Survey: Teachers’ unions lose support

Teachers unions are losing support, according to an annual survey by Harvard’s Program on Education Policy and Governance and Education Next. Only 22 percent of the public has a positive view of unions in 2012, down from 29 percent in 2011.  More striking, only 43 percent of teachers have a positive view, down from 58 percent the year before. Teachers holding a negative view nearly doubled to 32 percent from 17 percent in 2011.

Researchers ask:

“Some people say that teacher unions are a stumbling block to school reform. Others say that unions fight for better schools and better teachers. What do you think? Do you think teacher unions have a generally positive effect on schools, or do you think they have a generally negative effect?”

Respondents have five options: very positive, somewhat positive, neither positive nor negative, somewhat negative, and very negative. Many people choose the neutral option.

When people have just two choices on their assessment of union impact, 71 percent of teachers said unions had a positive impact. However, the public split down the middle on the either/or option: 51 percent said unions had a negative impact, while 49 percent said their effect was positive.

Gov. Scott Walker’s victory in the Wisconsin recall election is good news for schooling and a big loss for the state’s teachers’ unions, writes Rick Hess.

Public-sector unions also lost pension reform votes in San Jose and San Diego.

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  1. Discussions about teachers’ unions are usually a distraction when it comes to education. Unions are not crippling education nor are they saving education. Comparisons of states with strong public unions to right-to-work states pretty much shows they make no difference.

    • Stacy in NJ says:

      Possibly, we’ll get to see a before and after. 1/3 of Wisconsin teachers have opted out of their union because of the Walker reforms.

    • Too bad it’s just a distraction because a drop in the public’s view of teacher’s unions doesn’t exactly bode well for continued faith in the public education system. The unions, for their own, avaricious purposes, have chosen to try to make themselves the public face of public education so as one loses public confidence it’s pretty likely the other will as well.

      Long past due in my opinion so it’s intensely gratifying to see more and more fractures in the previously seamless facade of the public education monolith.

  2. One inescapable fact about any public-sector union is that there is a fundamental conflict of interest, in which the taxpayers who pay the bills have no voice. The unions have huge resources and support politicians who agree to support the union agenda and the circle keeps going. Requiring union membership and automatically garnishing dues from teacher salaries completes the fix. BTW, union employees (public or private) sent to work on campaigns are not counted as in-kind campaign contributions – thanks to union pressure on politicians – so the unions can pretend their support is less than the reality. The public-sector unions, particularly the teachers, also have a ready-made pool of likely volunteers in every precinct in the country.

    Professionals make a personal choice to join professional organizations, or not, and personally pay dues to said organizations. If they don’t agree with the positions taken by the organization or otherwise feel it does not represent their interests, they don’t have to join.

    • PS: The behavior on display in Wisconsin over the last year did little to convince the public of the professionalism of teachers – or that of the university physicians who wrote fraudulent excuse notes. I understand that the a number of the latter are under investigation by professional organizations – as they should be.

    • The tax-payers do have a voice. They can vote in people such as Scott Walker. They could also choose to vote in people who support the unions.

      I’m with you on the forced union membership. It is really the only thing I see wrong. Other than that, people should be able to join up in organizations that support and lobby for their interests.

      • SuperSub says:

        I’d add the funneling of dues to state and national unions. We’ve had years of contract negotiations without a lick of help from our union brethren, I wonder why we are even members.

  3. Ponderosa says:

    Folks, why do you think Americans fought so hard to obtain unions? Really. Think about it. Do you know this history? I’ll bet most of you don’t. It seems inevitable now that we shall lose unions and learn the hard way –through many years of owners exploiting workers (this includes tax-payers exploiting public workers) –why they were necessary. Within a decade the majority of us Americans will be Walmart-level workers, barely scraping by. The economy will suffer because no one but the 1% will have money to spend. It’s sad how our ignorance of history condemns us to repeat it.

    Currently I tighten my belt in the expectation that teachers unions in CA will be busted, school districts liquidated, tenure abolished and schools handed over to entrepreneurs who will pay peanuts –and still get hoardes of starving, qualified applicants to fill the positions. I make a decent middle-class income now, but I’m trying to live like a pauper because I sense the pre-union 19th Century is where we’re headed.

