Thursday, February 17, 2011

Why are teachers unionized?

Maybe I should ask: "why do we require that the people who teach our children in public schools pay union dues?"

Don't get me wrong-- I think teachers should be free to join whatever organization they want.

But why do we REQUIRE union membership (or at least payment of union dues) to teach in the public schools?

Do we think teachers are too dumb to negotiate their own salary?

Do we think that school boards and principals and superintendents will trick teachers out of fair salaries and benefits?

Unions are supposed to improve working conditions and get better salaries and benefits for their members, and there is a "free rider" problem if membership is voluntary-- nothing but Massachusetts State Law stops somebody from deciding NOT to pay for a union that is negotiating for everybody.

So it is obvious why unions and unionized workers like laws that require employees to participate in collective bargaining agreements. They get better working conditions and higher salaries and benefits!

I can see the 'public good' angle for better working conditions; working conditions for people in slaughterhouses in 1910 really were terrible, and those terrible working conditions caused external costs that weren't paid by the slaughterhouses (like sick or injured workers that had reduced life expectancies). Working conditions for teachers in 2011 everywhere besides inner-city schools seem pretty good to me, though, and I doubt they'd be worse if the teachers' union disappeared.

I can't see any public good angle for higher-than-average wages and benefits. And if you disagree and think teachers are overworked and underpaid and have to put up with tyrannical bosses and bad working conditions... then tell me again why teachers are forced to pay union dues? Wouldn't they be better off just keeping all that union dues money for themselves?


Steven Brewer said...

Teachers need to be unionized for same reason as other employees: because their interests don't align perfectly with the interests of their employer.

In particular, teachers need unions to protect them from parents. Parents are sure that if teachers will just work a little longer, it will make a real difference for their kids. If the teachers would just spend their lunch in the playground... And their afternoon with kids in the after-school program... And their evening meeting with parents... Why then *everything* would be perfect!

Gavin Andresen said...

Right-- as you say, that's no different from any other employer/employee relationship.

The employers want the employees to work more for less money. The employees want to work less for more money.

So why are teachers special? What is the justification for the law that requires that they join a union (or, at least, pay union dues)?

Steven Brewer said...

Teachers specifically don't have to join the union. And they don't have to pay dues. Their contract, however, may call for them to pay "agency fees" which are based on paying the costs of the union that are related to negotiating and enforcing the contract.

It isn't only teachers that have agency fee payer clauses in their contracts with employers. GIYF. Nurses, police, and many other unions also require payment of agency fees.

A better question is why do employers consent to agency fee payer arrangements? Undoubtedly because they see it as less expensive for them than other arrangements they could make with the union.

Gavin Andresen said...

Right-- I know quite a lot about "agency fees," because I was forced to pay them when I worked at UMass.

So could the Town of Amherst decide to change the collective bargaining agreement and start hiring non-union (or non-agency-fee-paying) teachers, or is that controlled by state law? Are there any Towns or Cities in Massachusetts that allow non-agency-fee-paying teachers to work in public schools?

If I'm reading the Massachusetts general laws correctly (chapter 180, section 17g), which I'm probably not, the Town of Amherst CANNOT decide to do that.

So why does the employer decide to require payment of agency fees for public school teachers? We have no choice.

Steven Brewer said...

I believe the town could negotiate with the union about that clause of the contract, but they couldn't unilaterally change it. Any more than the teacher's union could unilaterally decide that teachers would work 4 ten-hour days a week.

Your perspective on what employers and employees negotiate about is overly simplistic. It isn't just about less hours and more money. And University faculty want very different things out of the union than teachers.

Having spoken a lot to teachers, I have some insight into their main issues (as I indicated above). For them, the union is a bulwark against unreasonable demands from administrators that want to please parents with additional demands on teachers -- and punish teachers for non-compliance (or not kowtowing to the boss). Teachers want to be able to draw a bright line between their job and the rest of their life.

On the other hand, University faculty work a median of 65 hours a week (according to a joint union/administration task force that studied the issue last year). They generally want the union to get the administration out of their way so they can work more.

