According to the PEW Research Center, the Programme for International Student Assessment ranked the skills of 15-year-olds in 71 countries. The U.S. came in 38th in math and 24th in science. They were once ranked near the top. What happened? Many believe it’s the teacher unions that have slowly led to the destruction of the educational system’s productivity and quality. The impact of public unions, like the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the National Education Association (NEA), on education is a national tragedy and sends a message to private employers: What is happening to the education system can happen to your business.
Slow but Sure Decline
Everyone is familiar with the story of General Motors’ (GM) bankruptcy which was largely blamed on unions that took advantage of weak company leadership. The slow decline of the iconic vehicle manufacturer was largely placed on the shoulders of the United Auto Workers who demanded unreasonable wages and benefits, and tied management’s hands when it was time to promote, transfer or lay off workers. At the time the company went bankrupt, there were 5,000 pages of work rules. It took decades for the full impact of unions to be felt.
What does the story of GM have to do with teachers’ unions? The answer is: History is repeating itself in the U.S. education system. All unions are special interest groups, and the primary interest of teacher unions is increasing member wages, reducing work schedules, providing job security to everyone without regard for performance, and protecting union salaries, benefits and perks. The contracts negotiated in the past offer few incentives for excellence, and the unions have vigorously fought against holding teachers accountable for results.
Underperforming teachers are largely protected from dismissal because firing a teacher is such an onerous, complex and expensive process, taking as long as six years. Instead, they are moved to positions outside the classroom, are left in the classroom or are shuffled around the school system. This is similar to the pre-bankruptcy GM contract’s “job bank” clause in which surplus workers would get 95 percent of their salaries and full benefits while not working and waiting for reassignment.
“Don’t Hold Me Accountable for Results”
Teacher unions are also spending millions of dollars to influence politicians and education policymakers. For decades, teacher unions across the nation have opposed reforms. When President Obama tried to reform an educational process that was widening the gap between schools that are largely white versus minority, the NEA opposed it. One of the astonishing reasons was that it established a teacher evaluation system using improving student test scores.
Membership in teacher unions has been declining, and it’s expected to decline by up to another 30 percent should the Supreme Court rule against the union in the Janus v. AFSCME case and end forced payment of worker agency fees. Many people, union and non-union alike, don’t like their union dues supporting political candidates or other causes they don’t personally support.
History Speaks for Itself
Business leaders should never make the mistake of thinking a public union isn’t relevant to private business. Comparing the education system and GM clearly shows that unions can negatively impact any type of organization. Should your workforce unionize, you can expect to experience the same kind of problems that are occurring in the education system, including tedious contract negotiations, loss of control over the hiring and firing process, higher labor costs, higher administrative costs and restricted ability to manage the business.
All of these factors impede the chances of long-term success. The journey of decline may be slow, but it’s usually inevitable when an organization is unionized. It’s important to keep your business union free, develop leaders who successfully engage employees and maintain a positive work culture. Those are the three main success factors, and there is no room for unions.