Budget problems are the norm for Michigan school districts these days. Detroit Public Schools is considering declaring bankruptcy, and school boards around the state need serious fiscal reform. At the same time, there is little doubt that many necessary reforms will be met with strong opposition from the state's largest teachers union — the Michigan Education Association. As school boards make difficult budgetary decisions and prepare to negotiate with unions, it is important for them to remember the true mission of teachers unions.
The parent group of the MEA, the National Education Association, described the real purpose of teachers unions at its Representative Assembly earlier this month. Bob Chanin, retiring general counsel, explained why the NEA is such an effective force:
"Despite what some among us would like to believe, it is not because of our creative ideas. It is not because of the merit of our positions. It is not because we care about children. And it is not because we have a vision of a great public school for every child. NEA and its affiliates are effective advocates because we have power. And we have power because there are more than 3.2 million people who are willing to pay us hundreds of millions of dollars in dues each year because they believe that we are the unions that can most effectively represent them, the unions that can protect their rights and advance their interests as education employees."
Chanin, after a standing ovation, added that when it comes to school reforms aimed at closing achievement gaps, reducing dropout rates and improving teacher quality, teachers must remember that those reforms "need not and must not be achieved at the expense of due process, employee rights and collective bargaining. That simply is too high a price to pay." Chanin is a revered figure within the NEA and his words are a powerful reminder of the real nature of teachers unions.
Priority number one for teachers unions is to provide representation and fight for the interests of their members. Often, the NEA and MEA disguise this purpose. In fact, the very name "education association" is misleading. They represent the interests of teachers and other school employees, not the entire education system.
Another way teachers unions mask their mission is through their common response to school reform. When considering school reforms, the expressed concern of unions revolves around how much funding will get "into the classroom." This makes it appear that their concern is with the students. The reality, however, is that their concern is not with the students but with the teachers in those classrooms, whose salaries, benefits and pensions eat up about 70 percent of a school's budget. The legendary New York teachers union leader, Albert Shanker, was correct when he admitted, "When school children start paying union dues, that's when I'll start representing the interests of school children."
Even though representation is their number one priority, some may question the NEA and MEA's commitment to this end. Although the unions will fight continuously for uniform teacher salary increases, extensive but expensive healthcare benefits and defined-benefit pension plans, they use their dues for much more. A study of the LM-2 reports for both the NEA and MEA reveals that only 30 percent of their budgets are spent on representation, while almost 60 percent of their expenses go to "overhead" and "administration." Union members should be aware that only a segment of their dues are used to represent their best interests.
The NEA and MEA use the power Chanin described for more expansive purposes than simply representing their members. Perusing the business items and resolutions from the NEA's Representative Assembly, it appears that these unions spend a significant amount of time on their political agenda. The NEA covered topics including corporate tax reform, "misinformation" about national health care reform, labor rights in Iran, ethnic study programs, same-sex marriage and adult stem cell research. How do these issues contribute to representing the interests of school employees?
This abuse of power exemplified by the NEA and MEA stems from their exclusive bargaining rights. They do not represent the best interests of all of their members, yet all of their members are forced to pay them dues. Reform is needed in this area, and some remedies do exist. Teachers opposed to their union using dues to achieve and maintain political influence have the right to opt out of the union. A more comprehensive solution would be for Michigan to move to a system of voluntary unionism and eliminate the exclusive bargaining rights granted to teachers unions.
Michael Van Beek is director of education policy at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the Center are properly cited.