America’s Union Suppression Movement (And Its Apologists), Part Two

This is part two of a two-part post. The first part can be found here.

As the war against American unions reached a fever pitch in recent years, there emerged a small group of right-wing academics and think tanks that have taken up the anti-union cause in intellectual circles. Of particular note for our purposes are Terry Moe’s book, Special Interest, and a recent study, How Strong Are U.S. Teacher Unions?, which was jointly sponsored by the Fordham Institute and Education Reform Now. [6]

Since I’ve already written a critique of Moe’s book for the American Political Science Association’s journal, Perspective on Politics, my focus here is mainly on the Fordham/ERN report.

Both publications tell a very similar story (all the more remarkable given the political and economic context I discussed in Part I of this post), in which incredibly powerful teacher union Leviathans invariably win the day in all manner of educational and public policy fights. The Fordham Institute’s Michael Petrilli offered a ten-second sound bite for this meme, when he recently wrote that teacher unions "were the Goliath to the school reformers' David."

How does one find one’s way to such an unfounded conclusion? With an ideological analysis that has only the thinnest veneer of social science.

Take the most basic issue in this narrative, the supposed “power” of teacher unions. As I used to teach my Political Science students, power can not be understood as a static, fixed property possessed by an individual or a group, but must be seen as a relationship among various players. Like any other political actor, a teachers union possesses no power in the abstract, but only in relation to other parties – school districts; school boards; state education departments; county, state and federal governments; corporations; political parties; parents groups; and so on, across the field of education policy players. Yet, in discussing the power of the “Goliath” teachers union, Moe and the Fordham/ERN report make no mention of the greater relative power of the education reform “David.”  This omission is telling for three important reasons:

The Fabulously Wealthy: Imaginary and Real

First, both Fordham/ERN and Moe highlight teacher unions’ spending on elections and lobbying as a primary source of strength. But neither study compares teacher unions’ financial resources and spending to the resources and spending of teacher unions’ foes in the “education reform” movement. Moe provides details on the federal election spending of the “fabulously wealthy” NEA and AFT – with the combined expenditures of the two national unions adding up to $60 million over the past decade. [7]

How does that compare to the resources and spending of the leading education reform actors? In a matter of days after she publicly announced the formation of StudentsFirst, an explicitly anti-union political lobbying organization, Michelle Rhee had raised pledges of more than $100 million, with a goal of raising $2 billion over five years. Rhee’s donors list includes many high profile corporate leaders and foundations with an anti-union bent, including Murdoch (NewsCorp), Walton Family (Wal-Mart), Fisher (The Gap), Langone (Home Depot), Tepper (Appaloosa), Arnold (Enron), New York City Mayor Bloomberg (Bloomberg Inc.), Fournier (Pennant), Loeb (Third Point), Tudor Jones (Tudor Investment) and Broad (SunAmerica-AIG). [8]

And StudentsFirst is only one of many such organizations. Wealthy individuals and foundations are literally pouring billions of dollars into various anti-union, privatization and corporate “education reform” efforts on a scale that teacher unions could never hope to match. [9]

A similar picture emerges at the state level. Consider New York, the state in which teacher unions have the highest member density and greatest financial resources in the nation, a fact that the Fordham/ERN report confirms. In 2010 and early 2011, during the height of the battle to shape legislation that would make New York competitive in the Race to the Top grant competition, Education Reform Now Advocacy (ERNA), an arm of the Democrats for Education Reform (DFER), outspent not only the state federation of teacher unions, the New York State United Teachers (NYSUT), but also the combined expenditures of NYSUT and its largest local, the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) in New York City. [10] And ERNA/DFER was only one of a cohort of New York State organizations working on behalf of an anti-union, “corporate reform” educational agenda. [11]

The Anti-Union Organizations That Dare Not Speak Their Agenda

Secondly, and here the case of ERNA/DFER provides a perfect segue, the omission of any discussion of teacher union opponents and their resources allows Fordham and ERN to ignore their own role within that opposition. ERN and ERNA are both arms of DFER (the ERN that co-sponsored the report that we are considering here is the sister organization of the ERNA, which opposed New York’s teachers unions over Race to the Top). [12]

In its analysis of teacher unions in New York, the Fordham/ERN report includes a brief description of the battles around Race to the Top (p. 255), but without a single mention of the fact that ERN/ERNA/DFER was actually a major player in those battles and had in fact outspent the unions. This brief narrative was entitled “Full Disclosure," a remarkably ironic title under the circumstances.

