Commentary

Rolling Back the Teacher Union Juggernaut

By Myron Lieberman
September 5, 2002

The word juggernaut derives its meaning from the ancient Hindu god Jagan-n, or lord of the world, whose powers crushed all those who stood in his way. Formerly, fanatics sometimes threw themselves under the wheels of carts bearing his image to be crushed as a demonstration of the god’s power. Today, the word juggernaut connotes an overwhelming force that crushes or seems to crush everything in its path.

The word accurately describes the powerful position held by the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers. These two unions wield massive power over public school teachers and other school employees. They maintain this power through the inertia of a well entrenched monopoly in representing teachers.

Since the 1960s, the NEA and AFT have dominated the market for teacher representation services. In the 34 states that require school boards to bargain collectively with teachers, the NEA and AFT currently share almost 100 percent of the market for teacher representation services.

Although the AFT and NEA assert that their tenure as exclusive representative demonstrates teacher satisfaction with their services, in reality, teachers desiring a different representative, or none at all, face enormous legal and practical obstacles to achieve any such change. For example, the NEA and AFT have a virtually limitless supply of funds and personnel to thwart any effort to achieve representation by a different entity. But the teachers seeking this objective must finance the effort from their personal funds. Litigation, virtually certain to materialize, can bankrupt the dissidents, whereas knowledgeable staff lawyers are available on call to the unions.

The NEA/AFT monopoly in representing teachers at the local level is a grave disservice to teachers who are forced to pay higher than necessary union dues or who don’t like the policies of the NEA and AFT. But the enormous power and privilege of the incumbent union makes it almost impossible for teachers to change to another union or no union at all. The NEA/AFT juggernaut easily crushes any opposition that threatens their monopoly over teacher representation.

To alleviate this problem, competition is required in the teacher representation market. One way to provide that would be to allow for-profit and nonprofit entities as well as solo entrepreneurs, labor lawyers, and collective bargaining companies to represent teachers in collective bargaining. Teachers would retain the right to go without an exclusive representative and each of the representative options would compete against all the others. Teacher representation would not be limited to membership organizations as it is now, and teachers could change their choice of representative periodically, perhaps every three years or at the expiration of a collective agreement covering teachers.

Providing increased competition to the NEA and AFT would require some changes in current labor policy in most states. For example, states legislatures would have to do three things: 1) reduce the number of votes required to trigger an election to select a new teacher representative, 2) explicitly allow individuals, nonprofit and for-profit organizations to compete for the right to represent teachers, and 3) enable all members in the bargaining unit to vote on the key decisions affecting their terms and conditions of employment.

Teachers would experience a number of significant benefits from competition to represent them in collective bargaining. These benefits include lower dues, better service, increased choice, and more input in the key decisions affecting their employment. Allowing solo entrepreneurs, professional negotiators, lawyers, and collective bargaining companies to compete with the NEA/AFT for teacher representation would create a more powerful consumer role for teachers who wish to purchase these services. Introducing competition into teacher representation is the best way to insure that unions work for the benefit of teachers.

Also, considering that the two largest teacher unions are the major opponents of school choice, diminishing the role and influence of the NEA/AFT would contribute to a more positive climate for the school choice movement. Without their opposition to school choice, many more options would be available to parents of K-12 children. Parents and their children, therefore, become the secondary beneficiaries of increased competition for teacher representation.

Undoubtedly, enactment of the proposal in one state would publicize the concept nationally to rank-and-file teachers who have every reason to support legislation that would expand their choice of exclusive representative. It is difficult to see how the NEA/AFT could successfully persuade most teachers that legislation that expands their choice of exclusive representative is harmful to teachers.

In Economics 101, we are told that ease of entry is the most important requirement for a competitive market to emerge. Perhaps if teachers experience the benefits of competition as consumers, they will recognize its value for parents and students. Rolling back the teacher union juggernaut may be the next critical step in improving schools and creating meaningful educational choice for parents and students.

Myron Lieberman is chairman of the Education Policy Institute in Washington, D.C., and the author of the Cato Policy Analysis “Liberating Teachers: Toward Market Competition in Teacher Representation.”