Thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Janus v. AFSCME that people cannot be forced to pay unions they don’t want to join, the country has gone from 28 right-to-work states to 50 right-to-work states overnight. That includes several high-population, heavily Democratic states with strong unions: New York, Illinois, and California.
Over the last century, union membership has gone from a common thing for people in many industries to in recent decades essentially a creature of government employment. Here’s a chart illustrating Bureau of Labor Statistics data showing that unionization is most prevalent in government jobs.
The vast majority of unionized U.S. employees work in government-dominated industries. So, far from the old image of unions representing the working man who needed extra protections because of dangerous conditions, today unions represent mostly white-collar people, largely an army of clerks necessitated by government programs and regulations.
Essentially, unions have functioned as a government growth loop, spending government employees’ money to grow the number of government employees. Whenever they win, taxpayers necessarily lose, because getting more out of taxpayers is how they maintain power. The Janus ruling will put a hole in the tire of this car speeding the nation towards fiscal doom. Here’s why, plus five other important effects.
1. Democrats Will Lose a Huge Source of Campaign Cash
Unions function as political operations for politicians who expand government’s sources of power and revenue. They essentially turn government into its own lobbying group, a major conflict of interest that also corrupts government into an antagonist with interests separate and opposing those of the American people rather than our duly sworn servant.
About 90 percent of union political contributions fund Democrats, and that’s been consistent for decades, according to OpenSecrets.org data compiled from public records. In the 2016 presidential election, unions sent Hillary Clinton $29 million, out of $1.7 billion total they spent in races across the country. They sent President Trump $17,754.
Unions comprised six of the top ten political spenders from 1989 to 2012. Unions were one out of every five of the top 50 spenders in the 2016 election. The No. 1 national contributors to federal elections from 1989 to 2009 were teachers unions.
Forced dues are the major source of unions’ political war chests. See, unions in non-right-to-work states forced even non-members to subsidize them through something called “agency fees,” which assumes that unions benefit all employees of a unionized workforce, even non-members, by increasing their pay and improving their work conditions. In reality, unions most benefit the workers who are the least productive and even criminal (see “rubber rooms“). Productive employees don’t need a union to protect them — employers want to hire and keep them (there is a caveat to this that applies to government industries, which I’ll discuss below).
When Wisconsin famously ended agency fees in 2011, union membership plummeted 38 percent, bringing government unionization to a level similar to that among private-sector employment, which is about 6 percent of all employees.
Wisconsin’s experience suggests this ruling is a death knell for government employee unions as we know them, which will dramatically change Democratic politics.
2. Schools Can Fire Bad Teachers, Pay Good Teachers More
Two-thirds of public school teachers are unionized. Unions are largely responsible for employment rules that prevent hiring and firing teachers according to merit and a principal’s discretion. Union-demanded teacher employment results in salary schedules that pay people according to credentials and length of tenure in a given school district, not teacher quality.
The results are well-documented: significantly less student learning, especially for the children who need extra help. This reduces kids’ future income and employment prospects. It also especially hurts kids with special needs and math and science education, since the people who are qualified to meet those needs typically have far more lucrative and less bureaucratic career options outside of education, where due to union-demanded salary arrangements schools often cannot offer them competitive compensation.
Thirty-four states require school districts to collectively bargain with teachers, and this ruling doesn’t change that. But, again as we saw in Wisconsin, it does allow teachers to individually choose not to fund unions, which deprives them of the money that cements their power through political activism. When the largest force against giving teachers the power to negotiate their own salaries has eroded, the result is more opportunities to make employment arrangements that ultimately benefit good and needed teachers, and therefore their students.
3. States Can Better Address Massive Pension Shortfalls
Government employee unions are a major contributor to the tsunami of state and local debt about to engulf the nation, as they are the ones who used their ill-gotten political war chests to demand big benefits for their retirees at the expense of today’s taxpayers. Unfunded government pension liabilities — or the difference between what politicians negotiated with unions and what they’ve saved — now stand nationwide at $19,000 for every single U.S. resident. That’s resident, not taxpayer, so if you have two kids and a wife, that’s $76,000 your family “owes” to people providing no public service now or in the future.
In large part because of unions, California, Illinois, and New York are essentially bankrupt. Ohio, New Mexico, and Oregon are also in serious trouble (see below). Their politicians are talking about having the U.S. Congress bail them out. Considering that national debt and unfunded liabilities are the highest in human history, that would be pretty funny if it weren’t so scary.
This situation cheats today’s teachers and kids because it sends current spending to people who have retired rather than to people who could use it right now. Current pension costs have doubled over the past years to an average of $1,220 per pupil today, or one-tenth of what taxpayers are spending for each child each year. In other words, we’re all paying $1,220 per student per year right now for yesterday’s classrooms. For every $10 states and local governments spend on teacher pensions, $7 goes to retired teachers and only $3 to current teachers. It’s the major depressor of current teachers’ salaries.
