labor Teachers Unions Face Moment of Truth
It’s designed to be an impressive show of force: Thousands of unionized teachers plan to rally Monday in cities from New York to San Francisco to “reclaim the promise of public education.”
Behind the scenes, however, teachers unions are facing tumultuous times. Long among the wealthiest and most powerful interest groups in American politics, the unions are grappling with financial, legal and public-relations challenges as they fight to retain their clout and build alliances with a public increasingly skeptical of big labor.
“I do think it’s a moment of truth,” said Lance Alldrin, a veteran high-school teacher in Corning, Calif., who has split from his longtime union after serving for a decade as the local president.
The National Education Association has lost 230,000 members, or 7 percent, since 2009, and it’s projecting another decline this year, which will likely drop it below 3 million members. Among the culprits: teacher layoffs, the rise of non-unionized charter schools and new laws in states such as Wisconsin and Michigan freeing teachers to opt out of the union.
The American Federation of Teachers has been able to grow slightly and now represents 1.5 million workers — but because many new members are retirees or part-timers who pay lower dues, union revenue actually fell last year, by nearly $6 million, federal records show.
Moreover, the membership of the NEA and AFT overlaps considerably; some 663,000 workers show up on both rolls because their locals maintain dual affiliations. That double counting inflates perceptions of the teacher lobby’s combined strength. Total union membership isn’t 4.5 million — it’s 3.8 million.
The unions and their affiliates still control huge resources. They collectively bring in more than $2 billion a year, most of it from member dues. Yet there are signs of financial strain. The NEA has cut spending by 12 percent in the last two years, in part by reducing its staff. And after years of posting surpluses, the AFT has been running deficits. It wrapped up the most recent fiscal year owing $3.7 million on its line of credit, up from $916,000 the previous year, according to records filed with the U.S. Department of Labor. (AFT officials point out that’s still just a fraction of the union’s $155 million general fund budget.)
The unions also face threats to their public image.
Former U.S. Solicitor General Theodore Olson expects to go to trial in California next month with an audacious lawsuit that aims to overturn teacher job protections, such as tenure, that unions helped muscle into state law.
His work in the courtroom will be paired with a broad PR campaign painting the teachers unions as obstructionists who protect their members at all costs.
Olson has gathered hair-raising stories about a small number of teachers who sexually harassed students, refused to plan lessons, appeared on campus under the influence, yet held onto their jobs for years because of union-backed job protections. Exhibit A: The Los Angeles Unified School District, which spent a decade and $3.5 million trying to dismiss seven teachers for poor performance — and only succeeded in ousting four. Rather than attempting to fire Mark Berndt, a veteran teacher who pleaded guilty last month to lewd acts with his students, the district paid him $40,000 to resign.
Union leaders say that Olson is distorting the picture by focusing on a few bad apples. “Parents will see through that,” NEA President Dennis Van Roekel said.
But Olson says he intends to use tactics borrowed from his successful fight to overturn California’s ban on same-sex marriage – plus funding from Silicon Valley entrepreneur David Welch – to make sure he wins not just in the legal arena, but “in the court of public opinion.”
More bad press for unions looms on the East Coast, where former CNN anchor Campbell Brown has financed TV ads and a relentless social media campaign accusing the unions of protecting New York City teachers who sexually harass students. She’s got some vivid, cringe-inducing examples – and she’s planning to kick the campaign into high gear this winter.
Union leaders say they don’t protect bad teachers, just seek to ensure due process. And they brush off the negative publicity as a political ploy that won’t gain traction. The American public, they say, is much more interested in talking about scrapping high-stakes testing, broadening the curriculum, reducing class sizes and spreading resources equitably — all issues that unions have championed.
In the struggle for “hearts and minds,” unions are winning, AFT President Randi Weingarten said.
It’s not clear, however, that those alliances are deep or durable: Support for labor unions in general has fallen steadily, dipping below 50 percent for the first time in 2012 before rebounding slightly this year, Gallup polls find. Only 32 percent of Americans expressed a positive view of teachers unions (and another 25 percent were neutral) in a poll last year by the journal Education Next.
To be sure, unions still have the funding and the foot soldiers to be power players. The NEA and AFT spent more than $40 million last year on federal lobbying and electoral politics, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, plus tens of millions more in the states. And they can still splurge when it’s important to them: The AFT bought $1.2 million worth of TV, radio and print advertising this weekend to promote the National Day of Action.