    • Stacy in NJ says:

      Coal miners and steel mill workers deserved and deserve unions. They were exploited by their employers. Public service workers are exploited? Really? Good grief! A large majority of Americans aren’t union members. Some how we manage without collective bargaining and tenure. You’ll survive.

      Working class and middle class Americans took a major hit with this recession. Don’t you feel a little bit guilty asking your neighbors to pay more in taxes while their incomes suffers so that you can continue on with salary and benefits undiminished?

      • mike in Texas says:

        Have you seen teacher contracts from the early part of the 20th century? Marriage was cause for dismissal as was staying out past a certain time or consuming alcohol.

        Without the protection of unions workers will be abused by management.

        • Stacy in NJ says:

          You do know that social mores were different for everyone in the 1920’s, right?

      • Oh, save the myth of the noble union man for those not yet out of single digits.

        Far from being a moral crusade the formation era of the unions was marked by internecine warfare that was rather more vicious then the struggle between management and labor and repeated scandals as union bosses sold out their membership for personal gain. That last’s actual as much current affairs as it is history.

        Having been a member of two unions I can tell you that the unofficial union slogan is “I’ve got mine, screw you” and that apples as much between union “brothers” as it does to those outside the union. But that’s to be expected from a movement born out of thuggery and dedicated to the proposition that coercion is the right of everyone who’s got an excuse.

    • SuperSub says:

      The question is how did your state get into the situation its in? There’s plenty of money in the state coffers if you forget about public assistance and other state programs. Did you vote for or against the politicians who refused to make the hard choices in the past that could have prevented your state’s situation?

      And, if we’re looking at pre-union 19th century and my education history is up to par, teachers were valued members of society and were compensated rather well compared to the average. It provided women one of their first professional careers and status (albeit less than men) to go with it. I also don’t think the terms “department supervisor,” “superintendent of schools,” and “director of facilities” were invented yet…another plus.

  4. Ponderosa says:

    By the way, I work at least fifty hours a week now. In the future I may have to work sixty hours for half the pay and benefits. The tax-payers will be getting a wonderful deal.

  5. Dan Lemay says:

    Unions and negotiated contracts help hold everyone responsible for equal treatment and equal work. They hold everyone accountable for capricious behavior.

    What Scott Walker is trying to do in Wisconsin is the reason we need unions and those contracts.

    In the 24 years I’ve been in education, I’ve only seen the Union be a force for good. Students are better off because of the unseen presence of union membership.

    BTW, while I make more than a lot of people in my community (this is a guess) it isn’t excessive. With that pay comes a higher accountability to the public and better behavior on my part. This means I have to be better than “Most Americans”. Also not many people can do what I do, teach math to minds that don’t see the need for what they are learning This skill and behavior should be compensated.

    • a higher accountability to the public

      Do tell.

      And what form does this “higher accountability” take?

      It certainly doesn’t have anything to do with results nor are the consequences likely to be loss of employment if you suck. So, pray expand I write without much hope of a response.

  6. “By the way, I work at least fifty hours a week now. In the future I may have to work sixty hours for half the pay and benefits. The tax-payers will be getting a wonderful deal.”

    Fifty hours EVERY week? All teachers? Work sixty hours for half the pay and benefits? You doth protest too much, methinks.

    Should I talk about the job where I worked 70 real hours a week? The contract wasn’t extended and some people got laid off. Shall I talk about my wife’s “high tech” job where she has to get permission to take off two consecutive weeks of her own vacation time; time she will lose if she doesn’t use it within two years. We’re not even talking about sick time, which is never accrued. There is a funny Dilbert cartoon where Alice has to choose between meeting her quarterly goals and losing some of her vacation time. It happens.

    As Stacy says, welcome to the real world. Unions try to manipulate supply and demand. It can work for a while, but at some point, the bubble will burst. Would unions help other professions? No. It only delays the inevitable in exchange for what, the straitjacket of seniority?

