The Origin of Unions and their Application to Teachers

The Origin of Unions and their Application to Teachers

To: Congresswoman

From: Brian Pok, Congressional Aid

RE: Teacher’s Unions

Date: April 29, 2017

Executive Summary


This policy brief seeks to summarize the historical origins of teacher’s unions and how they have evolved to fit the needs of teachers to shape policy concerning the educational system. More specifically, it will seek to evaluate the nature of these unions and how they have evolved from their original spirit and capabilities. Given the nature of unions today and how they have evolved in the case of teachers to become more like special interest groups, changes are necessary to better regulate such unions. First, special interest groups must be limited in the amount of money they can spend on political contributions. Second, the nature of unionization needs to change to prevent the misalignment of interests in cases where essential goods are at stake. While other research has examined the pros and cons of teachers unions and why they may be helping or hurting education reform today, this report is the first to examine the ways in which teachers’ unions have evolved the category of unions to become more than advocacy groups with an ability to influence education policy. It highlights ways in which money has played a critical role in distorting the nature of unions – in the case of teachers’ unions – and examines why this may be harmful from a philosophical point regarding public interest.


A topic of major contention between liberals and conservatives education policy debates today revolves around the idea of teacher tenure and whether it is helping or hindering education reform. Yet the more important matter in determining whether even sub-issues like teacher tenure can even begin to enter a discussion is the role that teacher’s unions play in education reform. Those who are against tenure often argue that union-negotiated employment policies protect mediocre and bad teachers from consequences of lackluster or even harmful performances and that teachers who feel misrepresented or have no desire to belong to a union are nevertheless forced to pay mandatory fees for these organizations. On the other hand, those in favor argue that unions protect teachers from arbitrary administrative decisions and politically influenced teacher appointments. Moreover, it gives teachers the ability to express intellectual points and ideas that may be controversial in their respective communities such as topics like evolutionary biology. While there are certainly many opinions about tenure, the problem with even discussing reform measures is that teacher’s unions are categorically against cutting back on any protective measures for their members, even when those measures may need to be updated or reformed.

The Rise of Unions

Unions were originally conceived in the 18th century under the industrial revolution in Europe, during which there was a drastic surge in new workers due to the developing technological advances of the age. Many of these unions emerged out of labor movements in a time when many of the jobs migrated from rural to urban centers as nascent industrialization started taking place in these regions. Evidently, as many of these large businesses started making disproportionate amounts of money off the backs of poorly compensated workers and as mechanization saw dangerous machines being introduced into factories making work-life more hazardous, workers started to band together to reduce this uneven distribution of power. They essentially bargained for more rights such as increased pay and better working conditions and as a result, the working population was better protected from abuse, leading to improved job quality, safety, and overall pay. National unions in the U.S. started to emerge in the 19th century starting in 1866 when the NLA or National Labor Union was created to convince Congress to limit the workday for federal employees to 8 hours. Subsequently 5 years later, the American Federation of Labor (AFL) was founded, and the combined efforts of the unions softened Congress to a degree that the Department of Labor was created and the Clayton Antitrust Act of 1914 was passed to allow employees to strike and boycott. (Cussen) Perhaps the greatest achievements of labor unions were the ones that followed. The Public Contract and the Fair Labor Standards Act, which were passed in 1936 and 1938 respectively, mandated a minimum wage as well as extra pay for overtime work. Currently however, as more and more laws have been passed protecting worker and human rights, including gender equality laws mandating equal pay for equal work, the importance of labor unions have started to decline as workers were now able to rely more on federal laws and even the courts which now had jurisdiction to uphold and interpret existing laws and less on labor unions.

Benefits of Unions

Today, the two largest and most powerful teachers’ unions that emerged from the union movement are the AFT – American Federation of Teachers, and the NEA – National Education Association, which were founded in 1916 and 1857 respectively. Like the origins of labor unions, teachers’ unions like the AFT and NEA emerged out of a need to protect teacher’s from terrible working conditions, nepotism in hiring, political backlash, and to advocate for intellectual freedom. Diane Ravitch, a historian of education and educational policy, points to how teachers before unions were grossly mistreated. First, teachers were oftentimes fired by the Board of Education for getting married, as in the case of Mary Murphy in 1891; or even pregnant, as in the case of Bridget Pexitto in 1913. Second, unions helped win equal pay for women as evidenced by the efforts of the Interborough Association of Women Teachers, a teacher’s union, which started a campaign in 1906 advocating for equal pay across genders, ultimately getting it passed in 1912. Finally, unions have historically played a role in defending teachers from administrative incompetence and bias. They protect teachers from corporate style reformers who pump out principals from “quickie” principal programs that have little classroom experience and who lack enough understanding to make wise decisions about curriculum or how to evaluate teachers. (AFT) Ultimately, teachers’ unions are invaluable in that they check administrative power and the threat of teachers being left out from integral every-day decision-making processes in the education system.