But labor analysts say it’s clearly a new environment for teachers unions. “They’re much more on the defensive now,” said Katharine Strunk, an education professor who studies labor at the University of Southern California.
“This is a very, very challenging time for unions,” said John Logan, a professor of labor history at San Francisco State University.
Among the challenges: Dissent from within.
There’s a small but noisy rebellion, flaring mostly in social media, from teachers furious that both the NEA and the AFT have endorsed the Common Core academic standards.
More significant is the demographic shift. Waves of Baby Boomer teachers have retired in recent years and been replaced by hundreds of thousands of rookies. Half of all teachers in classrooms today have been on the job for 10 or fewer years. And those newcomers have very different views from the veterans and retirees who typically dominate union politics.
More than 70 percent of teachers on the job less than a decade are interested in changing the traditional salary scale, which rewards educators for longevity rather than performance. Just 41 percent of more veteran teachers back such reforms, according toa national survey last year by the organization Teach Plus. The poll documented similar gulfs in opinion about revamping teacher evaluations and pensions.
That leaves union leaders to perform a tricky balancing act. They have, for instance, embraced local contracts that require evaluating teachers in part based on their students’ test scores. Yet Weingarten has also called for an end to “hyper-testing” students and then “sanctioning teachers and closing schools” based on those test scores.
Both Weingarten and Van Roekel say their unions’ policies will continue to evolve to reflect member views.
But change isn’t coming fast enough for many young teachers, who often see no reason to join their unions – or, if they’re required to join, see no reason to become active, said Susan Moore Johnson, an education professor at Harvard University who has studied the generational split.
The national Education Next poll, co-sponsored by Harvard’s Program on Education Policy and Governance, found a startling 31 percent of teachers held negative views of their own unions — up from 17 percent in 2011.
“It really does raise questions about what role unions will play in the future,” Johnson said.
The disillusionment is palpable. In recent months, five small local affiliates – three in California and two in Kansas – have broken away from the NEA, voting to handle collective bargaining on their own.
Rafael Ruano, the lawyer who helped the California locals, says he’s working on similar efforts with several dozen other NEA affiliates. “We’re at the beginning of what I think is potentially a major, major trend,” he said.
The National Right to Work Committee, meanwhile, plans to campaign for an end to compulsory union membership in Missouri, Pennsylvania and Kentucky in the coming months. If successful, that could have big effect. Both unions have seen moderate declines in some states that adopted opt-out provisions — and huge drops in others. In Wisconsin, for instance, the AFT has lost 65 percent of its statewide membership and the NEA is down 19 percent.
As if these threats were not enough, the political landscape is shifting under the unions.
In recent years, wealthy donors have organized networks to fund candidates willing to buck the teachers unions on issues such as charter schools and merit pay. That has eroded unions’ traditional alliances with Democrats and left them at odds with mayors in big cities such as Philadelphia, Chicago and Denver. Even longtime allies are now crossing them: California Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat, recently vetoed a bill about layoff protocols that the unions had strongly promoted.
The unions also face potential cuts to teacher pensions, even in heavily Democratic states like Illinois.
In response, unions have sought out allies in unlikely places, stepping up donations to Republican candidates, including some sharply conservative state legislators. The AFT has also sought strength in numbers, growing in part by absorbing locals that have nothing to do with education. The American Federation of Teachers now represents, among others, public defenders, dental hygienists, police officers, maintenance workers, nurses and even lifeguards.
The chief response, however, has been to go on the offensive.
Both the NEA and AFT have poured money into efforts meant to demonstrate that unions aren’t the problem, but a key part of the solution in public education.
The AFT is leading a novel public-private partnership to revitalize schools in impoverished McDowell County, W. Va.
NEA members voted this year to hike their own dues to raise $6 million a year for a Great Public Schools Fund, which seeks innovative ways to improve student achievement.
Both unions have teamed up with their frequent antagonist, Teach for America, on a national initiative to recruit elite college students into teaching. And both are pushing for new training and licensing requirements aimed at raising standards for the profession.
Monday’s National Day of Action gives the unions perhaps their biggest stage yet. They are circulating a statement of principles that rejects education reforms based on high-stakes testing and free-market competition and champions the neighborhood public school as the anchor of democracy.
“I believe the future for this union, and for other unions, is great,” Van Roekel said. “Yes, there are challenges, but that also brings opportunities. We’re going to find a way.”