Further, both Fordham and ERN are the recipients of large amounts of money from corporate foundations and corporate leaders who have supported anti-union efforts. Fordham receives funding from the following sources, among others: the Walton Family (Wal-Mart), Gates, Fisher (Gap), Robertson (Tiger), Arnold (Enron), Broad (Sun America/AIG) and Bradley (which also provided direct funding for the report we are discussing).  ERN receives funding from the following sources, among others: the Walton Family (Wal-Mart), Fisher (Gap), Robertson (Tiger), and Broad (Sun America/AIG). Prominent also in support for ERN/DFER are a number of Wall Street hedge fund managers, including Ravenel Boykin Curry IV (Eagle Capital), Joel Greenblatt (Gotham Capital, protégé of Michael Millken), David Einhorn (Greenlight Capital), John Petry (Gotham Capital), Charles Ledley (Highfields), Whitney Tilson (T2 Partners and Tilson Funds) and Tony Davis (Anchorage). [13]

What is problematic here is not just that Fordham and DFER/ERN/ERNA are prominent political actors in the struggles over the future of public schools and teacher unions, with a vested interest in the subject they are analyzing, or that they are financed by corporate foundations and wealthy individuals who also have a vested interest, but that they fail to offer even the most minimal self-disclosure of these facts. Imagine a study of the power of the “Goliath” American Cancer Society, financed and conducted by various “Davids” connected to the tobacco industry who just don’t reveal their industry ties, and you have an analogue to the Fordham/ERN report.

Wealth and Power vs. America’s Teachers

Thirdly, the focus that Moe and Fordham/ERN place on teacher unions’ political and financial resources creates a distorting lens for understanding these unions’ real political power and the power dynamic between teacher unions and the “education reform” movement. The very ferocity of the attacks against teacher unions, even in the face of a declining American labor movement, suggests that teacher unions are real political forces capable of mounting a serious defense of their members and the public institutions in which they work. But teacher unions’ base of power rests not with their financial resources – which will always be dwarfed by those available to corporate leaders on the other side – but with an educated, politically active membership of millions who care deeply about education and understand it through first-hand experience.

Neither Moe nor Fordham/ERN account for the fact that, by law, the overwhelming majority of the funds that teacher unions spend on political action cannot be taken from membership dues, but must be raised through voluntary donations by members. [14]

Though easily outmatched by fundraising on the other side, the unions’ political action dollars go much further because they are used to support an army of volunteers who staff union voter registration drives, make calls for union phone banks, walk door-to-door union canvases, lobby elected officials and vote in large numbers. Teacher union activists are influential across the entire range of civil society associations, from neighborhood groups to faith communities; they write letters to the editor and pen their own blogs; they turn out in large numbers for street demonstrations and protests. Recognizing their disadvantage on this “people-to-people” terrain, some “education reform” forces have attempted to use their overwhelming financial advantage to organize their own “astro-turf” (as opposed to “grassroots”) teacher, parent and student organizations; though, thus far, with only limited success. [15]

Yet neither Fordham/ERN nor Moe attempt to include any measure of member activism and mobilization in their calculus of union strength. The Fordham/ERN report develops a five-measure model for assessing union strength, ranging from financial resources to political spending. The closest thing to a measure of member activism and mobilization is a measure of union density, the extent to which the union represents all of the teachers in a given state. Moe dedicates a single sentence to union “activists," offering as his sole observation that union work of this sort is “difficult to document." (p. 280.)  All of this brings to mind the old joke about the drunk who is looking for his keys under the streetlight. “Where did you drop them?" asks a passerby who stops to help. “Over there," the drunk says, pointing to a spot at some distance. “So why are you looking here?" the passerby responds. “Because this is where the streetlight is." When it comes to teacher unions, Moe and Fordham/ERN are content with what they find under the streetlight.

As one examines the issues, the struggles over the future of public education and teachers unions in America comes to resemble the classic populist conflict of wealth and money on the one side and masses of ordinary people on the other. One cannot understand the real power and role of teacher unions, nor the balance of political power between unions and their corporate-funded opponents, without coming to grips with this central premise. And, in truth, when attacks on pubic education and teacher unions are cast as a concerted campaign by the rich and powerful against ordinary working teachers, they lose a considerable portion of their potency. [16]

Thus, the importance of intellectual apologies for America’s union suppression movement – by portraying teacher unions as wealthy leviathans, with all manner of undue influence and control over educational policy, their opponents seek to provide cover for the corporate-funded campaign to privatize public education and eviscerate what remains of the American labor movement.

