Ep. 349: What’s Up with Teachers’ Unions – Michael Hartney

November 29, 2022

On today’s episode of What’s Up with Mike McShane, we chat with Michael Hartney and his book on teachers’ unions and their role in education policy.

Mike McShane: Hello and welcome back to another edition of Ed Choice Chats and particularly the podcast series, What’s Up with Mike McShane. Today on the podcast we have Michael Hartney, who is a fellow at the Hoover Institution. He’s an adjunct fellow at the Manhattan Institute and an assistant professor of Political Science at Boston College. He’s done a bunch of really interesting work on teachers unions and interest groups in general, K-12 education policy across the board. And he has a new book, it’s entitled, How Policies Make Interest Groups: Governments, Unions, and American Education. It was published just recently by the University of Chicago Press. So I was super happy that he was able to join the podcast where we had a really wonderful conversation about teachers unions, how they wield their power, where their power comes from, and maybe some efforts that could be done to rebalance that power to still have a situation where teachers have a voice and have representation, but where parents and other interests in the education policy space also are able to have their voices heard. Super interesting. Definitely check out the book.

But without further ado, here is my conversation where we answer the question, what’s up with teachers unions with Michael Hartney of the Hoover Institution, Manhattan Institution and Boston College. So Michael, I’m going to borrow a first question from Jonah Goldberg’s Podcast, the Remnant, whenever he has someone on who’s written a book, because he has written several books himself. He always says, “The first question I want to get as an author is, what is your book about?” So I think he’s trying to pass on to any people who ask someone who has recently written a book, your first question should be, what is your book about? So I think that, that’s the kind thing to do. As someone who’s written books myself, that’s the first question I want to get. So I’m paying this thing forward. I would love to know what is your new book about?

Michael Hartney: Well, first off, thanks for having me. It’s great to be here. Yeah, so this has been a labor of love. It’s a book that came out of my dissertation, which is important to note because I’m embarrassed to say, but it’s true that started around 2010. So this is a book that took almost a decade to complete, and that’s important because it’s a book on the role of teachers unions in American politics and American education. And that time period is significant because you’ll recall in 2010, teacher unions were on the ropes in Wisconsin and New Jersey, a wave of tea party governors had been elected. And because of the Great Recession for the first time ever, I would argue there was this opening politically for them to push back on some longstanding policies that teachers unions had been able to keep in place, perhaps under the radar, things like defined pensions and benefit plans, teacher evaluation systems that didn’t take into account student performance.

So if you looked at the headlines about teachers unions at that time, most people were predicting their demise. And that largely continued up through the Janus decision and the Trump presidency, the DeVos secretary period under the Trump administration. But then circle back here and say like, what’s my book about? My book is really about what we saw happen in the last 18 months, which was that teachers unions made this resounding comeback. And that was best seen during COVID-19 when parents and all sorts of stakeholders woke up around the country in the fall of 2020 and quickly learned just what type of seat at the table teachers had in terms of ed policy. And in that case, of course it was around reopening schools. So the book really asked the question, how did this come to be? That is how did teachers unions become the most important and most active interest group in the education landscape?

And the answer that I give is that it wasn’t necessarily the story that we think of when we ask ourselves why an interest group has clout. They didn’t necessarily emerge because they had the most people who agreed with their policy positions because it was an idea whose time had come or just because they outworked everyone else. I answer that it was really that government in particular state and local governments gave them an assist in the 1960s and 1970s by adopting labor laws and labor practices that made it easier for teachers unions to organize and mobilize teachers in the political arena, which then put them in a class of their own when it came to being an active interest group in education politics.

Mike McShane: So what are some examples of those laws and practices that made it easier for teachers unions to organize and mobilize?

Michael Hartney: So the first one is simply the ability to unionize, but it’s a little more complicated than that in the United States. It’s the fact that by 1992, 34 states adopted exclusive mandatory bargaining laws. That really means is that take your typical school district, if a majority of teachers vote to be represented by a particular union, the school district has the obligation then to give them a seat at the table, that particular union. And that did a couple of things. One, it meant that any human resource policy between the teachers in that school district, whether they wanted to be a member of that union or not, had to be conducted through the vehicle of this new exclusive representative teachers union.