Of course I’m all for people saving for retirement, but a more sane system would have teachers accruing retirement benefits as they work, not in the form of a big financial rock around future teachers’ and students’ necks. Remember this pension debt next time you hear someone complain about underfunded classrooms. Those classrooms could do a lot more with the extra $18,000 or more per year they’d get if state lawmakers, at the behest of unions, had not decided to structure government pensions like infamously exploitative balloon mortgages.
Reducing unions’ power, like Janus does, will help this ship right more quickly. It’s going to be very painful, but at least it doesn’t have to be as painful as it would have been had union power continued to delay the needed and inevitable financial reckoning.
4. School Districts Will Have a Lot More Freedom
Stanford University political science professor Terry Moe wrote the definitive study of teachers unions’ history and politics, “Special Interest,” in 2011. In it, he argued that union demands are incorporated into almost every important aspect of public schools. Here’s his analysis:
…public education is an arena of special interest power. When public officials make their decisions about the public schools, whether those decisions have to do with funding or personnel rules or new programs or major reforms, we cannot blithely assume that they are doing what is best for children and seeking out the most effective possible solutions. In fact, they are often responding to special interest groups. And the most powerful of these groups, by far, are the teachers unions.
Moe believed that a growing understanding of teachers unions’ self-interest among Democrats plus the power of technology would shift what he considered the dominant force keeping U.S. education from improving in the past 40 years. Instead, it appears the Janus decision will deal the decisive blow.
Gradually eroding the dominant power in education will have many effects, among them giving local school districts far more freedom. It remains to be seen what they will do with it. That may take a solid generation to shift, however, given that the people currently at the helm have been shaped by the union-dominated form of public education. Typically even local reforms and changes fade within just a few years, as a peppy administrator moves to a new job or a fresh school board gets worn or voted out.
5. Teachers Will Be More at the Mercy of Administrators
While I think it is clear on both cultural and fiscal grounds that government employee unions have been a massive net negative for the country, I have also seen unions perform some useful functions. Most of that is in protecting teachers from truly power-abusive administrators.
For example, in 2013 I talked with Arkansas Middle-School Teacher of the Year Jamie Highfill, a high-performing English teacher renowned as a leader among her colleagues and profession. When Common Core entered her school, her administrators told her to throw out her high-quality, experience-tested lesson plans for Common Core consultant-approved lessons Highfill, in her professional opinion, considered pablum. For voicing her objections, however, administrators put her on a “teacher improvement plan,” ludicrous given her students’ performance.
This required Highfill to submit all her lessons before using them to an administrator and to have an administrator sit in and monitor her class daily. This military veteran decided that was too much, and decided to switch careers rather than put up with it, depriving students of her quality instruction. During her spat with administrators, her local union put its oar in on her side. While it was well-deserved backup she obviously needed, union support ultimately did not keep the administration from harassing her into leaving. Neither have similar instances I’ve heard of played out any differently.
So while I can entirely understand teachers hearing of incidents like this at the water cooler and deciding these dynamics justify unionization, I have not seen it ever ultimately work out to the teacher or students’ benefit. The real reason administrations can be so heavy-handed is that public education is essentially a monopoly. Public schools are guaranteed “customers” for their services. This deprives both families and teachers of individual bargaining power against the school district, because it sharply increases the disadvantages to them of going elsewhere for education.
This is the caveat I mentioned at the top of this article. But two wrongs don’t make a right.
6. Sets the Stage For a Bureaucracy Showdown
I think the best way to solve teachers resorting to unions to gain bargaining power that the monopoly school system siphons from them is to give every family substantial bargaining power, through school vouchers. That would restore good teachers’ power by forcing school districts to care about student achievement to attract students, rather than relying upon inertia. If school districts care about achievement, they will start to focus on teacher quality real fast, as teacher excellence is the No. 1 driver of student achievement.
This would also set teachers free to run their own schools or teach individual classes for an entire potential cottage industry of education consultants, therapists, tutors, and one-room schoolhouses. No longer would they have to go begging to massive, centralized masters for employment, which gives central planners the power to dictate what education must look like and contain.
Homeschoolers already use their freedom in all these creative arrangements and more. Imagine what would happen if every single American parent were free to use the public resources dedicated to their children to buy precisely the kind of education they want. Since this is an inherently more efficient arrangement that has drastically cut costs while improving quality even in tiny pilot programs, it would also help deflate the pensions crisis discussed above.
I have said before that teachers unions are last century’s battle. They may be powerful, but their power is a legacy power. In structure and style, unions are a holdover from the era of big factories, lifetime employment at one employer, mass negotiation, mass products, of the Industrial Age. The Janus decision only reinforces and materializes that opinion. However important it has been, the key struggle of today and the near future is not unionization, it is centralization.
As the main antagonist of freedom in education ebbs more swiftly, what is replacing it? I think the answer is technocracy: The bureaucratic ruling class already corrupting national life. Unions contributed to the administrative class, but they also competed with it for power, in a lesser version of the fascist and socialist jockeying we see in broader politics during collectivist impulses. The only historically possible positive counterweight is self-government, meaning individual liberty. We need our state and national lawmakers to restore that balance of power as soon as possible, or the power vacuum unions leave behind will feed another kind of tyrant.