By Matthew Brouillette and Charles Mitchell
There’s a war brewing in education — and it’s not just on parents. It’s on the teachers themselves — and the same unions claiming to protect them are waging it. It starts with control — as the unions are preventing current members from recertifying the unions and their leadership.
A 2022 report from the Commonwealth Foundation focuses on laws that empower government union executives at the expense of workers. Many states allow government unions to restrict membership resignations to narrow opt-out windows, negotiate contracts without transparency, and even use taxpayer resources to collect money for political campaigns and lobbying. According to the report, Maryland, California, Oregon, and Washington have the worst public-sector labor laws in the country.
It’s state laws like these that help public-sector unions — including teachers unions — maintain their outsized influence despite declining support.
In our state of Pennsylvania, for example, many public workers never have the opportunity to choose the union that represents them. Most government unions were certified at least four decades ago — far before many current members joined — and never have to stand for reelection. Consequently, none of the teachers currently working in Pennsylvania’s largest school districts have ever had the opportunity to vote for their union or choose a different one.
If that’s not bad enough, Pennsylvania law makes it difficult for public employees to leave their union — with workers only getting the chance to resign during narrow two-week “escape windows” every several years. Where is the accountability if workers do not have the right to vote for or resign from the union that’s supposed to represent them?
Through coercion and abuse of special privileges, government unions maintain control of their members — even if these workers disagree with their politics and support for progressive causes.
But ignoring their members’ wishes has become a union norm. In New York City, government unions have gone on the attack to oppose charter school expansion — even though nearly 50,000 students there remain on charter waitlists. These schools disproportionately serve minority students. More than 90 percent of charter school students are black or Latino, and almost 80 percent are economically disadvantaged.
In Washington, D.C., President Joe Biden’s administration has declared war on education choice — working hand in hand with the government union executives who bankroll their efforts. In Arizona, government unions attempted (but failed) to block a program that gives every Arizona student access to a school that meets his or her needs. Similarly, government unions consistently oppose school choice in Pennsylvania. They aggressively lobbied against the state’s tax credit scholarship program, which allows tens of thousands of students to attend a private school of their choice. They also fought legislation that would have given almost $7,000 in direct education funding to Pennsylvania students in failing schools.
From coast to coast, these government unions aren’t just standing in the way of educational opportunity for students — they’re sidelining their members’ interests as well.
Representing teachers is supposedly the sole purpose of teachers unions, but most public school teachers aren’t progressive activists like their union executives; they’re simply teachers unforgivably trapped and hurt by a slew of executives more concerned with building their own political celebrity.
Chicago teacher Ifeoma Nkemdi faced harassment and ridicule from her union when she opted out of membership. Union leadership put teacher Cheri Gensel on a “Board of Shame” in her school’s faculty room when she resigned from the Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA). Another Pennsylvania teacher shared how her union president threatened jail time for members who didn’t wear a mask — regardless of individual districts’ masking policies.
Rochelle Porto, an experienced educator in Philadelphia, did not agree with the “divisive and political ideology” of her teachers union and saw its policies as harmful to her special education students. She says that she believes the union “does not stand up for kids, and I care about the children I teach and think we should do what’s best for them.”
Sadly, Rochelle can attest to the pressure and manipulation from union representatives when teachers like her question membership or try to resign.
If union leaders were truly representing members’ rights, they wouldn’t have to coerce and bully them into submission.
But if not representing teachers, what exactly are these government unions doing?
Last year, the largest teacher union in America, the National Education Association (NEA), spent $2 on politics for every $1 it spent on representing its members, according to public employee advocate Americans for Fair Treatment. While teachers have diverse backgrounds and opinions, their unions are decidedly one-party focused. In the last election cycle, the NEAand American Federation of Teachers (AFT) sent 99.2 percent of their federal campaign contributions to Democratic candidates.
Government unions buy their political influence by backing their chosen candidates with significant funding. Since 2007, Pennsylvania government unions alone have spent $70 million in political action committee expenditures and an additional $96.5 million on political activities and lobbying.
Teachers unions aren’t even trying to keep their political agenda a secret. Forty-two percent of AFT resolutions in 2020 were related to elections — with most criticizing the Republican candidate. Lily Eskelsen Garcia, a former leader of the NEA, confirmed that the “core business” of her union wasn’t teacher pensions or healthcare, but rather was “social activism and political lobbying.”
Teachers are tired of putting up with unions that don’t prioritize — and in many cases, oppose — their interests.
Yet, state laws help unions hold on to the power they have and can actually encourage union control at the expense of the public employees they’re supposed to serve.
Government unions maintain a pipeline of millions of dollars in member dues and use these resources to oppose educational choice across the nation — choosing to side with bureaucratic institutions rather than the children who need opportunities outside of their ZIP code–assigned school.
States like Pennsylvania can protect families’ and public-sector workers’ rights by reining in the power of union executives. Lawmakers should support legislation to require regular union recertification elections to ensure that every public worker has a voice in their union. States should also prohibit government unions from imposing restrictions on union resignation.
Some states are already pushing back on the behemoth. Arizona, for example, banned the practice of workers performing labor union business on the taxpayer dime. Michigan now requires employers to notify state workers of their rights and get re-authorization for union dues each year. Arkansas banned collective bargaining altogether for most government employees.
It’s time for Pennsylvania — and the rest of the nation — to follow suit.
Public-sector union reforms not only advance worker freedom but also benefit families and taxpayers. If we want to make advancements in parental choice and educational freedom, we need to rein in the powerful influence of government unions. Research shows that labor reforms clear the path for school choice — along with tax cuts and economic growth.
All state lawmakers should embrace public-sector labor reforms to help families and empower teachers to hold their unions accountable. Teacher unions need to be back in the business of supporting teachers and students — not divisive politics and control.
Matthew J. Brouillette, a former middle and high school teacher, is the President and CEO of Commonwealth Partners Chamber of Entrepreneurs, Inc., an organization dedicated to improving the economic environment and educational opportunities for all Pennsylvanians.
Charles Mitchell is the President and CEO of the Commonwealth Foundation, Pennsylvania’s free-market think tank.