So whether it came to, if you think back to COVID and superintendents saying, “Hey, we’d like to have teachers come in for a few extra days to mitigate learning loss, we’ll make it voluntary, but we might pay a stipend,” or something like that. In states where you have mandatory collective bargaining, that discussion had to be routed through collective bargaining. So this decision made a long time ago had really big implications for the way that school business was conducted.

There were a lot of other things that really flew under the radar. And my favorite example is that any interest group that starts out needs money to survive, it needs members’ dues, it needs member contributions to political action committees. And if you think about, say like charter school advocates and parents who are in favor of charter schooling, one thing that sets the teachers unions apart from them is in states with friendly labor laws over the years, the teachers unions could actually rely on the school district’s payroll office that paid out teachers’ salaries to automatically collect the dues and pack money that the union would use in battles over education reform.

Whereas parents, and there’s a great movie, I’m forgetting the name of it with Maggie Gyllenhaal, that is about parent trigger laws in California, and it’s fictionalized to some degree. But it makes a lot of serious points about how when she’s trying to organize parents to support converting this failing school into a charter school. She doesn’t know where the parents are located. She doesn’t have a master directory of their names or their email addresses, and she has to spend a lot of time and her own resources taking a day off from school to try to even get a little bit of political momentum. Whereas the union in the film has already contacted teachers can use teacher mailboxes, all of these things that came about because of collective bargaining. So there was a real turning point in American education.

And the point in my book really is that we’re used to having economists study these questions, which leads them to ask another important question of course, but they tend to ask, “How did collective bargaining and these labor laws influence teacher wages?” But we oftentimes don’t think about the question, how did these laws help the unions as an interest group organize and mobilize educators to participate in politics?

Mike McShane: So now what role do off-cycle elections play in all of this?

Michael Hartney: Yeah. So one of the big things to keep in mind is that teachers unions to be the most dominant force in American education don’t even have to be big players in national politics. They don’t have to endorse and win big in congressional elections. It’d be nice if they’re presidential candidate one right then when they back Jimmy Carter in the seventies and he helped them get a department of education. So I’m not saying none of that matters, but where teachers unions really pack influence in education is at the state and local levels. And one of the things that gives teachers unions an advantage is after they got organized and they started mobilizing teachers in politics in the 1970s, they were able to master the domain of these off-cycle, lightly contested school board elections, which simply means that a majority of the nation’s school board seats are elected by voters at times of the year that are not coinciding with November even year elections.

And that can matter because turnout is really low when you don’t have major offices like the presidency or governor’s races on the ballot. Which means that if you know only five or 10% of voters are turning out for a school board election, if the teachers unions get mobilized, if they turn out a spouse, if they call a relative in the district and they’ve already engaged in electioneering recruiting candidate, they’re in a much better position to win and actually have dated to back that up.

We know because in 2015, California, which used to allow localities to choose the election date, passed a law that forced all school districts to move their elections to be on cycle in those higher turnout November years. And in my look at the data tracking union endorsed candidates in California over time, several thousand of them. I find that teachers’ unions tend to win closer to 80% of the races, they make endorsements in when the elections are held off cycle, but that dips anywhere from seven to 10 percentage points when the elections are held in higher turnout times. So they do well all the time, but they do a lot better when election turnout is low.

Mike McShane: So now you mentioned earlier the Janus case. I think there are some people who are skeptical of unions or don’t think that they are always on the side of the angels who saw that case in particular. And frankly, I think if you’re some of the rhetoric at the time the unions were talking about just how devastating that case was going to be. We’ve now had, I think five years or so, what effect, if any, did the Janus case and maybe if you could for folks unfamiliar, if you could sketch out the Janus case and what impact, if any, it had on this issue?

Michael Hartney: So just very quickly then the Janus decision was a decision that came about because in 1977, Michigan passed a teacher labor law that said essentially that any teacher who didn’t want to be a member of the teacher’s union would nonetheless have to pay to financially support the union if a majority of teachers wanted that union to represent them in the district. And the argument in some ways makes sense. It’s that, “Hey, this is the union that’s negotiating for your salary increases and your benefit package every year. And since you’re getting a benefit from it, the argument according to the union was you should have to pay something. If you’re not, you’re a free rider.”

