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Teaching Profession

Report Probes Union Strength Across the States

By Stephen Sawchuk — October 29, 2012 5 min read
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The relative strength of state teachers’ unions is analyzed in an expansive report issued today.

The bottom-line findings? Probably best characterized à la Facebook: “It’s complicated.”

In general, unions in mandatory-bargaining states appear to be somewhat stronger than those in states where it is prohibited, according to the report by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and advocacy group Education Reform Now contends. But for the most part, it unearthed no cut-and-dried patterns among the states, a finding that underscores the complex mix of factors that affect unions’ ability to shape policy and affect politics.

For example, Alabama’s National Education Association affiliate was deemed to be one of the 20 strongest unions, even though bargaining is not required in the state, nor is the union permitted to charge “agency fees.” Such fees, in other states, are levied on individuals who elect not to join the union but benefit from bargained contracts.

Under the group’s analysis, Hawaii’s union—which has been in a disagreement with state officials over a teacher-evaluation system for months—was deemed the strongest, and Arizona’s the weakest, though the report urges caution in making comparisons between unions separated by just a few ranks. To give a better basis for comparisons, it placed the state unions into quartiles, from “strongest” to “weakest.”

The Fordham Institute tends to tilt to the right, and Education Reform Now is the 501(c)3 nonprofit wing of Democrats for Education Reform, a political action committee that has tussled with teachers’ unions in various states.

Neither National Education Association nor American Federation of Teachers officials were immediately available for comment due to Hurricane Sandy, which had shuttered most Washington offices. Judging from union officials quoted in state newspapers that have picked up the story, though, they’re not fans.

UPDATED, 7:40 pm: Randi Weingarten sent along this comment on the report: “While Fordham took three years to complete the study, one wonders why they did not give the AFT an embargoed copy. Instead, ... it appears the report is deeply flawed and misleading. It seems to omit many factors including poverty. We will have a more fullsome response after the storm.”

But the report’s authors contend they’re not taking political aim at unions with the analysis. Amber Winkler, Fordham’s vice president for research, noted that as scholars have analyzed things like pay schedules and benefits, they have struggled to come up with good proxies for union strength. The report tries to analyze that question through a number of different lenses.

“I don’t think there’s anything horrifically offensive in this report to union folk,” she said. “We tried to look at what we thought most reasonable people would use as a measure of union strength.”

Among those that provided input into the project in some capacity are Mike Antonucci, a teachers’ union watchdog and critic; Daniel Goldhaber, a well-known researcher who has studied pay schedules; Katharine Strunk, a scholar at the University of Southern California, who has examined the unions’ imprint on policy using empirical methods; and Jonathan Gyurko, an education consultant and former senior assistant to Randi Weingarten during her tenure as president of the United Federation of Teachers.

The analysis is based on findings in five areas:

•Unions’ financial resources and membership numbers;
•Their involvement in politics, including share of financial contributions to candidates and political parties;
•The scope of collective bargaining, including right to agency fees and legality of strikes;
•The degree of alignment between the unions’ traditional positions on teacher workplace rules and charter schools, and state policies in those areas; and
•The unions’ perceived influence, based on a survey of “key stakeholders” within each state.

After testing various ways of weighting the findings in each of the areas, the report’s authors decided to weight the five areas equally. Each was worth 20 percent in all, with subcomponents making up an equal share of that particular component’s overall score.

“We had pages and pages of these correlations among the criteria, and when you look at them, there’s no strong theory of action to weigh this one more, or this one more,” Winkler said.

The analysis does not address the hot-button topic of whether unionization affects student achievement. That topic has long been a talking point, with union officials and defenders often noting that some union strongholds, like Massachusetts, tend to do well in NAEP rankings. (California, also heavily unionized, does not have high student achievement, by contrast.)

Generally, scholars say that it is difficult to establish cause-and-effect relationships between unionization and outcomes, and the report’s findings are descriptive rather than causative.

Unsurprisingly, they suggest, mandatory bargaining and membership seem to make for stronger unions, as do having a larger membership and bigger coffers.

But they also note that state factors, such as scope of bargaining, play a large role in determining whether the unions’ imprint is felt on education policy. Illinois’ permissive bargaining laws, coupled with a broad scope of bargaining, for instance, was a factor in allowing teacher evaluations to become a major issue in Chicago’s recently inked contract. And the report notes that state lawmakers can write policies favorable to unions even when the bargaining climate isn’t favorable, noting due process rules in Mississippi that the authors characterizes as some of the strictest in the nation.

Each state’s unions are profiled in the report.

Neither the NEA nor the AFT was given an opportunity to review the findings before publication. Fordham says that under its policies, it gives advance copies only to reporters and funders.

Whether or not you agree with these findings, it’s clear that these days, teachers’ unions are not the only heavyweights where policy is concerned: Witness the rise of a “new breed” of education advocacy groups that have already had a big impact, of which ERN/DFER is one.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Teacher Beat blog.