Q: Do We Need Teachers’ Unions? A: It’s Not Up To Us.

Posted by on June 21, 2011

I sometimes hear people – often very smart and reasonable people – talk about whether “we need teachers’ unions.” These statements frequently take the form of, “We wouldn’t need teachers’ unions if…,” followed by some counterfactual situation such as “teachers were better-paid.” In most cases, these kinds of musings reflect “pro-teacher” sentiments – they point out the things that are wrong with public education, and that without these things unions would be unnecessary.

I’d just like to make a very quick comment about this line of reasoning, one that is intended to be entirely non-hostile. The question of whether or not “we need teachers’ unions,” though often well-intentioned, is inappropriate.

It’s not up to “us.” The choice belongs to teachers.

Laws pertaining to unions and collective bargaining are of course highly complex, and light years outside the realm of my personal expertise, but the right of workers to organize is grounded in the rights to freedom of speech, freedom of association and freedom of assembly. Americans have a Constitutionally-guaranteed right to get together, pool resources, and advocate for what they believe – whether in the form of a labor organization, a small protest, or a celebrity fan club.

Everyone is entitled to their own opinion about whether collective bargaining should be limited to certain areas, or taken away entirely – it’s a free country – but the freedom to form a union is fundamental and, at least in theory, is protected by law. In the case of teachers, unions exist because teachers want a voice in their workplace. That is why, even in states where collective bargaining is prohibited or restricted, and membership (and dues) is purely voluntary, teachers’ unions can still be influential.

So, I say we should be careful about discussing any unions – for teachers or any workers – in terms of whether or not the rest of us need or want them. Not only does it sort of imply that “we” know what’s best for these workers, but, if you’ll permit me a slight overstatement, asking if we need unions is just a step or two away from asking whether we need freedom.

- Matt Di Carlo

9 Comments posted so far

  • Matthew,

    Nice post. I think it’s a lot more inviting to start a discussion with a rational, non-emotion based argument.

    I understand what you are writing but I have a question: Do you draw any distinctions between government and non government unions? Why or why not?

    Comment by Crudbasher
    June 21, 2011 at 9:37 AM
  • I am a first time commenter to this blog but this post moved me to comment for three reasons:

    1. I hear this sort of thing all the time from well-meaning and not-so-well-meaning people. It is a close cousin to the popular right-wing argument that unions were important years ago but are no longer necessary. It seems to me that this sentiment is reflective of a culture that has moved away from seeing communal institutions as important to society in and of themselves. The union is not the AAA. We don’t join because we might break down and need help at work. We join, amongst other reasons, because collective bargaining is useful and necessary in any workplace, even workplaces with the “best” of bosses.

    2. There is another troubling aspect to this sort of statement, which Matt touches on but does not develop. It is troubling anytime privileged people (or people who think they’re privileged) start debating whether some type of public good is necessary for some other (possibly less privileged) group. I, for example, cringe anytime I hear lawyer friends talking about whether workers “need” collective bargaining. It’s like listening to a bunch of straight people talk about whether gay people “need” marriage. As Matt says, these are fundamental rights and it’s not up to us.

    3. The only thing I object to about this post is Matt’s false modesty about his knowledge of labor law.


    Comment by Sam
    June 21, 2011 at 10:47 AM
  • A very subtle yet profound point. Thank you, Matthew, for pointing it out.

    Here’s a piece I wrote recently that follows this line of logic: http://www.edvoices.com/blog/2011/03/18/teacher-responds-union-ads/

    Comment by David
    June 21, 2011 at 11:10 AM
  • I am not sure that I understand the question raised by Crudbasher – government unions a la China which aren’t really free trade unions at all? Or was the question about government employee unions versus private sector unions? Big distinction.

    Comment by Jenn
    June 21, 2011 at 2:12 PM
  • I work at a charter school and we need a voice. We need it to protect ourselves and our students. Many people forget or choose to ignore the fact that Teachers’ Unions also work for the betterment of students’ educations, too.

    Comment by Kate
    June 21, 2011 at 2:57 PM
  • Hey Jenn,

    I meant government employee unions vs private. Does Matthew feel there are any differences?


    I actually think that in a lot of cases Teachers Unions work for the betterment of students but they always have self interests first. For example, let’s say hypothetically a new technology came along which produced guaranteed 30% better retention in students, and required 30% fewer teachers therefore saving money. Would the teachers unions be in favor of that knowing it would cause some of their members to be laid off?

    The only people who will always put the students interests first will be the parents.

    Comment by Crudbasher
    June 21, 2011 at 4:39 PM
  • Crudbasher,

    Thanks for your comment. When it comes to the right of workers to organize unions (or other types of work-based organizations), no – I do not draw a distinction between public and private sector employees. All workers – and all people, for that matter – have the right to pool resources in order to advocate for their beliefs.

    Thanks again,

    Comment by Matthew Di Carlo
    June 24, 2011 at 2:32 PM
  • [...] DeCarlo, in the context of teachers unions, explains why this is the wrong way to think about the question (boldface mine): I sometimes hear people – often very smart and reasonable people – talk about [...]

    June 13, 2012 at 9:50 AM
  • [...] know what’s best for teachers: Matt DeCarlo, in the context of teachers unions, explains why this is the wrong way to think about the question (boldface mine): The question of whether or not “we need teachers’ unions,” though often [...]

    September 3, 2012 at 9:49 AM

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