But a lot changed by the late 2010s and I think this had a lot to do with the fact that went through the great recession. And what we thought about in terms of what unions do when they bargain, these collective bargaining contracts had really shifted where in the 1970s, I think courts really saw that as unions were involved in negotiating salaries. Well by the 2010s, we knew they were also involved in negotiating over things like class size and the way teachers should be paid and all sorts of things that according to the court in the Janus decision, were matters of public policy concern. So the argument was you can’t really force a teacher who’s a public employee to pay or support an organization that’s taking sides in a public policy debate.

So the court after 2018 said, “Hey, if you’re a teacher and you don’t want to support the union, you don’t have to.” So the union and a lot of people said, “Was this going to lead to a massive exodus of teachers?” And I think in certain places there has been a decline, but it actually has been a lot less than a lot of people thought. The state that had the biggest decline was Wisconsin. But people forget that Wisconsin, which adopted by the way a right to work law. So effectively they had Janus a couple years earlier. But you have to remember that Wisconsin didn’t just roll back the ability of unions to charge non-members fees.

Wisconsin also under Scott Walker, adopted a law, which I actually think is quite sensible, which requires unions to re-certify themselves every year. Meaning that you need to go back to teachers, just like we go back to the American people every two years and ask them, “Should we vote for your House of Representatives? Do you want the same incumbent? Before Walker’s reforms there? If a union was certified in 1975, they never had to have another vote on it. And you had the same union when not a single teacher who had voted for the union originally 30 years later was working under its representation. So things like that led to a decline in membership.

So we haven’t seen a cataclysmic drop off. And another reason for that, and this goes to the argument of my book really, is that in blue states, in union friendly states, legislatures adopted laws intended to blunt the impact of Janus. So they essentially in some states said that in a new orientation meeting for all employees at the start of a school year, the union automatically gets 30 minutes on the agenda to pitch membership to everyone. Or they would say, “If you want to resign your union membership, you can only do it during one week period every year.” So friendly legislatures came along and helped the unions out a little bit. So I think there’s been a bit of a tug of war and we have an equilibrium.

Mike McShane: As you talk about the power and role that teachers unions play. I know you’re a political scientist, and so I feel like a political science-y question is here, are these organizations sui generis or are there other actors in American politics that are similar in the power that they have, the way that they operate, the influence that they wield? Or are teachers unions in their own class in American politics?

Michael Hartney: Yeah. So let me add a little nuance here. I wouldn’t argue and actually say explicitly in the book that the teachers unions aren’t the most powerful interest group in American politics, but they are oftentimes the most powerful interest group in American education. And they most certainly are the most powerful interest group in American education at the state and local levels when it comes to trying to block reforms. And that’s a really big differentiation here. So a lot of people will turn around. I remember reading one review of Terry Moe, a political scientist at Stanford, who’s also written a great book on teachers unions. One review of the book said, “Wait a minute, how can teachers unions be so powerful if the average teacher salary at that time was $53,000 a year?” But this misses the point, which is that it’s certainly true that teachers unions, when they’re trying to change the status quo, they aren’t able to just go out there and generate enough revenue in state local governments to get every teacher a six figure salary.

But where their real power lies is in being able to find some veto point in the American political system to stop a radical reform that they oppose from happening. So they’re going to be much more successful, say getting a school district to put a moratorium on charter schools or appealing to a state supreme court to block a new teacher evaluation system. And we saw examples of that then they are to get their dream world of every teacher with a six figure salary, which by the way, I would love a world with every teacher with a six figure salary, although I think I’d like to see it done a little bit differently than maybe the teachers unions would. So in that sense, I just want to make that clear.

But you ask, is there any other example like this? I mean, I think there are examples of interest groups that get a little assist from government or what we like to sometimes call picking winners and losers. And we saw a great example of this recently when you had the whole brouhaha over Merrick Garland and the Department of Justice supposedly targeting parent activists, that’s school board means. And there were a lot of really uncouth examples of parent activism, but a lot of the parents just wanted answers to reasonable questions. So this blew up, and I’m not necessarily taking sides on the details of all this. But I will say that one thing we learned, if a shout out to a friend of mine, Max Eden at American Enterprise Institute, because he’s really spent a lot of time putting a spotlight on this.

But I think a lot of people knew this intuitively, but they didn’t really put the dots together that the National School Board’s Association, which is itself like the National Education Association, what we call a federated interest group. So it’s got its national chapter, it’s got its state affiliates, and then it has localities. So in your school district, they’re a member of the State School Board’s Association. Well, that interest group has a lot of clout in state politics, state education discussions.

