Always Look for the Union Label

It’s back. The US Supreme Court has agreed to hear another teacher-union case. As SAGLRROILYBYGTH are painfully aware, the conservative sport of teacher-union-bashing has a long history. The current case will likely redefine the landscape of school unionism.

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Commies, unions, and teachers, c. 1938

As I explored in my book about educational conservatism, beginning in the 1930s conservative activists attacked teachers’ unions as dangerous fronts for communist subversion. Conservative patriotic groups exposed the connection of unions to leftist academics such as Harold Rugg. They pushed successfully for loyalty laws to sniff out subversive teachers.

In cities like New York, during the 1940s and 1950s, such union-bashing achieved great political success. Fueled by the testimony of former-communist-turned-witness Bella Dodd, the New York City School Board declared war on communist-affiliated teachers’ unions.

In her 1954 book School of Darkness, Dodd explained that communists actively sought influence—secret influence—in teachers’ unions. They fought for innocuous-sounding perks such as teacher tenure. They screened their subversion, Dodd claimed, by using intentionally misleading labels such as the “Friends of the Free Public Schools.”

In reality, Dodd warned, the Communist Party

establishes such authority over its members that it can swing their emotions now for and now against the same person or issue.

Teachers might be well-meaning folks, Dodd wrote, but at best they served as dupes for mind-controlling communist spies and sneaks. Such warnings carried great political weight. As historian Clarence Taylor has pointed out, by 1955 239 teachers and board personnel had been forced out of New York City schools, accused of subversion.

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From Hearst’s New York Journal-American, July 7, 1948.

No one these days is going to stand in front of SCOTUS and accuse teacher unions of communist subversion. The issue is still one of left-leaning political influence, though. The most recent case before this one, Friedrichs v. California, hoped to give teachers freedom to refuse to pay union dues. In many states, even if they don’t join the union, teachers have to pay a portion of the union’s dues, since the union bargains collectively for all teachers.

Justice Scalia’s death forced that case into a 4-4 deadlock.

Plaintiffs in the new case, Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, hope the new court will give them a decisive win. The plaintiffs are hoping to be allowed to opt out, since, as Rebecca Friedrichs argued in the previous case, union support is “quintessentially political.” Forcing teachers or other workers to pay for political activism, plaintiffs insist, violates their rights.

With Neil Gorsuch filling Justice Scalia’s seat, it’s likely they’ll win. No one’s saying “communist subversion” anymore, but the long legacy of conservative anxiety about teachers’ unions remains politically potent.

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Teachers’ Unions: The Root of All Evil

Last week a California judge decided that bad teachers can be fired.  In his decision in Vergara v. California, Judge Rolf M. Treu dealt a severe blow to the power of teachers’ unions.  Not surprisingly, conservative intellectuals rejoiced.  For almost a century, conservative school reformers have insisted that teachers’ unions represent a double-headed threat.  But here’s my question: why do today’s conservatives only focus on one half of their traditional gripe against teachers’ unions?

In Judge Treu’s decision, he argued that ineffective teachers have a negative impact on students.  And since the poorest students suffer most, the judge concluded that the situation was open to judicial remedy.

In the pages of the conservative National Review, writers celebrated the decision.  One “liberal” pundit shared her horror stories of terrible teachers and school principals, protected and made more arrogantly despicable due to their union-backed sinecures.  Andrew Biggs suggested taking the California decision national.  Biggs offered a simple four-word phrase to rejuvenate the nation’s public schools: Fire the Worst Teachers.

Not every conservative intellectual liked the decision.  Frederick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute warned that the judge’s power-grab could spell out a future of terrible decisions by similarly activist judges.

But even Hess did not support the unions’ traditional role as the unpopular defender of teacher-tenure rules.  After all, conservative school reformers have for generations identified unions as the source of all that was rotten in America’s public-education system.

Perhaps most memorably, the late free-market economist Milton Friedman argued that the dead hand of teachers’ unions had strangled public schooling.  As I wrote a few years back in the pages of Teachers College Record, Friedman’s narrative of educational history pivoted on the development of teachers’ unions.  Most teachers, Friedman wrote, were “dull and mediocre and uninspiring.”  Nevertheless, beginning in the 1840s, Friedman believed, those teachers had captured control of America’s educational system.  Instead of working to improve education for all, teachers’ unions only worked for their own “narrow self-interest.”  The driving force of expanded public-education systems in the 1840s, Friedman argued in Free to Choose, was teachers’ selfish desire to

enjoy greater certainty of employment, greater assurance that their salaries would be paid, and a greater degree of control if government rather than parents were the immediate paymaster.

Today’s conservative complaints about the power of teachers’ unions owe a lot to Friedman-esque free-market critiques.  Schools suffer, free-market conservatives argue, when the market for good teaching talent is blocked by sclerotic union rules.  Instead of bringing in the best teachers, unions dictate a self-interested last-in-first-out rule that preserves seniority, no matter how incompetent.

But there is another reason why conservative intellectuals have long battled against the power of teachers’ unions.  Those unions, after all, have resolutely supported left-leaning or even frankly leftist social programs.

Perhaps the most dramatic example of this leftist tendency was the tumultuous history of New York’s Teachers Union.  From the 1930s through the 1950s, as Clarence Taylor has described in his great book Reds at the Blackboard, New York’s Teachers Union wrestled with questions of communism, reform, and subversion.  Again and again, the union suffered internal factional disputes, most famously the expulsion of the communist Local 5 faction.  And again and again, the union came under attack for harboring subversive teachers, most famously the purge of hundreds of affiliated teachers in the 1950s.  Throughout its history, though, the famous union supported left-leaning causes.  Internal factional disputes were not left versus right, but rather left versus left.

Even today, teachers’ unions often endure factional disputes on the left.  The militant Badass Teachers Association wants to push the more moderate American Federation of Teachers and the staid National Education Association to take more recognizably leftist positions.

Given all this history, why do conservative these days focus on the free-market angle?  That is, why don’t conservative pundits attack unions as islands of antiquated leftist ideology, instead of just attacking unions as inefficient and self-serving?

One possibility is that conservative school reformers these days take the tried-and-true school reform tactic of taking the politics out of education.  As historian David Tyack argued most memorably in his 1974 book The One Best System, school reformers always insist that their ideas are not about politics, but only about better schooling for all.  As Tyack showed, calls to “take the schools out of politics” never really want to take the politics out of schooling.  But reformers from every political background score more success when they appear to be impartial educators, interested in pedagogy, not ideology.

Is that what’s going on here?  Do today’s conservative intellectuals hope to eliminate the power of leftist teachers’ unions without making it look like a politically motivated hack job?  Do conservative pundits focus on the educational problems of teachers’ unions, instead of focusing on their left-leaning political positions, in order to make it look as if conservatives only want better schools for all?