Further, in the case of the Fordham/ERN report, the five-measure model of teacher union strength is a house of cards that collapses under the weight of its own inadequate conceptualization. One measure of union strength – the perceived influence of teacher unions – involves a survey of unidentified “influential” actors selected by the report’s authors. (This raises, among other methodological problems, the issue of confirmation bias.) On average, eleven “influentials” were sent the survey in each state, and, as the report concedes, as few as three replies per state were deemed sufficient to provide a measure (p. 28).Without belaboring the obvious, let me simply note that there is a point at which a sample size is so small that the resultant evidence can only be characterized as anecdotal. A sample size as small as three would certainly fall into this category, especially when the methodology does not consider whether or not the sample is representative of some larger universe.

Another measure of union strength involves state education policies, either in the form of legislation or regulation, which the report then compares to its own conception of what teacher unions want. A third measure, resources and membership, includes an entire section which treats state spending on education as in input into teacher power when it clearly is an outcome. Indeed, close to half of the Fordham/ERN study’s five measures of the causes (or foundation) of union power are, in fact, measures of the results of union power, although the study uses them to account for nearly 50 percent of total union strength. [17] That is, the Fordham/ERN report is a thinly disguised example of tautological reasoning, in which the conclusions are embedded in the major premises of the argument.

Given this rather heavy hand on the scales, the conclusions drawn by the Fordham/ERN report are remarkable:

Many states in our top two tiers [state teacher unions with the greatest strength – LC] have education policies that are not particularly favorable to teacher unions. Conversely, states without strong collective bargaining rights nonetheless have union-friendly policies. That’s because other factors matter, too, sometimes greatly – beginning with state collective leadership (both past and present), federal policy, the conditions of the economy, the influence of other key stakeholders, and the state’s own macro-politics." (p. 14.)
That’s another way of saying that, even with the use of this very flawed methodology, there is little correlation between the report’s five measures of teacher union power, on the one hand, and the policy outcomes that, according to the report, teacher unions want, on the other hand. It took Fordham/ERN three years to conduct its research and publish a report of over 400 pages, and at the end of this Odyssey, the report tell us that it has all been in vain, and that we have not arrived home in Ithaca. Careful readers are invariably left wondering why they were taken on this long voyage, if this is where they disembark when it is over. There are numerous attempts in the report to apologize for this state of affairs: this is “not a perfect study," “its conclusions are more nuanced, more equivocal than we are accustomed to," “we are humbler than usual in the conclusions," and “this is a pioneering study, fraught with methodological challenges, data difficulties and judgment calls." (pp. 4 and 17.)

Notwithstanding these admissions, Fordham/ERN is so intent on getting to a particular set of the conclusions that it offers them still, in the form of four over-riding impressions. We make no causal claims, nor are any of these assertions free from exceptions, but it would be irresponsible not to share with readers the picture that these data have drawn in our mind." [Emphasis added.] (pp. 53-54.)

The ideological character of the report is deeply embedded in all of its architecture: the omissions are as telling as that which is included. One significant output indicator of teacher union strength would have to be the level of state spending on education, and three different metrics for measuring union influence on education spending are included. [18] But the report then discounts the connection between education spending and student achievement, tendentiously asserting without any supporting argument or documentation that such spending could only “touch” students indirectly and that there is “no strong evidence to support (a) link (of education spending) to student achievement." (p. 5.) The proposition that education funding and student achievement are unrelated may be an article of faith on the hard right, much like the denial of climate change in similar circles, but in the worlds of education and social science that are evidence-based, it holds little currency. [19]

Similarly, in discussing teacher evaluations the Fordham/ERN report focuses entirely on matters of seniority layoffs, tenure and dismissal. There is no discussion of whether evaluations provide meaningful feedback and professional supports to teachers, thus improving the quality of teaching and learning across the board. The notion that tenure and due process could provide good teachers with the necessary protections to speak out when students are not being properly educated or are being unfairly treated is not even contemplated.

Even the terminology of the Fordham/ERN report is riven with ideological framing. Consider the following misleading and deceptive description of collective bargaining legislation. “Thirty-two states require local school boards to bargain collectively with their teachers," the report contends, “fourteen states permit local school boards to do this, and five states prohibit collective bargaining altogether (Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia.)" (Emphasis in original – LC) (p. 5.) Throughout the report, collective bargaining in the first category of states is characterized as “mandatory," and the report’s first major conclusion is that “mandatory bargaining appears to tilt the playing field in favor of strong unions." (p. 54.) Given this language, readers might reasonably conclude that unionization was universal in these states, and that teachers had no choice but to be represented by a union in collective bargaining.

