Acquiescent Teachers and Their Undemocratic Unions

By Larry Sand / September 16, 2014 / Union Watch

Teachers who are not satisfied with their union must make their voices heard.

Are Unions Democratic? The Internal Politics of Labor Unions and Their Implications, a report just released by the Manhattan Institute’s Daniel DiSalvo, examines unions – specifically the public employee variety, with an emphasis on teachers unions.

Addressing the democracy issue, he writes:

Unfortunately, much evidence suggests that unions are, in the vast majority of cases, only superficially democratic. A review of the existing literature shows that:

Very few members vote in standard union-leadership elections (turnout is often below 20 percent; in one recent New York City public-sector union election, turnout was 4 percent).
Those who do vote are not representative of the membership as a whole (with older workers voting at higher rates, thus skewing, for example, union policies on the importance of pensions relative to wages).
Incumbent leaders often go unchallenged for long periods, sometimes “anointing” chosen successors (who then anoint another generation) instead of fostering genuine contests.
Unions, especially at the state and national level, often take political positions with which a substantial number of members disagree (thus forcing those members to pay, with their dues, for the advocacy of policies that they do not support).
DiSalvo ends by pointing to reforms that unions should adopt which would bring the “practice of union democracy in line with the values of American society and the spirit of the law.” The following are his recommendations for federal, state, and local governments:

Require unions to publicize electoral procedures and report election returns. In particular, unions should report the names of the candidates for various offices; whether members voted in person, by phone, electronically, or postal mail; and the number of members who voted, both in absolute numbers and as a percentage.
Require unions to adopt online voting systems, thereby eliminating cumbersome barriers to voting (such as traveling to the union hall to cast a ballot); improving transparency; speeding the dissemination of election results; and reducing the costs of holding elections.
Stop requiring union members to pay for advocacy that they do not support. Specifically, public-sector unions need to formalize their political decision-making by holding referenda to gauge their members’ policy preferences more precisely. The results of these referenda should be made public.
The irony of these proposed legislative actions is that they are unlikely to see the light of day because the unions throw their considerable political heft around and effect legislation locally, on the state level and in D.C. And even if his first fix was to become a reality, I’m not sure it would accomplish much. Information like this would get buried in an email that few would read. His second suggestion is certainly reasonable and in fact has been adopted by the United Teachers of Los Angeles.

Number three gets into some interesting territory. DiSalvo says the union should hold referenda to gauge the political preferences of its rank-and-file. (The unions will counter that this is not necessary. The California Teachers Association’s political decisions are made by their State Council, an elected governing body, though in reality few members ever know exactly who is running, what they stand for and where and when the elections are.) DiSalvo also says that the results of the referenda should be made public. In fact, there is information along those lines that is readily available. Former National Education Association president Reg Weaver on more than one occasion has said publicly that his union breaks down as one-third Democrat, one-third Republican and one-third “Other.” Mike Antonucci reports that a 2005 NEA survey, consistent with previous results, found that members “are actually slightly more conservative (50%) than liberal (43%) in political philosophy.” And at a panel in which I was a participant in 2013, CTA president Dean Vogel claimed that his union membership is 65 percent Democrat and 35 percent Republican.

Granted none of the above numbers constitutes referenda, but the union elites are well aware that a significant percentage of their members are not on the left and clearly they don’t care. Almost all union spending goes in that direction. NEA spends money on Democrats at a 14:1 ratio. And the American Federation of Teachers is even more one-sided: it spends zero on right-of-center candidates.

Here in the Golden State, CTA is no better. Between 2003 and 2012, the union sent $15.7 million to Democrats and just $92,700 to Republicans – a ratio of well over 99 to 1. In toto, CTA spent over $290 million on candidates, ballot measures and lobbying between 2000 and 2013 and just about every penny of it went in a leftward direction.

Which brings us to the unions’ ATMs: their teachers. As DiSalvo reports,

… in a national survey of 3,328 teachers who were asked about their participation in union affairs, about half said that they were ‘not at all active’ or ‘not very active.’ Other research shows that the typical union member hardly participates in union activities … Such evidence suggests that few public employees exert pressure on their organizations in any significant way. (Emphasis added.)

And just what is the best way to exert that pressure?

The best thing a right-of-center, independent or apolitical teacher can do to make a statement is to stop paying the political share of his or her dues, resigning from the union to do so. They will have to give up a few minor perks, but those can be easily be recouped by joining a professional organization like the Association of American Educators. The new “agency fee payer” will get a refund for the monies that the union claims it spends on politics. I know many in the profession are afraid to emerge from the union womb, but they need to rise above it and make their dissatisfaction known.

Sadly, very few teachers have taken advantage of the agency fee payer alternative. While CTA claims that 35 percent of its 300,000 or so members are Republicans, only about 10 percent of its members withhold the political share of their dues. That means there are 75,000 Republican union members who are paying for causes and candidates they are opposed to. The NEA numbers are even worse. Only 88,000 of its 3 million members (2.9 percent) withhold the political portion.

Those disgruntled teachers who insist on staying in the union should go to meetings and make their views known. They’ll find other members who agree with them (more than you might think) and can run for positions of power within the union.

Granted, withholding more political money and raising hell at union meetings may not achieve all or even most of the results that DiSalvo seeks. But millions of dollars less to spend on their pet causes and an active militant minority might just make union leaders – all of whom have become all-too-comfy with their all-too-compliant members – more responsive to those they purportedly represent.

Larry Sand, a former classroom teacher, is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network – a non-partisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers and the general public with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues.

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