The Power of Teacher’s Unions Today

What is different in the case of modern day teacher’s unions however is the degree to which they hold power and the extent to which they have enhanced, or rather supercharged their political capabilities. There is evidence to suggest that they have essentially evolved to become unaccountable legislative bodies. In 2010, Andrew J. Coulson, director of the Cato Institute Center for Educational Freedom, released a report evaluating the effectiveness of teacher’s unions in achieving 5 primary goals for its members; 1) raising their members wages, 2) growing their membership, 3) increasing the share of the public school labor force that they represent, precluding pay based on performance or aptitude, and 5) minimizing competition from nonunion shops. (Coulson, 2010).

The data shows that public school union membership has nearly sextupled in the past 50 years, while the share of union members has nearly doubled, vastly outpacing the growth rate of unionized teachers. In addition, teacher’s unions have been able to capitalize on the power of their member base by minimizing competition via lobbying elected officials to “oppose policies that give charter schools, vouchers, and education tax credits.” (Coulson, 2010) Considering that nearly $600 billion in government educational spending goes to public schools, it makes sense that these unions would want to prevent that money from going to nonunionized schools. To maintain their legislative sway, unions lobby with seemingly exhaustive amounts of money. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, the NEA and AFT, the two main teachers’ unions, have combined spent more than $56 million on political contributions since 1989, which is about as much as Chevron, Exxon, Mobil, the NRA, and Lockheed Martin combined. (2016) With such a large amount of money allocated towards garnering political opinion, these special interest groups have managed to make blue-collar labor unions from the 1800s blush by what they could achieve; become dominant legislative power-players. The nature of unions in the case of teacher’s unions has evolved to become more than just a force for collective bargaining against employers. They have come to not only set the conditions for their members, but also set the rules of the educational system. The reality is, it is nearly impossible to touch possible areas of reform, even in cases of minor change because political clout in the form of members and funds make it impractical to do so.

Essential Goods

Given the capability of teacher’s unions today, the relevant question is, do their current interests and powers align with those of the public? This is perhaps the most important issue at hand and that would be difficult to answer without fleshing out the more philosophical and finer points of education and its role in society. Education for the most part can be considered an essential good and to a certain extent, a public good. Teachers are naturally fundamental providers of that good, but are themselves not the primary beneficiaries of education, students are. Thus, scenarios in which students are disadvantaged at the expense of a secondary actor, even if the imbalance created is one to a hundred, would be a betrayal of the essential good. This is analogous to the principle upon which our current legal system operates; innocent before proven guilty. Our society fears miscarriages of justice so much so that it would rather favor setting 100 guilty men free than convict 1 innocent person. Likewise, it is likely that the much of the uproar caused by U.S. society over teacher’s unions is due how teacher’s unions are perceived today – that they do not inherently have the interests of student’s first. As a result, they have faced significant public opposition and disfavor. This is perhaps reflected in public opinion surveys conducted in recent years showing decreased approval ratings of teachers’ unions, even amongst teachers, by a remarkable 16 percent from 2011-2012. (Peterson) Among their concerns are that unions are not fighting hard enough for their interests while others think they might be in the way of education reform.



