“I make $1,100 per two-week pay period. Union dues are $60–80, and Arizona puts 11% of my check into a retirement fund,” says Molly Hanzel, a science teacher at Carl Hayden High in Phoenix.

Hanzel says the Classroom Teachers Association (CTA) maintains “a very strong presence at Hayden.” They recruit at the beginning of the year and deliver updates on union affairs at staff meetings. She appreciates the CTA for negotiating better wages in the face of hiring freezes, and helping a fellow teacher with a degenerative health condition obtain accommodations that allowed her to stay in the classroom.

Hanzel transferred to Hayden after two years at Peoria Union, another school in the Phoenix Union district, where she earned her teaching certificate through Americorps’ New Teacher Project. She says of the change, “I feel tons of support here that I didn’t feel before,” and notes the modest pay increase makes her feel appreciated. She still has to keep a tight budget, but shares, “I like what I’m doing. And I don’t think a lot of people can say that about their jobs.”

At Hanzel’s old school, Peoria Union, the CTA had less of a presence. Support for the union was near-universal among members of her Americorps class. However, the difficulties of living on subsistence-level pay and time constraints posed by lesson planning as first-year teachers while trying to maintain a work-life balance made them question if joining was worth it. Hanzel’s peers knew they received the collective bargaining benefits achieved by the CTA whether or not they signed up, and that if they ever had a problem and needed the union’s help, they could start paying dues then.

In the 26 states like Arizona that have implemented “Right to Work” laws, including former union strongholds like Wisconsin, Michigan, Iowa, and Indiana, workers can no longer be compelled to pay dues. As a result, unions of all types are losing members and revenue. In the states where “Right to Work” has not yet penetrated, teachers unions are still threatened by a growing number of private charter schools. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics reports private-sector employees are represented at a rate five times less than their public-sector counterparts.

The group behind “Right to Work” laws is the American Legislative Exchange Counsel (ALEC). A conservative think-tank responsible for hundreds of laws in a host of states, ALEC leads the push to privatize public schools, undermine wage increases, cut corporate taxes, and slash funding to regulators who protect our environment from pollution. Alongside firefighters and police officers, America’s teachers represent the employment sectors with the highest rates of unionization. As we saw in Wisconsin, these local government employees are among ALEC’s primary targets. And when union-backed candidates lose to ALEC-funded officials, the ramifications extend beyond temporary wage-freezes.

As many teachers know, unions are not perfect, and should not be exempt from criticism. It is readily understandable why due-paying members grow frustrated when their representatives fail to advance their interests at the bargaining table. However, union employees should remain mindful that ineffectiveness is not always the result of corruption. Sure, graft and greed are an unfortunate reality in some instances, but our current system of campaign finance requires “accountability” to politicians many union leaders would prefer to avoid.

Despite their shortcomings, unions have performed a historically important function in American society. During their two boom points — in the progressive 1930s and post-World War II 1950s — labor unions lobbied for significant policy victories that facilitated the growth of a wildly prosperous middle class. While these benefits have not always been extended to all Americans fairly, it is undeniable that organized labor has helped millions of families live better lives.

Recently, Tom Geoghegan, a labor lawyer who has argued before the Supreme Court on behalf of unions and civic groups like The League of Women Voters, delivered a lecture at the University of Illinois-Chicago. Geoghegan spoke about the Wagner Act, a monumental labor bill passed in 1935 that established exclusive bargaining rights for majority unions. In the decade after its inception, Wagner proved of great benefit to workers. Union membership increased from approximately 7 percent of the total workforce to over 25 percent of the total workforce — a figure maintained for over thirty years.

However, the provision of Wagner that established majority-only bargaining proved to be a trap. Beginning in the 1970s, millions of wage-earning manufacturing jobs were shipped abroad, and a cross-industry increase in hiring of “independent contractors” transpired. As these events unfolded, union membership began its precipitous decline.

“Right to Work” followed, and further eroded labor’s numbers. With fewer funds from dues, unions are able to achieve less for the workers they represent. Eventually, the cost of paying-in exceeds the benefits, and unions fail to earn the majority vote required to achieve bargaining rights.

Geoghegan says, “Under this model, union membership will not exceed 6 percent, where we sit now.” The result of fewer union represented employees than in the years preceding the Great Depression? “Labor will not be an effective counter to efforts being made to push for a more plutocratic income structure.” The transition to a less equitable income distribution will come at the expense of funding for the public good. More plainly, teacher pay, class-sizes, and workloads won’t get any better, and schools will suffer for it.

A potential solution to this dilemma may be to increase the number of participants in organized labor by removing the Wagner Act provision that mandates “majority-only” bargaining, moving towards a European-style minority union representation. Some labor organizers fear this change would actually reduce the number of total workers represented, and that existing unions would have less negotiating power. But Geoghegan says these fears are misguided — more unions would form to represent the vast numbers of Americans falling from the ranks of the middle class.

Further, coalitions between minority unions could be formed during collective bargaining to maximize leverage in negotiations. And perhaps of greater benefit, competition between minority unions would ensure that unions are responsive to their members, or risk losing them to other unions offering a better deal. Under this system of minority representation, European workers unionize at a rate near five-times greater than Americans employees, and typically enjoy better earnings, too.

chairs and desks

While benefits are clear, the trick lies in actualizing change. Generally, Republicans oppose labor as allies of their Democratic opponents, and Democrats struggle to win elections without funds provided by unions. In fewer words, teachers don’t have many friends in the political system when it comes to reforming this antiquated statute.

There are impending court decisions that will impact the future of union organization, and Geoghegan optimistically observes that courts nationwide are siding with labor at an increased rate. However, that trend could also be understood as evidence of how far union opponents have already advanced.

With Congress and the courts unlikely to provide much aid, organized labor’s best shot at affecting this needed change comes with the executive branch, whose leader appoints members to the National Labor Relations Board. The NLRB has the power to revise the Wagner Act with a single vote. And if we look back in history at the tenures of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower, we find strong examples of the positive impact an executive advocate can have on the opportunities afforded to working Americans.

In absence of change, union membership will continue to decline. Teacher pay will continue to stagnate and pensions will wither as income inequality increases and our environment sustains further damage. The continued existence of a prosperous American middle-class will be threatened.


By: T. Madison Glimp
Content Contributor @ Kiddom

Originally published at Teacher Voice.