Editor’s Note: This article includes excerpts from a speech delivered by Dr. Myron Lieberman at a conference of superintendents and school board members in Hershey, Pennsylvania, in May 1996. Dr. Lieberman is chairman of the Education Policy Institute in Washington, D.C., an educational research and policy analysis organization. He is the co-author of twelve books and sixteen articles on education policy and teacher bargaining.

Why is membership in public sector unions increasing while membership in private sector unions is decreasing? The answer is competition. The older private sector industries (such as automaking) that have a decreasing rate of union membership are the industries where companies could not quickly adjust to the rigors of new competition. The industries in this country that are growing tend to have little union involvement. The teacher unions (and I emphasize unions, as opposed to the many dedicated teachers in their ranks) know that their biggest threat is competition in the education industry.

How does a teacher union protect itself? Unions in school districts depend primarily on their political power to get what they want. In California, the law prohibits public employees from working under the supervision of a private contractor. This has effectively prohibited contracting out in California, a state that enrolls one out of every ten pupils in the country.


"Do your best to split the board on crucial issues through contacts with the individual board members or misrepresentation of the issues to the public."


National Education Association (NEA) and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) publish documents such as "The People’s Cause," which provide instructions on how to oppose privatization. It urges close attention to warning signs that privatization may be imminent. Consider the following excerpt:

If your school board members, a superintendent, or other administrator . . . who seems greatly enamored with the concept of applying competition or market forces to the public school system, has been heavily supported by business, is coming under increasing fire for poorly run schools, is facing severe budget problems, then it’s time to start explaining to your members and key communities what could be coming and why it is not a good idea.

The piece goes on to give recommendations on how to organize to fight this. Suggestions include political pressure, identifying local merchants who may lose contracts, and efforts to tie a board member or administrator to a bidder. The guide also includes several suggestions for investigating potential contractors:

The goal is to find information that casts doubt on the company’s social responsibility. For instance, you might uncover investments in South Africa or poor environmental practices.

State-based unions such as the Michigan Education Association (MEA), Michigan’s largest union of janitors, bus drivers, food service personnel and teachers, use similar techniques to block privatization. Consider the following remarks which were taken from an MEA training audio tape for union negotiators and published with commentary on the Mackinac Center for Public Policy Web site:

Do your best to split the board on crucial issues through contacts with the individual board members or misrepresentation of the issues to the public through press releases. Attempt to carefully attack the credibility of the board negotiating team so that the most of the board team’s executive sessions with their board will be spent answering board members’ questions about association charges and not with planning up-coming negotiation sessions.

Investigate the background of each school board member, including religious affiliation, marital status, age, education, employment, family, politics, "what do his peers think of him?," "what is his relationship with his employer or employees?," and "does holding a public office help him advance in his job or produce business connections?" This should be investigated, the MEA states, so the negotiator will "know what sensitive chords and nerves to hit during negotiation to get the results you seek."

After gathering information, the MEA recommends that the local union "consider bringing in a heavy from the outside. You know, perhaps your Uniserv director. When the job is done and the bad guy, you know, has to leave town, won’t it be nice when the local association won’t have to bear the brunt of resentment?"

Editor’s Note: For the full text of the anti-school board tactics contained in the MEA training tape, go to www.mackinac.org and access "Teacher Unions: Helping or Hurting?"

Other tactics used by the NEA include suggesting to contractors that bidding may not be worthwhile; ideas for rallies, demonstrations, billboards, leaflets, and signs with slogans or rhetorical questions such as, "Why Does (board of education member’s name) Want to Give Our Jobs Away?"; refusing voluntary overtime or optional assignments, and referring all questions and complaints to whoever came up with the idea of contracting out and to the office of the contractor.

In Tecumseh, Michigan, school bus driver Cheryl Cusin accused board members of mismanaging finances, which presumably pushed them into the position of privatizing services. In addition, all fifteen of Tecumseh’s school bus drivers (and the substitute drivers) affiliated with AFSCME Local 2915 protested a school board decision to contract with Ryder Student Transportation by calling in "sick" the two days following the board’s vote to privatize on April 29, 1996. The drivers claimed that they were too sick or depressed to work. The 2,200 students that they transport twice daily had to find alternate transportation.

The school district claimed the "sick" days were an illegal work stoppage and balked at paying bus drivers for work not done. The bus drivers’ union disagreed and challenged the district. Each side ended up in arbitration and an undisclosed financial settlement was reached.

In Wayland, Michigan, a coalition calling itself Citizens Against Privatization threatened to recall the local board of education for its attempt at subcontracting for busing services. While groups such as the Citizens Against Privatization may sound like grass roots, community-driven organizations they may be nothing more than a union front. In May of 1995, the MEA sponsored an antiprivatization conference entitled, "Facing the Challenge," where one speaker instructed participants to recruit local citizens with no direct connection to district employees for protests and letter writing opposition. This may be done to avoid the impression that it is only the local union members who fear outsourcing.

The MEA has stated that it "would oppose any privatization of public school functions" and has considered a "flawed assumption" the belief that "subcontracting saves money, because private companies can provide the same goods or services more efficiently than public entities." Ironically, the MEA made these statements while simultaneously contracting at its own headquarters, even at times with nonunion firms. The NEA is no different. Despite publishing an antiprivatization manual entitled, Contracting Out: Strategies for Fighting Back, 20% of the NEA’s budget is for contracted services.

The real shame of union antiprivatization tactics is that they limit the opportunity of educators to do what they do best: transmit knowledge. When school personnel, parents, and students are bombarded with rancorous, emotional debate over issues that involve noninstructional union jobs, we should ask ourselves, "Why do schools exist?" Are they to educate children, or guarantee government jobs for public school support staff?

For a detailed analysis of NEA, AFT, and AFL-CIO strategies and tactics used to prohibit privatization, see Myron Lieberman’s new book, The Teacher Unions (New York: The Free Press, 1997).