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September 2014 Policy Study, Number 14-5


Terry Moe's Special Interest: Teachers Unions and America's Public Schools


Chapter 2 – The Rise of Teachers Unions



As any close observer of American education is well aware, the nation’s public schools are heavily unionized, and the unions are superbly organized and enormously powerful.  This is the reality of our times – but it is also a reality that, in historical terms, is a rather recent development.  The public school system began to emerge in roughly its present form a little over 100 years ago, and for most of its history it was a union-free zone: hardly any teachers belonged to unions, there was no collective bargaining, and neither teachers nor their unions had much political power.  Large numbers of teachers across the country did belong to the NEA, and it was a powerful presence at all levels of government; indeed, it was widely recognized as the vanguard of the education establishment.  But the NEA of that earlier time was a professional association run by administrators, and it was avowedly opposed to unions and collective bargaining.  Things are different now.  Very different.


… [T]he rise of the teachers unions was not simply due to conditions unique to the public education system – for example, that teachers were subject to arbitrary treatment, horrible working conditions, insecure jobs, and the like, and, as a result, became militant and sought out unions.  Lots of workers across all industries, public and private, had similar complaints about their jobs, especially in the late nineteenth and early-to-middle twentieth centuries, and there is no reason to think that teachers were especially victimized.  Nor is there any reason to think that these job-related dissatisfactions led to large-scale unionization, whether by teachers or most other workers.  The key event that promoted unionization and collective bargaining is that the laws changed.  They changed for private sector workers with the enactment of new labor statutes in most states during the 1960s and 1970s.  Whatever the frustrations of teachers and other workers, they did not find expression in unions on a massive scale until the laws made such expression possible.



As a historical movement, then, the unionization of teachers was not somehow special, and it cannot be explained in a satisfactory way by focusing on education alone.  Teachers unions arose when other public sector unions did: in the 1960s and 1970s.  And they arose because they were empowered by new laws that, thanks to their Democrat allies and their union brethren in the private sector, were purposely designed to promote unionization and collective bargaining.


The rise of the teachers unions, then, is a story of triumph for employee interests and employee power.  But it is not a story of triumph for American education.




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