When It Comes to Education Unions, It’s Power, Not People

Rachel Sheffield /

After days of lost class time for Wisconsin students, teachers have returned to school. Yet Governor Scott Walker (R) is still faced with the demands of teachers unions who are pushing against reforms that would restructure teacher pension and benefit plans and reform unions’ collective bargaining power.

While unions announced over the weekend that they would concede the pension and health benefits piece of the proposal, they continue to demand that their collective bargaining authority remain intact. Some may see this as a good start, yet such action only manifests more clearly that for unions, this battle isn’t about supposed claims to protect teachers; what this battle is really about for unions is power. And unions affirm this truth themselves, stating that “it’s not about money” but rather their collective bargaining power.

In reality, however, for education unions, power means money, as public school teachers in Wisconsin and in over 20 other states are required to fork over union dues every payday. Walker’s proposal would allow teachers to opt out of joining a union and paying dues.

As Steve Malanga reminds us in his recent Wall Street Journal piece: “Unions use that money not only to run their daily operations but to wage political campaigns in state capitals and city halls.” Unfortunately for the education system and the nation’s children, such power and political sway has meant the blocking of much-needed education reforms, such as teacher tenure reform and school choice programs.

Just this month, actions of teachers unions clearly demonstrate that they are willing to protect bad teachers. As the result of a recent lawsuit filed by the District of Columbia teachers union, D.C. is being made to rehire—and provide $7.5 million in back wages to—75 teachers who were deemed ineffective. (Principals reported such acts as frequent unexcused absences, tardiness, swearing at students, etc.)

Education unions are also quick to oppose school choice, even when it means helping those children most in need. The successful D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, which has significantly boosted graduation rates and allowed children to leave failing and unsafe schools, has and continues to be vehemently opposed by education unions.

However, the unions’ prioritization of power over people shouldn’t come as a shock, as the late General Bob Chanin of the NEA unabashedly said it:

Despite what some among us would like to believe, it is not because of our creative ideas; it is not because of the merit of our positions; it is not because we care about children; and it is not because we have a vision of a great public school for every child.

The NEA and its affiliates are effective advocates because we have power. And we have power because there are more than 3.2 million people who are willing to pay us hundreds of million of dollars in dues each year because they believe that we are the unions that can most effectively represent them.

Education in our nation should not be determined by self-serving power plays of collective bargaining that impede the best interests of students. Instead, teachers and parents should be empowered to give students the best education possible.