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September 2014 Policy Study, Number 14-5


Terry Moe's Special Interest: Teachers Unions and America's Public Schools


Chapter 3 – Teachers and Their Unions



Teachers are connected to unions in a host of ways….The locals are the bedrock of union organization.  Virtually all union members, whether Democrat or Republican, see their membership in the local as entirely voluntary and are highly satisfied with what they are getting.  It is what happens at the local level that securely binds teachers to their unions: tying them into state and national organizations that they might not otherwise be willing to join and dominating their perspective on what the union is and how satisfied they are with it.  The locals are the key to union power and success.


Collective bargaining, in turn, is the basis for strong locals and the unions’ major source of unity among the members.  In overwhelming numbers, collective bargaining is supported by Democrats and Republicans alike, attracting them to their unions and knitting them together into cohesive units based on common occupational interests.  It is also supported by teachers who don’t already have it, and is enormously popular even in the southern and border states.


Especially among union members, moreover, collective bargaining is an exercise in self-interest that teachers embrace without moral qualms.  They see it as benign in its larger consequences for schools and the quality of education, and they believe, as their leaders constantly claim, that what is good for teachers is good for kids.


Politics is more divisive.  But teachers do not associate it with their locals.  They associate it with the state and (especially) national organizations, which are the sources of almost all the internal political dissatisfactions among members – particularly Republican members, most of whom say they would drop out of the national unions if they could.  The unions cannot do much about this disunity.  If they want to achieve their education policy objectives – which include, I should emphasize, protecting their collective bargaining rights – they are wise to support Democrat political candidates and participate actively in the liberal coalition.  Without these allies, they would be much weaker in the political process.  Internally, moreover, the center of political gravity among the membership is Democrat and liberal, and this is true in the extreme for the activist members….The deck is stacked: leaders have strong incentives to craft their organizations in a liberal Democrat mold, and Republicans just aren’t going to like it.


Yet it doesn’t really matter.  Republicans may often be politically dissatisfied, but their dissatisfaction only attaches to higher levels of their unions….At the center are common interests – in job security, wages and benefits, working conditions – and here, partisanship and ideology are largely irrelevant….Extraneous political issues – abortion rights, gay rights, and other planks of the liberal agenda – stand to excite partisan passions precisely because they are not about education.  But when policies bear on education and its reform, which are the unions’ main concerns by orders of magnitude, the common interests of teachers take hold….On the issues that matter most for their occupational lives and are related most directly to the public schools, teachers are largely in agreement.


It is true that the teachers unions are special interest organizations.  And like the National Rifle Association, the trial attorneys, and all other interest groups, they pursue those special interests with a laser-like focus.  But the kicker is that this is what teachers want them to do, because those special interests are their interests.  If the unions are taking actions at variance with the best interests of kids and effective schools, the ultimate explanation – the real story – is not simply that the unions are special interest groups.  It is that they are acting on behalf of the special interests of teachers themselves – and doing precisely what the great majority of teachers want.




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