- John McCollowJohn McCollowIndependent Scholar
Teacher unions (or alternatively “education unions”) are organizations formed to protect and advance the collective interests of teachers and other education workers. What the collective interests of educators entail and how they should be pursued have been and remain active matters for debate within these organizations. Different unions at different times have responded differently to these questions, for example, in relation to the degree to which an industrial versus a professional orientation should be adopted, and the degree to which a wider political and social justice agenda should be embraced.
Several ideal-type models of teacher unionism have been identified, as well as various strategic options that these unions might employ. A spirited debate is ongoing about the legitimacy and power of teacher unions. One perspective portrays them as self-interested special interest groups, and another as social movements advocating for public education. The status of teacher unions as stakeholders in educational policymaking is contested, and union–government relations occur across a spectrum of arrangements ranging from those that encourage negotiation to those characterized by confrontation and hostility.
Internationally, education unions face significant challenges in the early decades of the 21st century. Neoliberal economic and industrial policies and legislation have eroded the capacity of unions to collectively organize and bargain, and the global education reform movement (GERM) has created a hostile environment for education unions and their members. Despite these challenges, education unions remain among the most important critics of GERM and of global neoliberal social policy generally. The challenges posed and the strategies adopted play out differently across the globe. There is evidence that at least some unions are now prepared to be far more flexible in adopting a “tapestry” of strategies, to examine their internal organization, build alliances, and develop alternative conceptions of the future of education. Researchers, however, have identified certain internal factors in many teacher unions that pose significant obstacles to these tasks. Unions face difficult choices that could lead to marginalization on the one hand or incorporation on the other.
- Education, Change, and Development
- Educational Politics and Policy
- Globalization, Economics, and Education
- Education and Society
Teacher unions (or alternatively, “education unions”) are organizations formed to protect and advance the collective interests of teachers and other education workers (and can include members in noneducational roles and industries). Teacher unions are organized in a number of ways at local, regional, and national levels. While union membership density varies considerably across various locales, generally teacher union membership rates are among the highest union membership rates in each of the countries in which they operate. As of 2016, 396 of these organizations—representing some 32.5 million educators and support professionals in education institutions from early childhood to university level in 171 countries and territories—were affiliated with Education International (EI).1
In many jurisdictions, there are several different organizations of teachers. These may compete with each other for members, or they may divide membership by educational sector (e.g., primary/secondary/tertiary) or employer (e.g., public/religious/private), or in some cases (e.g., Fiji) along racial/ethnic lines. A multi-union context can have a significant influence on how unions respond to philosophical, political, and strategic issues; in some cases, differences over how these issues should be addressed form a key historical basis for the existence of different unions.2
“Models” of Teacher Unionism
On one level, “teachers are workers, teaching is work, and the school is a workplace.”3 However, the status of teachers as employees is complicated by the fact that teaching is: located (primarily) in the public sector; it is “white-collar work,” carried out by a majority female workforce, and “knowledge work,” which has as its object the development in students of the “capacity for social practice,” an objective that has both socially reproductive and emancipatory potential and which, therefore, is subject to contestation.4 Despite a body of research on teachers’ work, the issues arising from these “complications” have not to date been satisfactorily theorized.5 Similarly, despite analyses drawing on various research paradigms (e.g., sociology, industrial relations, labor history, economics, and political science), theorization of the nature and role of teacher unions remains very much a work in progress.
Inevitably, writers about teacher unions adopt a normative position that is either sympathetic or antagonistic to these organizations (whether or not this position is explicitly acknowledged).6 This means that analysis is often combined with advocacy, for example, in defense of teacher unions, in support of a particular model of teacher unionism, or, conversely, for greater restrictions on their activities. The relatively recent work of Bascia and Stevenson—working on their own or in collaboration with colleagues—is notable in that it considers both teachers’ work and teacher unionism, combines theoretical and empirical dimensions, and adopts an international perspective.7 While sympathetic to teacher unions, this work recognizes their failures and limitations. Moe is a noteworthy leading exponent of the case against teacher unions.8
What the collective interests of educators entail and how they should be pursued have been and remain active questions and matters for debate within these organizations. Different unions at different times have responded differently to these questions, for example, in relation to the degree to which an industrial versus a professional orientation should be adopted, what the nature of these agendas should be, and the degree to which a wider political and social justice agenda should be embraced. They are human organizations—composed of individuals and groups in differing circumstances, with different backgrounds and different priorities—shaped by various internal and external historical, political, social, legislative, and economic factors that vary across localities and time.