But in most states, that interest group gets its dues revenue so that it can be a player in politics from school district taxpayer revenue. Because it’s not that the school board members are paying out of pocket to be a member of their state school board’s association. They’re saying this is an important educational membership association for us to be involved in. So the taxpayers are subsidizing that. So that’s okay if all they’re really engaging in is neutral professional development for school board members. But what we’ve seen time and again, is that the education establishment takes a particular view of education policy.

So one reason that the “blob” has so much influence is that they’ve been getting a subsidy for a long time at taxpayer expense and parent and other groups, they get picked on. Reformers get picked on because they go off to philanthropy and they ask the Waltons or the gates to give them money. But it’s understandable because they’re not getting that same assist from government. So we can have a bigger discussion about that and what it means for democracy and education. But I would say in many ways there are other examples, but this thing makes the unions in a class of their own in the education landscape.

Mike McShane: You brought up earlier and just reference here again, the pandemic. So I would be interested in, do you think that the pandemic and teachers unions actions during the pandemic over the medium to long term, do you think that that helped them increase their power and influence? Or do you think that their actions over time will decrease their power and influence?

Michael Hartney: In looking at the survey data, I have to be really honest with you that I think there’s a disgruntled 30% of parents. They’re the ones we see joining the Facebook groups on reopening, the ones who are either running for school board or paying attention for the first time and trying to get involved and God bless them. But 30% is as what we learned last week, not a majority. So I think some of it is apathy and some of it’s understandable apathy. This isn’t full-time job and collective bargaining or no collective bargaining, one of the realities is that teachers unions are uniquely a vested interest because their occupational interests are on the line every day when education policy is made.

And parents, as much as they love their children, literally have a built in episodic interest in the schools and they’re interested in their kid’s school at time T through 18 when the kid goes off and graduates. And it’s very hard to replicate a reasonable counterweight. I don’t want people to read me in the book as just like some anti-union guy. My issue with teachers union, I think teachers deserve to have a voice. I mean, they are a stakeholder, they should have some form of representation, whether that’s formal collective bargaining or not. That’s a more complicated question, but I don’t think they should be without voice or representation. My issue is that there is a lack of balance. There’s not pluralism. I mean, to me, the great irony is that in an era in which we’re talking about the rules and procedures of elections and democracy and responsiveness and all of this thing.

In the education landscape, we’ve had a system that’s promoted low participation, low contestation, in which parents have been only a marginal player in major decisions about education governance. So I mean, that’s zooming out here for a minute. So when it comes to the pandemic, really to answer your question, I think teachers unions did themselves some harm. And we’ve seen that in the disenrollment among a non-trivial. I mean, it’s not 50%, but anywhere from two to 8% declines in enrollment. And especially large urban schools or schools… I think [inaudible 00:20:05] has shown that districts that were closed or did remote learning for longer have had more of an exodus to private parochial homeschooling options. But then of course you’ve got the education blob on the other side, and what have they been doing? They’ve been enacting legislation at the state level. You see laws on hold, harmless on per pupil funding. So in the first year, the pandemic, I think people understood, look, let’s help out our schools. We don’t want to punish them because enrollment declined school hesitancy.

But two or three years later, if you have states proposing to continue to fund schools on a per pupil basis based on enrollment before the pandemic, when a lot of the decline in enrollment today is because of schools not getting their act together, that’s the wrong funding incentive out there. So I don’t expect a revolution in the way that we got in New Orleans after Katrina. I don’t think that COVID is going to launch us into a New Orleans style choice system everywhere. And I think that Americans hold teachers in high esteem, and that’s a great thing.

But I think it’s also important for Americans to understand that even though teachers unions represent the job related interests of teachers, that oftentimes those interests don’t align perfectly with what’s good for their kids. And the COVID pandemic really did reveal that because we knew that particularly for younger kids, learning on Zoom wasn’t going to cut it. And that for those kids, the cost of being out of school far exceeded any benefit to their public health from not being in school.

And on the other side, the teachers unions in these large districts argued for a one size fits all approach of remote until the threat is zero. And there was something in between that. You could have said for older teachers or immunocompromised teachers will craft another job for you where you can teach the kids whose families want them at home, but not the… What was it? The 30 year old teacher in Chicago who was caught on Instagram in Puerto Rico while picketing the week before and saying it was unsafe to go back to schools. I don’t think that’s what Samuel Gompers had in mind when he was fighting for labor rights 100 years ago. And we had this attitude of the jungle where there were real safety issues, a little different.

