Will Young People Reform Teachers Unions? Dream On.

Andy Rotherham is an astute observer of American education reform, but in his latest article in Time.com he engages in a flight of wishful thinking.  He waxes eloquent about “renegade groups” of younger teachers who are rising up to demand a new brand of unionism–one in which the unions disavow seniority provisions, insist on serious teachers evaluations, make it easy to get bad teachers out of the classroom, and otherwise do whatever is best for children and effective schools.  He strongly suggests that big changes are in the offing for America’s teachers unions.  A revolution from within.

This kind of argument is quite common and has a long lineage–although in the past, the agents of change were “progressive” union leaders rather than young teachers.  There is a reason these arguments are so common.  Education policy circles are filled with people who think the schools are in desperate need of major reform, but who also believe that collective bargaining and unions are necessary components of public education (and work life generally)–and they know the two sets of beliefs are in tension.  Over the last quarter century, the teachers unions have clearly been the most powerful force in American education, and they have clearly been using their extraordinary power–in collective bargaining at the local level, in the political process at the state and national levels–to undermine major reform and to burden the schools (via seniority provisions, the protection of bad teachers, and all the rest) with ineffective forms of organization.

For education reformers who believe in collective bargaining and unions, therefore, the cognitive dissonance is palpable.  How can it be resolved?  How is it possible to have powerful unions and an education system that is organized to be maximally effective for children?

The answer lies in “reform unionism”: the belief that, with enlightenment and progressive leadership (and now, young insurgents), the unions in coming years can be expected to change their ways–to stop blocking reform, to stop imposing restrictive work rules, and to actively embrace whatever approaches to schooling and organization are best for kids.  In the brave new world of reform unionism, the unions will remain powerful–but they will use their power in the best interests of children and quality education.

These arguments have been around for more than twenty years.  The late Al Shanker, of course, is the historical embodiment of reform unionism.  Randi Weingarten is the second coming of Al Shanker, fashioning her own leadership style very much after his.  The Teachers Union Reform Network (TURN), led by Adam Urbanski, is an alleged hotbed of break-the-mold union leaders. All of them basically talk the same reformist talk–and otherwise sophisticated reformers hang on their every word, looking for signs that the unions are going to jump on board the reform train and make children their top priority.

The problem with reform unionism is that, as a set of beliefs about unions, it is fanciful and misguided, and it prompts education reformers to look for solutions where they don’t exist.  Reform unionism is not rooted in a genuine understanding of union leadership and organization.  Nor is it rooted in a genuine understanding of teachers and what they want and expect from their unions.  There is simply no compelling intellectual or empirical basis for it.

Its fatal flaw is that it assumes union leaders can be persuaded to ignore, or give short shift to, the bedrock occupational interests on which their organizations are based–notably, teachers’ most primal concerns for job security, wages, benefits, and rights and prerogatives in the workplace.  These are the basic reasons teachers join unions, and leaders are never going to forgo these interests.  If they did, they wouldn’t be leaders very long.

Proponents might find it inspiring to portray teachers as “united mind workers” and to extol the lofty professional values that teachers presumably care most about.  But the fact is that teachers want their unions to protect their jobs–and that is what their unions do.  There is good evidence to show that the vast majority of unionized teachers–Republicans as well as Democrats, young as well as old–are wildly supportive of their local unions precisely because their  bread-and-butter interests as employees are being forcefully represented.

In recent times, the reform unionism argument often centers on young teachers as the ones who will bring the unions out of the darkness and into the light of the good. There are plenty of valid examples, to be sure, of young teachers who are excited about their profession, frustrated with their unions, and demanding of change.  We need only look to Teach for America for thousands of them.And Rotherham has still other examples.  Which is fine: they are all real, and all very much worth our attention (and admiration).  But are they going to transform the teachers unions into organizations that truly support whatever reforms are right for kids?


The answer is no.  There are well over 3 million active teachers in this country, and the groups Rotherham points to are a drop in the bucket.  In unions all across the country, young teachers barely participate in union affairs–which are entirely dominated by their senior colleagues.  In any event, if we look at young union members as a whole–not just those from TFA or insurgent groups, but all of them–the evidence suggests that their attitudes on basic issues are very similar to those of senior unionized teachers: they are highly satisfied with their union locals, they are highly supportive of collective bargaining, they believe that collective bargaining has benign effects for kids and schools, and they have similar positions on most matters of education policy.  And this shouldn’t come as a shock.  Young people who are out of sync with the current system and its unions are free to leave–and they surely do, at high rates, with those who are more satisfied staying behind.

The argument that young teachers are going to transform the unions is just as fanciful, and just as wrong, as the argument that leaders like Randi Weingarten or Adam Urbanski are going to transform it.  Unions are unions.  They are in the business of protecting jobs: that is why their members join, that is what their members expect them to do, and that is what they actually do.  If you expect them to do something else–to represent children or to represent the public interest–you will be wrong.  Don’t expect a cat to bark.

If you want more detail (considerably more) about reform unionism, please take a look at my new book, Special Interest: Teachers Unions and America’s Schools, where I devote an entire chapter to the subject.  You might also take a look at Chapter 3 and its appendix, which provide data on the beliefs and attitudes of young teachers. 

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