While teacher unions—particularly those operating independently of employer or state control—in African, Asian, South American, and eastern European countries have a more recent genesis, teacher unions in many Western countries can trace their origins to the late 19th century9 as teaching became an activity conducted mainly under the supervision of public schooling systems rather than individual schools.
When reformers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century created the bureaucratic organizations that are the basis for today’s school systems, they drew upon then-popular scientific management techniques and bureaucratic organizational models to centralize decision making, specialize offices and staff roles, and develop rules governing production . . . [resulting in] centralized, highly structured procedures and a sequenced curriculum compatible with an assembly-line view of the educational process . . . Within these school systems, educational administrators asserted their authority over teachers by claiming special “scientific” expertise . . . Teacher bargaining rights initially grew out of demands for protection from arbitrary or sexist treatment by administrators.10
This is not to say that remuneration was not also a motivator of collective organization. Writing of the formation of Australian teacher unions in the 1880s, Spaull notes that, in addition to grievances arising from highly centralized and bureaucratic structures, teachers were concerned about a “decline in economic rewards’ of teaching.”11 The National Union of Teachers (NUT) in England was established in 1870 (as the National Union of Elementary Teachers) in response to a system of payment by results, which was both a remuneration and a control issue.12
While some of these 19th-century organizations called themselves “unions,” most are more accurately described as “collective associations,” since they rarely exhibited “unionate” characteristics such as engagement in collective bargaining and industrial action, or identification/affiliation with the broader labor movement or with a labor party.13 In Spaull’s apt phrase, they made “use of some, though not all, of the methods of trade unions.” 14 The methods adopted differed from place to place. The NUT was arguably the most unionate, and by 1896 it was able to stage a successful strike.15 In the main, however, 19th-century teacher organizations confined remuneration-related activity to lobbying and concentrated mainly on expanding and protecting the prerogatives of teachers by promoting the professional dimensions of teachers’ work.
An important and long-standing debate within teacher unions is the degree to which “professional issues” should provide a focus for union activity. Carter, Stevenson, and Passy conclude that “the history of teacher unionism in many different contexts can be presented as the struggle “to reconcile a commitment to ‘professional’ concerns with a similar commitment to so-called ‘bread and butter’ concerns of pay and conditions.”16 In the United States, for example, the long eschewal by the National Education Association (NEA) of industrial activity in favor of involvement in educational and professional matters played a role in the establishment and growth of the then more industrially oriented American Federation of Teachers (AFT).17 More recently, teacher unions have often (simplistically and inaccurately) portrayed professional concerns as “inseparable [from] and complementary [to]” the unions’ industrial agendas.18 The adoption of a discourse of professionalism has been criticized as gendered, undermining rank-and-file industrial activism, embedding a culture of educational and political conservatism and accommodation, and inhibiting the development of links with other socially progressive movements.19
As Carter et al. observe, “discourses relating to teacher professionalism . . . not only change over time, but . . . at any one time they are contested and challenged.”20 Notions of teacher professionalism and their relationship to teachers’ status as employees continue to be problematic issues for teacher unions.
