My colleague, Bob Costrell, and I each had a piece published last week about problems with teacher unions. Bob’s appeared in the Wall Street Journal and focused on the fiscal dangers of public sector collective bargaining, especially over benefits and especially at the local level. My piece appeared in Education Next as part of a forum with Richard Kahlenberg and focused mostly on the harms to students and their families posed by unchecked teacher collective bargaining over working conditions, hiring, and termination procedures.
I don’t want to repeat what I wrote in Ed Next and I don’t want to speak for Bob, so I would just urge you to read these pieces for yourself. But just to anticipate objections, let me emphasize that I have no problem with unionization and collective bargaining in a competitive private market. People should be free to associate and free to negotiate the terms of providing their labor.
The problem with teacher unions and public sector collective bargaining is that the checks and balances provided by market competition are absent. So, public sector unions can get “management” to increase revenue for the industry and for union members without having to improve productivity. They can just increase taxes or shift spending from other public purposes. Private sector collective bargaining is constrained by the reality that they cannot just print their own money and must agree on productivity improvements so that there is more revenue to split.
In addition to the lack of incentives to improve productivity in public sector collective bargaining, we have the additional political distortions that unions, as a more concentrated and well-organized interest, have enormous political influence. So, the unions are essentially sitting on both sides of the bargaining table. This problem is more severe at the local level, since local political contests are less salient and more easily captured by well-organized interests. At least in the private sector management usually tries to represent the interests of shareholders, but in the public sector the diffused interests of taxpayers are much less likely to be represented.
And in case any of you have idealized visions of teacher unions protecting the worker dancing in your head, a little snippet from the Education Intelligence Agency should awake you from your slumber:
In August, the American Federation of Teachers began an audit of the Broward Teachers Union’s (BTU) finances. Who at BTU asked for the audit is a matter of contention, but AFT uncovered several anomalies in the course of its two-month investigation.
Among them was the apparent reimbursement out of union dues for campaign contributions made by 26 ”employees, board members and their relatives.” This is, needless to say, illegal. The Broward State Attorney’s Office and the Florida Elections Commission were notified, and both agencies opened an official investigation.
Members of BTU’s executive board accused union president Pat Santeramo of not only being complicit in the reimbursement, but also covering up a $3.8 million budget shortfall and accepting salary overpayments….
Whatever Santeramo has done, he is actually the least reprehensible recent BTU president. He took over the position in 2001 after his predecessor was charged and plead guilty to attempting to entice a minor into a sex act and sending child pornography over the Internet. He was sentenced to 48 months in prison. And Santeramo’s actions are small potatoes when placed aside those of Pat Tornillo.