Public Sector Unions

  • The ‘Snob’ Debate: Making High School Matter For Non-College-Bound Students

    Our guest author today is James R. Stone, professor and director of the National Research Center for Career & Technical Education at the University of Louisville.

    The current debate about “college for all” centers on a recent speech made by President Obama in Troy, MI, in which he argued that all young people should get at least some post-high school education or training. Republican presidential primary candidate Rick Santorum, in a misreading of Obama’s remarks, responded with a focus on four-year degrees alone—suggesting, among other things, that four-year college degrees are overrated and that the president’s emphasis on college devalued working people without such degrees. The political chatter around this particular back-and-forth continues, but the issue of “college for all” has rightly raised some serious issues about the content and direction of U.S. education policy both at the high school and post-secondary levels.

    Statistics seem to show that the college-educated  graduates of four-year institutions earn more money and experience less unemployment than their non-college-educated peers. This has fueled the argument is that college is the surest path—perhaps the only path—into the middle class. But the argument confuses correlation with causality. What if every U.S. citizen obtained a community college or university degree? Would that really do anything to alter wage rates at Starbucks, or increase salaries for home healthcare aides (an occupation projected to enjoy the highest demand over the next decade)? Of course not.

  • The False Conflict Between Unionism and Professionalism

    Some people have the unfortunate idea that unionism is somehow antithetical to or incompatible with being a professional. This notion is particularly salient within education circles, where phrases like “treat teachers like professionals” are often used as implicit arguments against policies associated with unions, such as salary schedules and tenure (examples here, here, here and here).

    Let’s take a quick look at this "conflict," first by examining union membership rates among professionals versus workers in other types of occupations. As shown in the graph below, if union membership and professionalism don’t mix, we have a little problem: Almost one in five professionals is a union member. Actually, union membership is higher among professionals than among any other major occupational category except construction workers.

  • The Teachers' Union Hypothesis

    For the past couple of months, Steve Brill's new book has served to step up the eternally-beneath-the-surface hypothesis that teachers’ unions are the primary obstacle to improving educational outcomes in the U.S. The general idea is that unions block “needed reforms," such as merit pay and other forms of test-based accountability for teachers, and that they “protect bad teachers” from being fired.

    Teachers’ unions are a convenient target. For one thing, a significant proportion of Americans aren’t crazy about unions of any type. Moreover, portraying unions as the villain in the education reform drama facilitates the (mostly false) policy-based distinction between teachers and the organizations that represent them – put simply, “love teachers, hate their unions." Under the auspices of this dichotomy, people can advocate for changes , such as teacher-level personnel policies based partially on testing results, without having to address why most teachers oppose them (a badly needed conversation).

    No, teachers’ unions aren’t perfect, because the teachers to whom they give voice aren’t perfect. There are literally thousands of unions, and, just like districts, legislatures and all other institutions, they make mistakes. But I believe strongly in separating opinion and anecdote from actual evidence, and the simple fact is that the pervasive argument that unions are a substantial cause of low student performance has a weak empirical basis, while the evidence that unions are a primary cause of low performance does not exist.

  • The Cutting Edge Of Teacher Quality

    The State of Michigan is currently considering a bill that would limit collective bargaining rights among teachers. Under the proposal, paying dues would be optional. This legislation, like other so-called “right to work” laws, represents an attempt to defund and create divisions within labor unions, which severely weakens teachers' ability to bargain fair contracts, as well as the capacity of their unions to advocate on behalf of of public schools and workers in general.

    Last month, Michigan State Senate Majority Floor Leader Arlan Meekoff (R- West Olive) was asked whether he thought the bill would pass. He responded in the affirmative, and added:

    It's an opportunity to let teachers get farther away from union goons. That should give them a better chance to break away from the mediocrity. That should make things better for our schools and our children.
    Well, there you have it, folks. We’ve been wasting our time by designing rigorous standards and overhauling teacher evaluations. The key to improving teacher quality is not training, compensation or professional development.

    It’s goon proximity.

  • Public Servants Versus Private Contractors ... Again

    Has the battle over public sector compensation turned a decisive corner? Have much-maligned government workers won an evidence-based victory?

    Reasonable people might think so, thanks in part to a study by the Project on Government Oversight (POGO), a nonpartisan group that keeps close tabs on government operations. According to the findings of the POGO report – findings that they call "shocking" – the "federal government approves service contract billing rates … that pay contractors 1.83 times more than the government pays federal employees in total compensation, and more than 2 times the total compensation paid in the private sector for comparable services."