In order make improvements on the current situation, 2 key reform measures must take place. First, special interest groups like teachers’ unions must have limits on the amount of funding they can contribute to political campaigns/candidates. Given the current political and legal system, special interest groups disproportionately influence public policy through money, so much so that it has introduced significant distortions in how advocacy is done today. Discussions on topics of education reform have little impact unless absolute stopgaps due to funding are removed. Second, the nature of unionization in education must change such that interests are not misaligned. Unions represent the interests of its members and should not be expected to nor do they inherently represent the interests of anyone else. To claim that a doctors union represents the interests of patients or that a lawyer’s union represents the interest of clients is inherently false. Likewise, teacher’s unions do not have students as their primary interests. The teachers who pay dues to the unions are the ones that they are responsible to and represent, not the students. The biggest problem concerning teacher’s unions now are the fact that they hold a monopoly not only on how federal funds are allocated, but also on teacher’s themselves. Many teachers are either forced to subscribe to a union or else take an uncompetitive contract elsewhere. Currently in the United States, 22 states are non-right-to-work states, meaning that teachers must either join their district’s affiliated union or pay a union fee. These union fees must be paid under the rationale that their contract is a result of union representation. It is possible that as union membership continues to grow, these fees may continually increase, leading to further increases in union power. If representation ever becomes exclusive, economic freedoms and mobility may be further restricted as union oversight into administrative matters such as hiring and laying procedures will continue to increase. To counter such a result, unions should be forced to compete with non-unionized schools and teachers. Passing right-to-work laws is a start to protecting teachers from being forced to join or support a labor union in order to teach, checking union power and fundraising capability to a limited degree. These recommendations are not to say that unions need to be done away with. In fact quite the opposite, unions are a necessary protective force that ensures teacher’s interests are represented and that teachers have a platform for voicing concerns. Most of all, they check the power that administrators and even students can have over teachers, making sure that basic rights are being upheld. However, these recommendations need to be implemented to prevent abuses from arising due to unchecked political power such that the organization itself becomes the end rather than the means for effecting change. Furthermore, it will help maintain the historic nature of unions: to serve as a vehicle for protecting the rights of teachers, rather than seeking to further its own interests.

Drawbacks and Limitations in Proposed Recommendations

            First, trying to pass laws limiting funds used to lobby to politicians will be difficult, if not nearly impossible as this would go against their own interests. Second, passing right-to-work laws also have the drawback of reducing union power to such a degree that they are unable to force schools to negotiate with them, leading to possible wage decreases and reductions in safety standards or other benefits. Moreover, teachers’ unions are likely to oppose these recommendations as they threatens their current ability to retain power, whether it be to recruit members, influence politicians, or negotiate with school districts. One alternative would be to lobby teachers and inform them about their rights in regards to union membership so that they are better informed or are able to make a decision without fear of union backlash or peer pressure. This may have the added effect of keeping unions in check from coercing members into silence and may force them to listen to their members as to how they would like their funds be used or what kind of representation they would like. Ultimately however, removing these distortions in union power necessitates limitations to political contributions as well as coercion based on job availability, but a start would be raising greater awareness in these areas so that teachers themselves are able to standup against union pressure.


            This policy brief addressed the historical origins of teacher’s unions and how they have evolved to in their spirit and capabilities to become more like special interest groups with substantial power, much greater than what unions of the past were able to obtain. The following recommendations: first, that special interest groups be limited in the amount that they can use to lobby elected officials; and second, that states and school districts act to naturally check union power by passing right-to-work laws and informing teachers of their rights in regard to unions, will are potential avenues by which teacher’s unions can be kept accountable in regards to not only their members, but also to the public as providers of essential goods. While it may not be realistic to expect lawmakers to pass laws limiting how much special interest groups can spend on swaying political opinion, increasing awareness among teachers in regards to their rights in dealing with unions may force the unions to better listen to them. Moreover, making clear the benefits and drawbacks to unionization may lessen the information gap by which unions are able to capitalize on teachers’ fears. Ultimately, unions in the case of teachers have become far more powerful in their ability to pull political power and therefore control over education policy, making efforts at reform nearly impossible. The two primary causes for this distortion have been the unchecked extent to which unions have been able to amass funds from its base to sway political opinion as well as the degree to which teachers are either forced to join unions in non-right-to-work states or pay a fee for representation they do not agree with. Given the current situation in which teachers’ unions hold considerable influence in education policy regarding teachers, efforts at reform – even minor ones – are nearly impossible. Unions are an important advocacy group that is and will always be necessary. However like any other special interest group, they will continue to secure greater benefits at the expense of other groups if left unchecked.


I would like to personally thank Emil and George for their comments in regards to my rough draft, especially regarding my grammar and syntax issues and ways I could address potential limitations in my recommendations. Furthermore, their points in addressing the objectivity of my paper were of great help and led me to think more about the ways I could address the issues from a more neutral point of view. Last but not least, I would like to thank the EDST 245 class as well as Professor Debs and Clare for their instruction throughout the semester.

Works Cited

Cussen, M. (2016). The History of Unions in the United States. Retrieved from

Coulsen, A. (2010). The Effects of Teachers Unions On American Education. Retrieved from

The Center for Responsive Politics. (2016). Top Contributors 2015-2016. Retrieved from /industries/indus.php?ind=L1300

Peterson. P, Howell, W., & West, M. (2013). A Bridge to the Future 2013 Report. Retrieved from

Ravitch, D. (2007). Why Teacher Unions Are Good for Teachers – and the Public. Retrieved from