Teachers Unions Are But a Symptom of the Disease

Just as some public schooling defenders like to caricature their opponents as self-important, money-grubbing ”corporate reformers” or malevolent destroyers of “public education,” there is a tendency on the other side to attack teachers unions as the root of all evil. They aren’t. They are a natural symptom of a government monopoly that, because it is a monopoly, strongly favors the monopolization of labor. One employer, one employee representative.

Unless someone has compelling evidence to the contrary—I’ve never seen any—teacher union officials and members are no different than anyone else: they are simply trying to get the best deals for themselves.  What separates them from non-unionized workers—and unionized workers in the private sector—is not their desires, but that their employment comes from a system into which ”customers” must pay, and which is controlled completely by politics. Public-sector unions have big advantages in politics, where organization, numbers, and motivation—millions of people advocating for their very livelihoods—translate into power.

That brings us to today’s Wall Street Journal piece on union political spending. That spending is huge, and manifested in far more ways than contributions to candidates. Between 2005 and 2011 the Journal estimates unions spent $3.3 billion on political activities, which beyond candidate donations included everything from trying to persuade members to vote a certain way, to supplying bratwursts to demonstrators in Wisconsin.

There would be no major freedom issue if all of this were spending by unions with completely voluntary membership, and which operated in truly free markets. There would, then, be no compelled support of politicking. But this is absolutely not the case when it comes to teachers unions and other public sector unions.

For one thing, teachers often are, for all intents and purposes, forced to join unions as a condition of employment, even when they are required to ”just” pay big “agency fees” to cover collective bargaining. Moreover, the ultimately taxpayer-supplied dues money is used to get more dough out of taxpayers who have no choice but to be schools’ “customers.” And we’re not talking pocket change here: according to the Journal’s numbers, between 2005 and 2011 the National Education Association spent $239 million on politics and lobbying, and the American Federation of Teachers spent $138 million. And that doesn’t include the outlays of all their state and local affiliates.

Despite those power-wielding expenditures, the members and leaders of teachers unions still aren’t evil. They are normal, self-interested folks. The effects of their actions, however, are to compel people to fund political speech and activities against their will, and often against their personal interests. But we shouldn’t attack unions for that. We must attack the government schooling monopoly.