School Choice Threatens to Negatively Affect the Financial and Political Power of School Employee Labor Unions
School employee labor unions' failure to organize teachers in Michigan private and charter schoolsand their dominance in traditional government schoolsgive them powerful financial incentives to oppose school choice. Nearly 9 out of 10 school children attend traditional government schools with dues- and fee-paying unionized teachers. However, unions have been mostly unsuccessful in their attempts to organize teachers in charter and private schools, where few employees are interested in joining a union or paying dues. To date, only 5 of Michigan's 139 charter schools are unionized and only 2 out of the 782 private schools surveyed were found to have unionized teachers (see Chart 4).
The financial strength and political influence of school employee labor unions is directly related to their ability to acquire and retain dues-paying members. To the unions, a loss of members represents a loss of financial and political power. School employee labor unions understand that if families are allowed to choose among a greater number of non-unionized schools, then dues-paying government school employees will be able to do the same. It is reasonable to expect that, out of organizational self-interest, unions will attempt to maintain the financial and political barriers that prevent families from choosing charter and private schools. This is one reason why unions are likely to spend millions of dollars to oppose the removal of Michigan's constitutional ban on K-12 tuition vouchers and tax credits and the enactment of proposals that expand parental school choice.
David Denholm of the Public Service Research Foundation in Virginia concludes that the competition created by school choice is the single greatest threat to the union monopoly of traditional government schools and teachers. In The Impact of Unionism on the Quality of Public Education, Denholm states that
[U]nions & oppose reforms that are contrary to the union's self interest as an organization. Anything that would lessen the power of the union or reduce the union's membership is automatically opposed. This is the central reason for union opposition to any proposals which would introduce competition into public education. The unions realize that because of political influence, their ability to organize public education is greatly enhanced, but that they have virtually zero ability to organize in private education. Anything that would move students, and therefore teaching jobs, from the public to the private sector meets strenuous union resistance.
Unions have not been successful at organizing the employees of charter and private schools. Expanded school choice will probably lead to a reduction of union income and political power as greater numbers of low- and middle-income families choose to send their children to schools with non-unionized workforces. Preservation of school employee union power and influence therefore requires union officials to defend the system they now dominate, and resist the growth of schools in which they have been unable to gain a foothold.