Mike McShane: So as a final question, solutions. So I think it’s important that you highlighted that you’re not anti-union and you think that’s important that teachers have voices, but I think a lot of what your argument is about this imbalance that exists in there. So I’d be interested in what you think of what could be done to better restore that balance to make things more democratic, to make sure that all of the necessary voices are heard in proportion to their representation in the population.

Michael Hartney: Yeah. I really think everyone here has got reformers and unions alike need to dig into this question. What do we think about when we think about public education and democracy? Unions are really good at honing in on the importance of the procedural side of democracy. Workers having a right to have a voice, making sure that you have some form of democratic accountability through elections and school governance. But sometimes they fetishize the procedural side of democracy and forget that another side of democracy is responsiveness. And in education, I think a lot of us mean responsiveness to parents.

Paul Peterson and his colleagues a couple of years ago wrote a great book called Teachers versus the Public. And one of the things the book revealed is that on a host of the salient education reform proposals of the day, teachers and the public are widely apart. The public is very ambitious and wants to experiment with a lot of bold reforms to see what it can do to improve schooling. And teachers tend to be, and their unions to be risk averse and oppositional to that. And I would say to the unions, look like at the end of the day, if you want a robust public education system to last into the future, you’ve got to be attentive to that responsiveness. Because if you’re not, that’s why you get a robust charter sector. That’s why you get student exit.

And in terms of solutions, I mean, I think some of the things that the margins we could do are those governance reforms like having on cycle school board elections or in big city school districts. Honestly, I advocate oftentimes for mayor control. And before everyone comes in and says, “Well, that seems anti-democratic.” I would challenge them and say, “Well, what happened in Washington DC when Michelle Rhee was seen as going too fast and too far for the voters there?” And the answer was, it was very easy for the public to have her removed by voting in one single high salience election for mayor, which is who appointed her. So I think we need to really rethink what do we mean by democracy in education?

And then of course, I mean, I am a proponent of school choice because I think at the end of the day, I’m very much with Rick Hess on this question about what is public education? And it’s not the type of building that a student goes into. It’s not the funding stream. It really comes down to are we providing every child an educational opportunity or hopefully multiple educational choices that allow them to thrive and grow academically and personally to the best of their ability? So choice is great, but I’ve also been saying recently a lot, we can’t just go out there and pass school choice bills.

We also have to think deeply about supply. What are we going to do to make sure… There’s this big thing right now in public health around food deserts that a lot of poor communities, minority communities, don’t have access to healthy food? Well, we’ve got a lot of families out there that are stuck in parts of the country where there is not access to affordable choice in education. We’ve had a wave of closures of Catholic schools, hopefully some of that may be rebounds because of the pandemic. But if your only choice is between the one~ school district and a $30,000 a year hoity-toity private school, you can pass all the school choice legislation you want. But that family doesn’t really have a choice. So people in the reform need to be thinking about that too.

Mike McShane: Well Michael Hartney, thank you so much for joining us on the podcast today.

Michael Hartney: Thanks, Mike. It was great to be with you.

Mike McShane: Well, I hope you all enjoyed that conversation as much as I did. Whenever I have someone who’s written a book on the podcast, it’s always a delicate balancing act where I want the person to be able to present their arguments and talk about their book and all of the interesting things that they’ve spent all of this time. In Michael’s case, around a decade of his life researching and thinking and writing about but I also want you to buy their book. So I hope that we got enough information in there, that you have a good idea of what the book is about and that it wet your appetite. So is it wet your appetite? Does that mean that your appetite is now gone? So I don’t know, it did something to gin up your appetite so that you’ll want to get his book? Again, his book is called How Policies Make Interest Groups: Governments, Unions, and American Education. It’s published by University of Chicago Press. You can find it on Amazon and everywhere.

I’d like to thank Michael for joining me today and a really interesting conversation that’s made me think about the polling work that we do and maybe some other questions that we might want to ask, and ways in my own work where I think about the role of teachers unions in education policy with respect to school choice and all of that. I look forward to talking to you again in the future on another edition of Ed Choice Chats and my series, What’s Up with Mike McShane, where I ask what’s up with interesting people or policies or interest groups that exist in the American education system. Take care and talk to you again soon.