    I don’t want to care about unions, but I’ve been in parent/teacher meetings where simple proposals were shot down with “It won’t fly contracturally.” Then there was the time a Reduction In Force caused a chain reaction of seniority-based teacher bumping in our lower school. That really pissed off parents. There was also the time our school wanted to hire a math teacher from California, but the teacher didn’t want to lose seniority. My son’s first grade teacher “should have retired long ago” confided a school administrator in response to complaints she couldn’t do anything about. Teachers don’t get the benefits of unions for free, and there is a limit to how much they can deny supply and demand. In the car industry, senior union members ended up competing with young ones for a limited piece of the pie. At some point, new teachers will not want to play the game.

    I see teacher unions fighting against parents and choice. They are fighting against parents who are desperate to help their kids. If there is some greater good argument going on here, nobody has been able to explain it. Nobody has been able to explain how these kids would be better off staying where they are. There are other issues going on here, but teacher unions don’t just limit themselves to issues about pay.

    • Ponderosa says:


      I don’t believe the “real world” has to be so savage and ruthless. It’s not good that you had to work 70 hours a week or that your wife has little vacation. When unions were strong, such stories were rare; now they’re becoming the norm.

      Without seniority rights, what’s to prevent an expensive fifty-something teacher from being replaced by a cheap young teacher of equal ability?

      Teachers at non-union KIPP schools are already overworked and burn out quickly. When you’re 22 and have no family, you can work twelve hour days and still appear suitably peppy. Pity the 32 year olds in the American schools of the future.

      What greater good is served? How about having a society where fifty-somethings aren’t disposed of like garbage?

      Have you heard of Ricardo’s Iron Law of Wages? It states that when labor supply exceeds demand, wages will sink to the bare subsistence level. This is what happened in the Gilded Age, what happens in India and what’s happening in America now. To prevent widespread pauperization, we need non-market interventions e.g. unions or government income redistribution. Or do you see some better way to prevent millions of your fellow Americans from a choice between unemployment and endless miserable, unhealthy, low-paying work that eats people up and spits them out?

      • SuperSub says:

        How about less individuals entering the education workforce? Or more attrition amongst those that shouldn’t be teachers? Or heck, how about ed schools get there act together and make the degree more worthwhile…or even better eliminate the bachelors and only offer an associates degree in education.
        Your hyperventilating “a society where fifty-somethings aren’t disposed of like garbage” would not come to happen as long as schools are held accountable for their performance by parents, school boards, and the states.

      • “When unions were strong, such stories were rare; now they’re becoming the norm.”

        I don’t agree. What is going on now is different. Employees are VERY expensive with the cost of salary and benefits. Companies don’t want them. Whether you have a union or not, companies don’t want to hire you. They would rather hire fewer people and pay them more money and expect so much more out of them. They hire contractors. Colleges hire adjunct teachers. Will union members turn down overtime to force companies to hire new employees? Unions can’t help you if you can’t find a job. At my wife’s company, it’s extremely difficult to open up a new position. Also, when people leave, that doesn’t mean that they will fill the opening. Companies reorganize as a way to justify layoffs. You can easily go from a very large salary to nothing in an instant. With people’s skills narrowing, you can’t necessarily find another job just because you have a “high tech” degree. Everything has to do with your specific skill set.

        Unions won’t help. You can only manipulate supply and demand so much. Companies just won’t hire you in the first place, and there are always ways to let people go. If all companies went to a seniority and tenure-type model, then they would become less competitive globally and eventualy go out of business. Look at the car companies. Unions had to take huge concessions that pitted senior members against junior members. How do younger teachers like getting pink slips every year while they wait to see if their jobs still exist? How do young teachers like like seeing older teachers doing minimal work while they are stuck at the low end of the wage scale no matter how well they do their job. How do young teachers like a contract that offers them less benefits than the older teachers. How do teachers like contracts that limit their mobility? You don’t get something for nothing, and many don’t want to make that choice.

        You think you can get something for free. Do you think schools owe every graduate of ed school a job?

        “To prevent widespread pauperization, we need non-market interventions e.g. unions or government income redistribution.”

        You need a people and a country that is willing to compete. You won’t get much support for having the government alter supply and demand so that people can have whatever career they want. And schools can’t expect to do whatever they want without feedback (choice) from customers.

        I believe there are ways to help individuals in the battle of supply and demand, but unionization is not it. Unionization is NOT the future.

