Voluntary Unionism: An Essential Part of School Reform

This article originally appeared in the summer 2001 issue of IMPACT!, the quarterly newsletter of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy.

In Michigan, as in other states, educational reform has become a heated topic of discussion among parents, teachers, administrators, elected officials, and other concerned citizens.  Two issues in the educational reform mix that are most often neglected are the critical role that collective bargaining plays in the delivery of educational services and how compulsory unionism hurts public education.

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Compulsory unionism has been a fixture in Michigan since 1947, when the Legislature passed the Public Employment Relations Act (PERA).  In addition to granting public school employees the right to organize into unions and enter into collective bargaining agreements, the law grants two additional powers to unions—powers that suppress the individual rights of those public school employees to own the fruit of their own labor.

These two additional, legally sanctioned union powers put the "compulsion" into collective bargaining.  First, the power of "exclusive representation" gives unions the sole right to speak for employees in the workplace:  By law, each and every worker loses his or her right to negotiate directly with the employer.  Second (and related to the first power) is unions' lawful ability to force workers, even those who do not want union representation, to pay union dues.  With forced union dues, the education unions promote a political agenda that stymies sensible educational reforms that would benefit students, such as expanded school choice.

Compulsory unionism increases the costs of education and decreases the percentage of funding spent on classroom instruction.  It prevents teachers from being treated as professionals and discourages qualified individuals from becoming teachers in the first place.  Compulsory unionism also turns public schools into political battlegrounds because of the adversarial nature of union representation.

A case in point is Arvon Public Schools, a small, one-school district in the Upper Peninsula's Baraga County.  With a $260,000 annual budget and only 15 students, the school until recently had 5 union employees.  When the school board decided to save 30 percent of the district's transportation, food service, and janitorial budget by contracting with private providers, union officials thwarted the proposal.  Using a variety of tactics, including expensive lawsuits, the union's efforts lowered the school library fund from $5,000 to $300 and killed a proposed $20,000 science, music, art, and technology program—all to keep non-teaching union members on the payroll.

The better way to address the needs of teachers, school boards, and students is for the state to adopt voluntary unionism as the preferred collective bargaining model.  Under this approach, employers may bargain with unions and employees may continue to join unions, but the government would neither prohibit nor mandate such action.  Public school employees would be free, on an individual basis, to negotiate their own terms of employment or leave it to unions to meet their unique needs.

Voluntary unionism also would relieve employees of the burden of having their dues used to support social, political, or ideological causes that they oppose and find offensive.  As a quid pro quo, unions would not be obligated by law to represent any employee who elects to opt out of collective bargaining.

Voluntary unionism is the law in 10 states.  These states allow teachers and schools to choose whether they want to participate in collective bargaining or not.  The states of Georgia, Texas, and Missouri, which do not have forced bargaining, have more members in professional teachers' organizations than in those organizations' union counterparts.  Teachers seem well able to represent their interests through professionalism as well as unionism.

There is no doubt that Michigan public education is in crisis, and compulsory unionism is one of the roots of the problem.  Compulsory unionism has tarnished the image of public school teachers and diminished their professional standards and autonomy.  It often has tied school districts in knots, preventing them from properly managing their schools.

The only permanent solution is to remove from Michigan state law those provisions that grant union officials monopoly bargaining privileges—and in the process protect every Michigan public school employee from forced union membership, forced union dues, or forced union representation.

The principle of voluntarism is, after all, the historical basis of the early union movement.  For the sake of creating the best education for all children, the movement should return to its roots.

"Two issues in the educational reform mix that are most often neglected are the critical role that collective bargaining plays in the delivery of educational services and how compulsory unionism hurts public education."