But a close reading of the report’s own state level data indicates that this is clearly not the case. What laws require of local school boards and districts in these thirty-two states is that they respect the democratic decisions of teachers to organize a union and bargain collectively: when a majority of teachers have voted in a representation election to take such a step, the local school board or district must engage in collective bargaining with the union; when a majority of teachers choose not to form a union or to decertify an existing union, there is no collective bargaining. Further, what the Fordham/ERN report characterizes as “permitted” collective bargaining laws are state laws that give local school boards and districts the legal authority to ignore the democratic decision of teachers to form a union and bargain collectively.

Throughout the Fordham/ERN report and the Moe book, again and again one finds examples of ideological argumentation designed to support a pre-determined political conclusion – teacher unions are wealthy and powerful institutions, with inordinate and undeserved influence over educational policy. Such a conclusion aligns perfectly with the legislative objectives of the wealthy individuals and corporations behind American’s union suppression movement: the evisceration of the last remaining strongholds of American unionism. [20]

- Leo Casey


[6] Terry Moe, Special Interest: Teacher Unions and America’s Public Schools. Washington DC: Brookings, 2011. and Amber Winkler, Janie Scull and Dara Zeehandelaar, How Strong Are U.S. Teacher Unions? Thomas B. Fordham Institute and Education Reform Now, 2012. Education Reform Now is a not-for-profit arm of Democrats for Education Reform. According to the Foreword to the Fordham/ERN report, Moe was consulted on its content.

[7] See Moe, p. 282.

[8] Since StudentsFirst does not publish its funding sources, this information has to be culled from a number of different sources. See Stephen Brill, Class Warfare: Inside the Fight to Fix America’s Schools. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2011. p. 396.; Andrew Rice, “Miss Grundy Was Fired Today” in New York Magazine, March 20, 2011. available here; Joy Resmovits, “Michelle Rhee's Backers Include Obama Bundler Billionaire, Big Romney Backer” available here; Laura Clawson, “Rhee's StudentsFirst pretends to be grassroots, but $1 million of Walton money says otherwise” available here; and Stephanie Simon, “StudentsFirst Spending: National Education Reform Group's Partial Tax Records Released” available here. While Brill includes Julian Robertson (Tiger Management) among StudentsFirst funders, Resmovits reports a Robertson representative denying it, so I have not included him here.

[9] Joanne Barkan, “Got Dough? How Billionaires Rule Our Schools." in Dissent Magazine. Winter 2011. pp. 49-57 (available here). In addition to StudentsFirst, leading national organizations include DFER (Democrats for Education Reform), 50CAN, Stand for Children, National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, and Center for Education Reform. Anti-union and hard right organizations such as the National Right to Work Foundation, Richard Berman’s Center for Union Facts and ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council) are also deeply involved in the attacks on teacher unions.

[10] See the 2010 and 2011 annual reports of New York State Joint Commission on Public Ethics available here. ERNA expenditures appear to have decreased once the RttT battles had ebbed, starting in mid-2011.

[11] Other leading ‘education reform’ organizations include NY StudentsFirst, NYCAN, FERA (Foundation for Education Reform and Accountability), the NY Charter School Association and the NYC Charter School Center.

[12] ERN is a 501-c-3 organization, a not-for-profit with the strictest rules against involvement in politics, while ERNA is a 501-c-4 organization, with more flexible rules for political involvement. DFER skirts the edges of legality in its use of these two entities for campaigns against teacher unions.

[13] Michael Hirsch, “Who are Democrats for Education Reform?" in New York Teacher. December 16, 2010.

[14] The rules governing the raising and spending of funds used for political purposes have been marginally loosened by the Citizens United Supreme Court decision, but the restrictions on the use of dues remains fundamentally intact.

[15] For example, the Gates, Walton Family and Broad foundations have funded Parent Revolution and the Gates and Walton Family foundations have funded Educators for Excellence, both of which are widely considered to be astro-turf organizations.

[16] Hence the extraordinary effort to reframe a corporate-funded anti-union campaign as the “civil rights issue of our time."

[17] The Fordham/ERN report gives equal weight to each of its five measures, and equal weight to subsidiary metrics within the each of the five measures. No justification is provided for dividing the measures equally, so one is left with the unavoidable conclusion that is was done this way because the authors couldn’t figure out any other way to do it. Unfortunately for the report, the lack of methodological sophistication on the part of the authors does not obviate what is clearly still an arbitrary decision that resources and membership, political action, scope of bargaining, state policies and perceived influence are all of the same equal weight in determining teacher union strength.

[18] As noted above, Fordham/ERN treats the level of state spending on education as an input, or cause, of union strength rather than an outcome, an example of the confusion of cause and effect that runs throughout the report.

[19] See Bruce Baker, “Does Money Matter In Education?”  Albert Shanker Institute: 2012 (available here).

Issues Areas