased participation in school board meetings has been ineffective given the power and influence of teachers’ union officials. In order for parents and taxpayers to take power back, we need teachers and other public employees to take a stand against their public-sector union officials. Teachers opposed to union control should withdraw their union membership and speak publicly about where their union went wrong. The truth is, they’re not alone; we offer community and protection to teachers who were once afraid to take a public stand.

Note: Debi Ghate serves on the board of directors for Americans for Fair Treatment.

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