In the second half of the 20th century, a focus on the improvement of members’ pay and conditions using collective bargaining (made possible by changes to industrial legislation), industrial campaigning, and strikes, in a manner consistent with other labor unions, became a prominent feature of many teacher unions’ activities and in many instances delivered real improvements in teachers’ remuneration, job security, and working conditions. Various writers have identified this approach as an “industrial model” of teacher unionism.21 As noted by Moe, the emergence of industrial teacher unionism in the United States coincided with significant membership growth, and his research indicates that union collective bargaining for improved pay and conditions is seen by members as the most important aspect of union activity.22 In certain legislative regimes, however, industrial activity of this nature was and is severely constrained. A report compiled for EI in 2013, which surveyed practices in nineteen countries, concluded that “genuine collective bargaining in the sense of ‘joint regulation of employment terms following voluntary negotiations between parties with equal bargaining rights’ is not widespread . . . for teachers.”23
The issue of collective bargaining alternatively excites passionate support and fierce criticism.24 From one perspective, it provides an important avenue by which teachers can exercise some influence on the work they do. From another perspective, collective bargaining in public schools is seen as unaccountable to the general public and inherently inappropriate and harmful, allowing teacher unions to exercise excessive influence in a public policy area, delivering numerous inflexible rules and procedures, and adding considerable additional costs and inefficiencies, making it “virtually impossible to get bad teachers out of the classroom”25 and routinely being used to block necessary educational reform.26
Moe cites research conducted separately by Hoxby and himself to support his contention that collective bargaining has a “large negative impact” on student achievement.27 He acknowledges that other research on the matter is far less conclusive.28 As Battistoni points out, aside from discounting a good deal of research evidence inconsistent with his own, Moe’s assessment of the negative impact of collective bargaining pays insufficient heed to the myriad other factors at play and is based on a very narrow definition of what “good schooling” entails (i.e., student results on externally developed standardized tests).29
Even among those sympathetic to teacher unions, there are criticisms of collective bargaining as failing to recognize the professional and “caring” dimensions of teachers’ work and their desire to exercise professional judgment.30 Bascia, following Carlson, describes it as a “compromise” in which teachers are granted a voice in relation to salaries and conditions, while accepting their exclusion from decision making related to curriculum, educational funding, and other managerial matters.31 The effect, according to Weiner, is that teacher unions are made complicit with a system that perpetuates educational inequality.32
While Moe ascribes the rise of collective bargaining for teachers in the United States largely to the effects of changes in labor laws (and provides data to support this contention),33 Koppich and Callahan note that it was a response to a situation in which:
[w]ages of college-educated teachers were lagging substantially behind those of blue-collar factory workers. In addition, teachers were chaffing under nearly uniformly poor working conditions . . . School district officials were perceived as being arbitrary, punitive, and politically motivated.34
Collectively bargained agreements
created a modicum of fairness in a bureaucracy by applying equitable across-the-board treatment, uniform policies and standardized procedures. And they protected teachers from arbitrary and capricious actions of the employer.35
These features of collective agreements remain. Whatever its shortcomings, the improvements generated for teachers through collective bargaining and the inherent dangers of abandoning it ensure its appeal to rank-and-file members and make a willing abandonment of it by teacher unions a big ask. A survey of American teachers conducted by the Public Agenda Foundation found that 81% of teachers agreed or strongly agreed with the following statement: “without collective bargaining teachers’ salaries and working conditions would probably be worse.”36 Another survey of American teachers conducted by Moe yielded a similar result: 81% of union members in areas where collective bargaining was not allowed agreed that they would “like to see collective bargaining adopted” in their area.37 Further, despite the criticisms, “union members overwhelmingly believe that collective bargaining is either positive or neutral in its consequences for public education.”38
Notwithstanding Moe’s view that teacher unions retain unparalleled power, since the 1980s growing restrictions on union activity, combined with neoliberal education reforms, have created a context in which the limitations of an industrial approach have become clearer and the importance of developing a strong voice on professional and educational policy issues has been recognized.39 As Weiner observes, the “post war compact” between capital, the state, and labor, which allowed the industrial model to emerge and flourish, has been largely repudiated by capital and the state.40
The late president of the AFT, Albert Shanker, who had led the strike in 1960 that arguably cemented the industrial approach as a mainstay of American teacher unionism, was an advocate from the early 1980s for the proposition that teacher unions needed to acknowledge problems within the schooling system and develop solutions to them. Kerchner and Mitchell, Kerchner and Koppich, and Kerchner, Koppich, and Weeres developed a case for “professional unionism” as an alternative to the industrial model.41 The Teacher Union Reform Network (TURN) was founded in 1995 and is a network AFT and NEA locals that seeks to “create new union models that can take the lead in building and sustaining effective schools for all students.”42
In the late 1990s, Bob Chase, then president of the largest American teacher union, the NEA, championed a “new unionism” in which the NEA would not only engage critically with the education reform movement but would become a champion of reform itself “by fundamentally recreating . . . [the] NEA as the champion of quality teaching and quality public schools.”43 Bascia characterizes this approach as entailing two key components: an attempt to build relationships with powerful educational players and to capture the “moral high ground” in educational debates.44
While critical of the industrial model of teacher unionism, advocates of professional unionism did not generally advocate the abandonment of industrial activity. For example, Chase argued that the “traditional [industrial] agenda remains important.”45 However, in his view, “industrial-style, adversarial tactics simply are not suited to the next stage of school reform.”46 Collective bargaining, where practiced, would continue, but the style would shift from a positional “winner-take-all” approach to an interest-based “win-win” approach.47
The professional model of teacher unionism attracted criticism from both critics and supporters of teacher unions. Moe, who calls it “reform unionism,” argues that it is “fanciful and misguided” because it “is not rooted in a genuine understanding of union leadership and organization.”48 In his view:
Its fatal flaw is that it assumes union leaders can be persuaded to ignore, or give short shrift to, the bedrock occupational interests on which their organizations are based—notably, teachers’ most primal concern for job security, wages, benefits, and rights and prerogatives in the workplace—and leaders are never going to do that.49
In Moe’s view, the rhetoric of union leaders in support of the professional model was disingenuous. He describes Chase’s call for a “new unionism” as “little more than a self-interested strategy designed by a public relations firm.”50
Others saw it as an “expression of weakness,” an accommodation of the neoliberal educational reform agenda, and as moving “the balance dramatically [away from] member advocacy and unionism.”51 Writing in 2015, Stevenson claimed that “this approach to teacher unionism retains a purchase in some academic circles, but has gained relatively little traction outside of a number of union locals in the United States.”52 This statement fails, however, to take into account the experience of a number of unions, in Europe and South America for instance, which have developed (in some cases over an extended period) procedures and mechanisms for participating in the development and implementation of educational policy.53 These unions have arguably developed models of professional teacher unionism that do not trace their provenance to debates about the effects of a previous history of industrial activity and disputation.