        • Ponderosa says:


          Thanks for your well-articulated response. You make good points, and I agree that competition demands that companies shy away from unions and more hiring. I’m thinking more Big Picture –why must we worship at the altar of competition? What is an economy for anyway? I question the assumption that unfettered competition yields the best of all possible worlds. The assumption that people will be slackers without ruthless competition. That the fruits of our breakneck competition outweigh the damage done. Our society needs to produce x amount of goods and services for us to fare well. Let’s figure out a way that everyone can chip in to produce these and that everyone can get a fair share of the pie that results. It is absolutely insane that we must resign ourselves to every greater insecurity, miserably long hours, massive unemployment, callous disposal of old people. It all boils down to, what are our fundamental values? And, are we going to control the economy, or are we going to let it control us?

          • Roger Sweeny says:

            What you mean “we,” Kemo Sabe?

          • Ponderosa says:

            I mean the citizens of America.

          • “I question the assumption that unfettered competition yields the best of all possible worlds. The assumption that people will be slackers without ruthless competition. ”

            It’s a balance between two forces, and there is only so much that the US government can do. We’ve come a long way from the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory filre 100 years ago, but many other countries have not. There is only so much we can do with trade restrictions and laws.

            The solution is not to base everything on job security and seniority as if we can assume that people won’t be slackers. It’s not to restrict the opportunities of smart or hard working young people. That’s the wrong incentive. There are laws to protect individual employees even without unions, but they have caused companies to be very careful about hiring. Add in the efficiencies of computer technology, and I would say that the demand side of people looking for jobs has been really hurting for a long time, especially since about the mid 80’s when it was really clear that most needed two incomes to get a mortgage. I think back when Reagan talked about how it was really OK for women to be homemakers right when it became impossible economically for many to do so. Besides, two incomes provide some protection over the loss of one of them.

            Also, with the costs of benefits, it’s better for companies to pay union workers overtime and to expect more from salaried professionals. Gone are the days when my father had a life-long career at Pratt & Whitney. Salaries in high tech professions might look really good, but at what cost? You may not have a life. Extra hours are now the norm, where it used to be only for special projects. This wouldn’t happen (as much) if you could find a job in a company down the street, but that isn’t the case. Many jobs have become very specialized and as salaries go up, you can’t just point to your college degree and ability to be trained. Companies want a better match of skill set to job opening. Some companies are benevolent, but that is rare and might change quickly if the stock prices head south.

            Ultimately, supply and demand drives everything. In a capitalistic society, there will be big winners and big losers. We can minimize effects on the low end, but what level can or should we guarantee? How do we minimize the risk of job loss, or at least, put it more in the control of individuals? People have to make sure they are valuable to a company, but that is no guarantee. How do we stop the trend towards more overtime and 50+ hour weeks; between those who have jobs and those who do not? There in not a shortage of work to be done, just a shortage of jobs. Everywhere I look, people are stressed with too much work, but companies won’t hire. I once wanted to get a job where I had summers off. My skills were in big demand and I would just ask the company to prorate my salary. They could hire more people. Then I woke up. Basic employee costs and benefits are a big problem. Guarantees cost jobs.

          • Ponderosa says:


            I don’t have the answers, but I don’ think the answer is “Suck it up and deal with it” (not that I think that’s what YOU are saying). Obviously communism didn’t work. But I don’t see why we shouldn’t have some sort of mixed system wherein we let the market do its thing, but if it lets citizens down, then have government tax the “winners” and use the money to make government jobs for those let-down citizens. This would not be welfare –they’d work –and it wouldn’t be throwing money down a black hole –services (like trail maintenance) would be performed and the salaries would be spent, thus pumping up the economy. Plus knowing there’s a decent fall-back option would give the private sector workers a little more peace of mind and maybe even bargaining power.

          • “…then have government tax the “winners” and use the money to make government jobs for those let-down citizens.”

            This is already being done and there are arguments over where that line should be. Buffet has caused a stir about how “winners” should pay more. Also, is the government the best method for creating jobs?

            Then there is the issue about creating a bigger pie rather than just changing the size of the slices. The government can create jobs (change the size of the slices) or it can try to stimulate growth in the private sector, which is more likely to create a bigger pie. Then we are back to Reagan-era arguments about “trickle down”.