    More specifically, federal government employees cost less than private contractors in 33 of the 35 occupational classifications reviewed – and non-federal private sector worker compensation was lower than contractor billing rates in all of the reviewed classifications. In one case, contractor bill rates were nearly "5 times more" than the full compensation rates paid to comparable federal workers.

  • Collective Bargaining Teaches Democratic Values, Activism

    Some people must have been startled by President Obama’s decision to draw a line in the sand on collective bargaining in his jobs speech to the Congress last week. Specifically, the President said: “I reject the idea that we have to strip away collective bargaining rights to compete in a global economy."

    Given the current anti-union tenor of many prominent Republicans, started by Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, it seems pretty clear that worker rights is shaping up to be a hot-button issue in the 2012 campaign. Collective bargaining rights as presidential campaign plank? It wasn’t that long ago that anything to do with unions was considered to be an historic anachronism – hardly worth a major Republican presidential candidate’s trouble to bash. Times have changed.

  • Labor In High School Textbooks: Bias, Neglect And Invisibility

    The nation has just celebrated Labor Day, yet few Americans have any idea why. As high school students, most were taught little about unions—their role, their accomplishments, and how and why they came to exist.

    This is one of the conclusions of a new report, released today by the Albert Shanker Institute in cooperation with the American Labor Studies Center. The report, "American Labor in U.S. History Textbooks: How Labor’s Story Is Distorted in High School History Textbooks," consists of a review of some of the nation’s most frequently used high school U.S. history textbooks for their treatment of unions in American history. The authors paint a disturbing picture, concluding that the history of the U.S. labor movement and its many contributions to the American way of life are "misrepresented, downplayed or ignored." Students—and all Americans—deserve better.

    Unfortunately, this is not a new problem. As the report notes, "spotty, inadequate, and slanted coverage" of the labor movement dates at least to the New Deal era. Scholars began documenting the problem as early as the 1960s. As this and previous textbook reviews have concluded, our history textbooks have essentially "taken sides" in the intense political debate around unions—the anti-union side.

    The impact of these textbook distortions has been amplified by our youth’s exposure to a media that is sometimes thoughtless and sometimes hostile in its reporting and its attitudes toward labor. This is especially troubling when membership in private sector unions is shrinking rapidly and the right of public sector unions to exist is hotly contested.

  • Grand Bargaining

    With Labor Day upon us, I’ve found myself thinking about three apparently unrelated pieces of sociological research, and how all point to the role of laws, policies, and institutions as "signalers" of the social values that we share.

    First, in an unpublished paper, Stanford University’s Cristobal Young examines the role of unemployment insurance in encouraging prolonged job search effort. Second, in a talk earlier this month at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association, Shelley Correll (also at Stanford) discussed how greater awareness of laws such as the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) make it harder for employers to discriminate against those who take it. Third, a recent article by Bruce Western (Harvard University) and Jake Rosenfeld (University of Washington) argues that unions contribute to a moral economy that reduces wage inequality for all workers, not just union members.

    I think that these three pieces of scholarship tell a similar story: policies, laws and institutions have impact beyond their primary intended purpose. Unemployment benefits are more than the money one receives when jobless; laws pertaining employment rights are more than rules enforced by the imposition of sanctions; and unions are more than organizations seeking to improve their members’ wages and working conditions. These policies, programs, and institutions also have a symbolic importance—they signal a consensus about what we value and desire as a society which simultaneously shapes the lens through which we judge our own behavior and that of others.

  • Big Labor?

    As you may know, Congressional Republicans have stalled legislation to reauthorize the operation of Federal Aviation Administration, partially closing down the agency since July 25 at the cost to the U.S. government of $30 million a day in lost tax revenue. This state of affairs will continue at least until Congress resumes in September. What you may not know is that the source of the dispute is whether airline and railroad workers in the  private sector should have the right to organize unions by winning a simple majority of votes (the way elections are conducted in every other public- and private-sector union election). Republicans are against this, and are instead insisting that unionization should require a majority of all possible votes within the unit, irrespective of turnout.

    For me, at least, this was objectionable in and of itself, but it's always a little odd to hear the rhetoric used by some Republicans in these types of situations, specifically when they are reported to see themselves fighting off an advance by "big labor" in the private sector.

    Big labor. The pejorative is beginning to carry the ring of someone living in a time warp. What do I mean?

    Most people know that union membership in the U.S. has declined over the past few decades, but it seems that many aren’t aware of the extent and breakdown of this trend. So here are the basic data on union membership over time.