One recent battle that we just won: the administration unilaterally changed how grants and contracts work, saying that, before faculty could employ themselves during the summer for a grant, they had to pay some of their regular, academic-year salary out of their grant. When faculty objected individually, they were told that the policy was final -- a "done deal". But the union filed a grievance and unfair labor practice charge, more than 60 of the research active faculty signed on, and we got the administration to back down. So it's not just about "more money / fewer hours".

It was interesting -- and a bit discouraging -- to read about your experience with PSU. In the MSP, we try to meet with all new faculty during their orientation so that they know better about what to expect. The notice that you got is the result of the way the law was written -- you probably got something encouraging you to join early on and discarded it, but it probably said somewhere that you'd need to pay agency fees and you didn't notice it. As I understand it, when people have refused to pay, the union is legally required to send the scary, threatening letter.

I think the way dues are assessed is also a legal requirement -- that is, it's a cost that's borne equally among the members, which is why you can't have a sliding scale. I think dues can be prorated for people that have less than a full-year appointment, however. I'm not a scholar of labor law, however.

Gavin Andresen said...

I think I AM reading MGL 180, 17g wrong-- I have no idea whether or not a mandatory agency fee is negotiable.

Getting back to your main point: that employees "need" to be unionized: I guess that's where we fundamentally disagree. I think unions promotes the one-contract-fits-all thinking that belongs in the dustbin of history. At least at the successful companies I've worked for, there was no "us employees versus them management," there was "lets all work together to make this organization as successful as possible."

And I think when the employer is a government organization with no competition the normal employer-employee dynamics breaks down. Unions work hard (and spend a lot of money) to elect union-friendly politicians...

Steven Brewer said...

I've worked in union and non-union shops and my experience has been that unions are generally good. Unions can go wrong or become corrupt -- just like anything else -- but I think that on the whole, they make things better. Your mileage may vary.

Max said...

Baer Tierkel suggested I could add something useful to this conversation, so I'll try:

The right to join a union and have a voice in one's workplace is a fundamental human right, if one accepts the United Nations charter on human rights. It is NOT simply about a few more dollars or benefits, but giving employees a standing to participate in decisions of their employment and the work they do.

Teachers in towns and cities in Massachusetts chose to form unions (most with the Massachusetts Teachers Association and many others with the American Federal of Teachers -- Massachusetts). Those unions remain in place unless the members vote to "decertify." The union collects dues of its members; it also collects an "agency fee" from those who benefit from the union's services (in bargaining, handling grievances, etc.) but choose not to join. I live in Amherst. I pay taxes that help pay for the fire station. If I want to change that I can get my representatives to
I know you feel you were "forced" to pay the agency fee at UMass. Well, yes. I was "forced" to pay my taxes and "forced" to pay that parking ticket and "forced" to stop the red light. When we join institutions (a town, a nation, Little League, UMass) we are "forced" to follow their rules and pay fees that a the group has established in a democratic manner.

I will note that at UMass, we spent two rounds of contract negotiations over six years fighting very hard and successfully to improve the pay and job security of our adjuncts and non-tenure-track faculty. That came about because union members spoke up and urged the democratic union (the MSP) to fight for their rights. It worked.

One final note:
Massachusetts students boast the best scores in the United States, and are one of just a couple of states that compete with some of best educational systems in the world. Massachusetts teachers are almost completely unionized. Nationally, states with unionized teachers perform better (for all students) than states
Sounds like you might want to pull unions out of the dustbin of history if you want us to compete in the global economy.(The best educational systems in the world -- like the much-lauded Finland -- have unionized teachers).

Max Page

Max said...

One more point:

You say: "I can't see any public good angle for higher-than-average wages and benefits."

Two responses:

1. Public employees in Massachusetts make LESS (total pay and benefits) than private employees with comparable education. The same is true is Wisconsin. You can look it up.

2. No "public good" for higher than average wages? Huh? Isn't that PRECISELY the way you attract good people to do important teach your children? Back to Finland: one crucial way they took an average educational system (as it was in the 1960s and 1970s) and made it the best (as it is now) was to dramatically raise the pay of teachers. That attracted lots of the best the ones who in the United States go right to law school or business school so they can become investment bankers.

Why the heck wouldn't you want to pay people who perform absolutely essential jobs a top wage?