            I believe in guaranteed health insurance for all. The question is what is the cut-off level of benefits? This would give people more job flexibility. These conversations are going on, but, unfortunately, there is also a lot of party politics mucking it up.

          • Ponderosa says:

            The pie has been getting larger, but the rich are hogging it. As Buffet says, there is a class war in America, and it’s his class –the rich –that is waging it and winning.

            Re: unfettered competition. There’s a piece on the New York Times’ front page today about students in upscale communities using amphetamines to give themselves a competitive edge:

            “One consensus was clear: users were becoming more common, [the students] said, and some students who would rather not take the drugs would be compelled to join them because of the competition over class rank and colleges’ interest.

            A current law student in Manhattan, who said he dealt Adderall regularly while at his high school in Sarasota, Fla., said that insecurity was a main part of his sales pitch: that those students “would feel at a huge disadvantage,” he said.”

            Unfettered competition is wrecking these kids’ health (and souls?) It’s wrecking America’s health and soul too.

      • Mark Roulo says:

        “Without seniority rights, what’s to prevent an expensive fifty-something teacher from being replaced by a cheap young teacher of equal ability?”

        This gets to the heart of the difference of opinion in the pro- and anti- union camps.

        Not everyone believes that a 50-something worker who is no better than a 20-something worker should be paid more (and with a 25+ year difference in experience, possibly 2x more).

        For industries with lots of competition (and some of it foreign) this sort of pay schedule can be fatal to the company.

  7. Deirdre Mundy says:

    One reason teachers get paid what they do is the flexibility of the job— you can be off when your kids are off, so you save on daycare. You work in AC, have summers off, and at many levels, teachers need only a BA and the ability to pass a few tests.

    There are currently more ‘wannabe’ teachers than positions open, and if demography is destiny there may very well be even FEWER positions in the future.

    Jobs that are safe, in demand, and easy to qualify for pay less. This is also why librarians get paid LESS than teachers (when you take into account less time off and more expensive health insurance for the family.)

    But you seldom see people arguing that librarians have a miserable life.

    I wonder why?

    (I’m guessing it’s because librarianship is more pleasant than teaching, btw)

    • Deirdre Mundy says:

      On the other hand, if you’re a teacher who hates your job, you can always leave, go to private industry, and let some kid out of college get her first job…

      • Lightly Seasoned says:

        Well, it is a bit more complicated than that. If I left right now, mid-career, retirement would be in question because of the pension system. We pay 14% into it from our salary, so most don’t do a 401K on top of that — and there’s no medical included with our pension system — just medicare. But I’ve seen plenty of burned-out teachers do it anyway.

        My district gets many hundreds of applicants for every open position. I’d say teachers are not in very high demand right now. The vast majority of new graduates are not getting jobs. Most of us are taking pay cuts, either in straight cuts and unpaid furloughs, or through paying more for medical benefits (FWIW, my deductible is in the thousands and we get no paid family coverage — thank goodness I’m married to somebody who works in private industry).

        I’m not whining — I love my job — but I think there are a lot of misconceptions out there based on a few large states.

  8. Richard Aubrey says:

    Dan Lemay.

    Accountability? This is a joke, right? Like the alcoholic math teacher ruining my daughter’s math education. Principal said…he has to retire some time. Didn’t want to fight the union. You think nobody’s seen this stuff? Really?

    Well, anyway, you can go on about the history of unions and the Walmart thingy, but math always wins. Whining does not change math. It does not care. When the money’s gone…it’s gone.
    The mantra “tax the rich” is worn out. Among other things, there aren’t enough of them, but everybody knows that. The mantra-singers just hope there are enough ignoramuses who will buy it. There are not.
    My wife was HS teacher most of her career. She made pretty good money for a middle-class lifestyle. And she was driven. Speaking of driving, we got her a small lamp for use in the car. She could correct papers while we drove at night. Worked late into the evening. Sponsored clubs. Mentored student teachers. Took kids on trips overseas.
    Got the same pay as the loads who recycled lesson plans, did ego games in class, didn’t take work home and didn’t care.

    • Lightly Seasoned says:

      See, my principal would have that math teacher out the door. That’s where the buck stops — the principal. And admin is not in the union.

    • You should be angry with the principal for not doing his/her job.