Challenging the conventional wisdom about collective bargaining, a new study finds that requiring school districts to bargain with teachers’ unions did not actually improve teacher pay.
Thirty-three states passed mandatory collective bargaining laws since the 1960s. Those states do typically have higher teacher salaries and higher per-pupil education spending, but they already did so “well before the emergence of collective bargaining rights or modern teacher unions,” the study found.
In states with collective bargaining laws, school districts are obligated to bargain with teachers’ unions on wages, hours, and working conditions. The approved contract is binding. American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten has said collective bargaining “raises wages for union workers. ... [T]hrough collective bargaining, workers get the voice they need, a collective voice.”
But those types of arguments lack strong empirical evidence to support them, said Agustina Paglayan, the study’s author and a postdoctoral fellow and incoming assistant professor of political science and public policy at University of California, San Diego. Her study was funded by Stanford University and has been accepted for publication in the American Journal of Political Science.
Paglayan compiled an original longitudinal dataset (covering 1919 to the present) with the resources devoted to education in all 50 states before and after any of them introduced collective bargaining rights for teachers. States that historically spent more on education were more likely to require collective bargaining with teachers—and after those laws went into effect, there was no dramatic change in teacher salary or education spending.
This is because stronger collective bargaining rights usually weakened teachers’ unions power to strike, Paglayan said.
“The whole move toward collective bargaining rights had to do with, how do we solve the problem of public-sector strikes?” she said in an interview. Strikes were a major problem in the 1960s.
Indeed, 19 of the 33 mandatory bargaining laws introduced new penalties for striking—fines for unions, wage losses for employees, union decertification, and loss of an automatic dues deduction.
See also: Teacher Strikes: 4 Common Questions
These laws helped sustain the “status quo of fiscal outcomes in education,” Paglayan wrote.
More Strikes Ahead?
The study has implications for understanding how the U.S. Supreme Court’s upcoming decision on Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees Council 31 could affect teachers’ unions, Paglayan said.
That case, which should be decided by June, has to do with “agency” or “fair-share” fees that public-sector unions in 22 states charge to workers who choose not to join the union. The unions’ argument is that in those states, all employees are represented in collective bargaining and they should have to pay something for that. The plaintiff argues that collective bargaining is inherently political, and that those fees are a violation of his First Amendment rights.
Paglayan said if the Supreme Court rules against the unions—which is largely expected to happen, given the high court’s conservative bent—collective bargaining rights could be limited.
In the 1950s and 1960s, “when unions wanted something out of the government, what they did was strike,” she said. “It’s quite likely that unions would go back to those tactics if their rights are [curtailed].”
She pointed to West Virginia as an example—unions there do not have formal collective bargaining rights, and teachers just completed a nine-day statewide strike. Strikes are illegal there, but that law was not enforced during the nearly-two-week work stoppage.
Not all researchers agree that strikes will happen more frequently post-Janus. Jake Rosenfeld, an associate professor of sociology at Washington University in St. Louis, has called that argument “pretty far-fetched,” saying that strikes are rare, even in states without formal collective bargaining rights.
An Education Week analysis of the teacher strikes in the last eight years found that strikes happened most frequently in Pennsylvania (where 33 strikes occured between 2010 and 2018), Illinois (18), and California (7). Those three states do have collective bargaining rights.
However, Pennsylvania teachers have had both bargaining rights and the right to strike since 1970, Paglayan said, which would account for the high number of strikes.
And while Illinois and California historically prohibited strikes and established monetary penalties against both striking teachers and the unions themselves, that has since changed, Paglayan said. Teacher strikes are now legal in both of those states.
A version of this news article first appeared in the Teacher Beat blog.