American labor unions are in decline both in terms of their reputation and their membership numbers. Public service unions are in particular under attack as negotiated benefits stress empty government coffers. Private industry workers, the self-employed, retirees, and others whose perks have stagnated or been eliminated through years of assault by American business leaders resent those workers whose benefits seem superior. Instead of asking “why don’t I have benefits like theirs?” they ask “why do they get something that I don’t?”
Membership in American labor unions is at an all-time low, representing only 11.9% of the workforce, its lowest number in seventy years.1 An article in Alternet posits three reasons for the decline of American unions:
- Modern corporations roam the world looking for low labor costs, lax regulations, and weak labor unions. This pits workers and communities against each other in a classic race to the bottom to attract and retain jobs.
- Corporations have abandoned the old vertically and horizontally integrated organizational structures, in which companies sought to keep most aspects of production and distribution in-house, in favor of newer core/ring systems in which they perform only core functions while farming out the rest to complex supply chains of contractors and subsidiaries. Workers making the same product, or providing the same service, may be employed by many different employers, making solidarity and collective action difficult.
- Corporations divide the remaining in-house workforce into a core group of workers with standard jobs and at least some expectation of long term employment, and a secondary group of contingent workers: part-timers, temps, contract workers, on-call workers, and day laborers usually with sub-standard wages and benefits and little or no job security.[2. The future of work: Where the labor movement is heading. (Aug, 31 2008). 2
Teacher Unions Also in Decline
When it comes to public education, documentary films like Waiting for Superman, Race to Nowhere, The Lottery, and the forthcoming fictional account Won't Back Down portray educators as lazy, rigid, uncaring bureaucrats and teacher unions as protectors of incompetence, impediments to reform, and special interests in the pockets od the Democratic party.3 Competent teachers are, according to such films, the exception rather than the rule.
The nation's largest teacher union, the National Education Association (NEA), reports that its membership is in decline, with a loss of over 100,000 members since 2010. 4
Independent Schools and Teacher Unions
There is no national union for independent school teachers.[5. Teaching in independent schools.] Few independent schools are unionized, and my personal (admittedly limited) experience in discussing teacher unions with independent school faculty and administrators shows that many of them harbor misgivings, even resentments, about the NEA and and the other major union body, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT). Among them:
- teacher unions are obstacles to change, protecting the status quo and incompetence.
- public school teachers are, in general, less skilled and less knowledgeable than their independent school counterparts; despite this difference, the salaries of public school teachers are higher, especially when compared to religious schools.
- union leadership is subject to corruption and political deal making.
- the ecosystem of independent schools is significantly different from those of public schools; funding is different, the clientele is different, measures of success are different, curriculum standards are different, and bureaucracy is different.
- unions are for ”blue collar” jobs, not professions such as teaching.
- The rate of tuition increases that support many independent schools is not sustainable. Patrick Bassett, President of the NAIS, often talks about the challenge to independent schools in making tuition affordable for middle and upper-middle class families. [6. http://www.peje.org/blog/?p=825 ] With tuitions at top-tier independent school hovering around $40,000 per year, with a few approaching $50,000 per year, even rich families are balking at such costs. Some independent schools may price themselves out of a market in areas where quality public school alternatives exist.
- Revenue pressures will, of course, mainfest themselves in cost-cutting measures. With salaries the largest component of a school’s budget, independent school teachers may find class enrollments increasing, along with the number of classes taught per day and expectations for extra-curricular work. Some of the very things that may have led them to pursue teaching in independent schools may be threatened, with little recourse available to them.
- Everyone agrees that the cost of healthcare is rising at an alarming rate, leading employers to seek new ways of trimming theses costs by shifting more of the financial burden to employees.
- Similarly, schools will examine their other benefit programs such as matching contributions to 403.b retirement plans, sabbatical leave, and professional development.
- More experienced teachers may find themselves being “nudged out” of schools in favor of younger, and lower cost, educators.
And some additional thoughts about unions and independent schools…
Many independent schools are secretive about their salary practices, withholding salary information even from the supervisors of employees. Competitive salary information from national groups such as NAIS are limited to heads of schools and school business officers. The result is a system in which information pertinent to salary negotiations are significantly tilted in favor of school administrators. In a like manner, the dismissal of a school employee is often shrouded in mystery and innuendo. No one wants to violate the privacy of employees or the rights of employers to dismiss for cause, but questions about due process must to be answered with more than a “just trust us” response. Who is going to level the playing field in salary negotiations or assure that employees are protected from arbitrary and capricious discipline, up to and including firing?
Financial pressures in independent schools, coupled with the need to demonstrate curricular leadership, may lead to the expectation for teachers to adopt new practices despite diminished support for professional development activities. Sabbatical programs, educational travel to conferences, released time for course development and collaboration may be compromised. Who is going to protect the ongoing investment in faculty and staff to guarantee that the quality of teaching and learning is maintained?
t may be argued that elite independent schools, with their high tuitions and pressure on endowments to support financial aid to assure a diverse student population, may simply become one more enclave of the so-called 1% of Americans, the super wealthy and (according to many in the Occupy Movement) a morally and ethically bereft group who build profits at the expense of everyone else. Extreme rhetoric aside, Who is going to assure that the resources continue to be available to ensure that student bodies are culturally, racially, and financially diverse?
Needed: A New Model for Education Unions
Independent school teachers are among the smartest and most talented people I know. And it is to them that I issue a challenge to create a new model for collective action and solidarity, a new type of union that avoids the problems associated with traditional teacher unions, enhances their professional status, guards their financial future, ensures that students remain at the core of their mission, and demonstrates common cause with their public school counterparts; a collective that can experiment and model new ways of engagement between school administrators, parents, students, alumni, and other stakeholders for the mutual good of independent schools. It does not have to be a matter of non-union or and NEA/AFT affiliation. There can be a another way.
Now is the time for conversations to begin, before crisis drives people to opposing corners. Now is the time for savvy school administrators to welcome greater transparency about money (which is what much of this is about) and other policies. Now is the time for faculty to think further ahead than a week or semester, but five, ten, and twenty years down the road.
- Greenhouse, S. (Jan, 21 2011). Union membership in u.s. fell to a 70-year low last year. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/22/business/22union.html ↩
- Retrieved from http://www.alternet.org/story/96979/the_future_of_work:_where_the_labor_movement_is_heading ↩
- The anti-teacher union rhetoric has even inspired its own web site, Teacher Unions Exposed, operated by the The Center for Union Facts, PO Box 34507, Washington, DC 20043. Also operating at this address is the Conservative Alliance Foundation. Both of these organizations are run by Berman and Company, which has also mounted campaigns against organizations like Mothers Against Drunk Driving, the Center for Science in the Public Interest, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and trial lawyers among others. (Wikipedia citation). ↩
- NEA membership decline heralds loss of power and influence. ↩