New Poll Suggests Lessons Teachers Unions Should Remember in November

“Teachers are standing up for their students and themselves against largely red states with weak labor laws,” writes American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten in her recent USA Today editorial. “The days of passive resignation,” she says, “are over.”

Weingarten and others seem fond of characterizing the recent wave of teacher strikes as political re-awakenings. Yet preliminary findings from a pending survey suggest that teachers unions and their allies may regret their “Remember in November” mantra.

Commentators spanning the left-of-center spectrum have highlighted how union leaders were largely Johnny-and-Jane-come-latelies to teacher strikes in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Kentucky, Arizona, Colorado, and most recently North Carolina (see here, here, here, here, here, and here). This is a significant misstep at a time when unions are fighting for their collectivist lives.

This summer the U.S. Supreme Court is expected to rule in Janus v. AFSCME, a case brought against government unions for charging non-members agency fees. If unions are prohibited from charging these fees, the cost of members’ dues could soar—by hundreds of dollars annually in the case of California Teachers Association members (see here and here). The result? Less money and fewer members.

Anticipating an unfavorable ruling, the National Education Association is reducing its two-year budget by $50 million and bracing for a membership nosedive in excess of 300,000 teachers, according to union watchdog and Education Intelligence Agency Director Mike Antonucci.

But it doesn’t take wildcat teacher pay strikes or Supreme Court cases to see just how out of step unions appear to be with rank-and-file teachers, whose average salaries are seven to eight times lower than what Weingarten or NEA President Lily Eskelsen García makes.

Preliminary results from a pending Educators for Excellence (E4E) survey of American public-school teachers indicate close to one in three unionized teachers (30 percent) believe that their unions are not essential or something they could do without (p. 1). If unionized teachers were not automatically enrolled in their unions, 60 percent say they would still be “very likely” to opt-in (p. 8). The other 40 percent aren’t so sure. As for non-unionized teachers, 61 percent say that they would opt out of paying their unions’ agency fees given a choice (p. 9).

Making teachers’ opt-out decisions easier could be the fact that just 28 percent of unionized teachers believe their unions’ policy decisions represent their perspectives “a great deal” (p. 5). A separate Education Week poll released late last year also found that just 28 percent of teachers said that their unions’ political views represented their own “a lot.”

This disconnect is further reflected in low levels of teacher engagement with their unions, including advocacy-related activities. Less than one in five unionized teachers say they participated in a union-organized rally (18 percent) or took an online advocacy action (15 percent) in the past year (p. 6).

So much for unions’ claims about being the voice of teachers (see, for example, here and here), especially in political matters.

Almost half of all unionized teachers (47 percent) agree that it is just “somewhat” to “not at all important” for their unions to provide them information about political candidates, while close to two-thirds (62 percent) agree that it is only “somewhat” to “not at all important” for their unions to support/endorse political candidates (p. 4).

Contrary to the collectivist mythos dominating union policies and practice, teachers are not a monolithic voting block. They don’t need—or want—any Grand Poobahs telling them how to vote.

But apparently, some strike organizers missed the memo.

Consider Arizona, home to the country’s largest teachers’ strike in history. For all the claims about being a non-partisan coalition that simply wants higher pay for teachers, Education Week opinion contributor Lance Izumi documents the decidedly partisan underbelly of prominent strike organizers (see also here, here, here, and peruse here). Several Arizona news media outlets have also reported about the anything-but-apolitical leanings of organizers (see here, here, here, here [explicit language warning], and here).

That underbelly, together with heavy-handed attempts to silence dissent from those who don’t subscribe to a preferred ideology (here, here, and here), may be the undoing of a movement that’s hardly a unified front itself (see here, here, and here).

There’s also mounting backlash from Arizona teachers who feel betrayed about the movement’s true intent, which was supposed to be about higher teacher pay (see here, here, here, and here). Yet the same day a 20 percent teacher pay raise deal was reached by the governor and legislative leaders, strike organizers issued four additional demands and continued the strikes (see here, here, here, and here).

Those demands were defeated the following week when the budget plan came to a vote (see here and May 2-3, 2018, tweets here). The 20 percent teacher pay raise, however, was passed along highly partisan lines, with all but four Democratic lawmakers voting against it, and every Republican lawmaker except one voting in favor.

Meanwhile, many Arizona parents, who are largely supportive of higher pay for teachers and have approved billions of dollars in additional education spending, are angered that the strikes meant their children missed more than a full school week (see here, here, and here). Want to make parents even angrier? Tell them the strikes were really “for the children” (see comments).

In response, a growing number of parents may be voting with their feet this fall by taking advantage of Arizona’s expansive educational choice programs (see here, here, here, and parent comments here). These choices include public charter schools (see here, here, and here), private schools, homeschooling, online instruction, and education savings accounts—options some strike representatives have publicly opposed (see, for example, here and here).

So, come November parents, teachers, and taxpayers in Arizona and other states will certainly remember—but likely not the way strike organizers or union bosses presume they will.


Vicki Alger is a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute in Oakland, California, and author of the book Failure: The Federal “Misedukation” of America’s Children.

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