A dichotomous view of industrial versus professional models of teacher unionism can be misleading. Most teacher unions pursue both industrial and professional objectives. Bascia notes the lack of research interest in unions’ work in the area of teacher professional development, despite its being a common and significant feature of union activity.54
The industrial model is often characterized as “adversarial” versus the “cooperative” approach encouraged by the professional model. For Stevenson, however, both the traditional industrial and the professional models of teacher unionism are “fundamentally conservative insofar as both represented attempts to manage state-teacher relations within the constraints of the existing economic and social system.”55
Writers such as Peterson and Weiner argue that while the professional model of teacher unionism correctly emphasizes the importance of professional and educational policy issues, it provides an inadequate basis for teacher union reform.56 They make a case for “social movement unionism,”57 which:
views itself as part of a broader movement for social progress rather than merely focused on narrow self interest. It calls for participatory union membership, education reform to serve all children, collaboration with community organizations, and a concern for broader issues of equity.58
The concept of social movement unionism has been developed in relation to labor unions generally. It draws on the socialist notion of working-class activism—that workers’ struggles should be seen in the context of wider struggles for social justice—in contrast to the narrow “business unionism” that characterizes unionism in the United States; on Gramsci’s ideas of “hegemonic” and “counterhegemonic” discourses59; and importantly on forms of union organization in the Global South where unions have links to decolonization or liberation movements.60 The key features of social movement unionism are the following: it is locally focused and based; encourages collective actions that go beyond strikes or workplace activities; builds alliances in the community and beyond; embraces emancipatory politics; and develops transformative visions.61 It can be said to derive from the insights that “the origins of collectivism [lie] in perceptions of injustice,”62 that these perceptions and the responses to them provide the basis for creating a union agenda, and that this agenda can extend to matters well beyond the immediate worksite. There is a “linkage between workplace, civil society, the state and global forces.”63
In education, this approach is based on “grassroots organizing, community coalition building and mobilization around an alternative vision of education.”64 Stevenson and Gilliland espouse a teacher unionism based on a “new democratic professionalism” that does not seek to emulate the exclusionary practices of “traditional” professions such as law and medicine, but is based on a commitment to creating, re-creating, and demystifying teachers’ professional identities and work, and building alliances with students, parents and the wider community.65 This involves both engaging members in collective action and restructuring unions themselves to make them less bureaucratic and more democratic.66
A further feature of this model of unionism is a recognition of the effects of globalization and an emphasis on building international solidarity. Many regional and national teacher unions, individually or in cooperation with other organizations, are involved in work beyond the borders of their respective countries to support education, teachers, and teacher organizations. Kuehn, for example, describes the international work of the British Columbia Teachers’ Federation (BCTF), which includes participation, along with U.S. and Mexican unions, in the Tri-national Coalition in Defense of Public Education, set up in opposition to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).67 The Australian Education Union (AEU) operates an International Trust Fund.68 The NUT in England publishes a quarterly newsletter reporting on its international solidarity campaigns and activities, and organized an international conference on educational reform in 2014.69 EI and its regional subgroups promote international solidarity through campaigns and conferences. In 2016, EI cooperated with the Kenya National Union of Teachers (KNUT) to produce an exposé of the activities in Kenya of Bridge International Academies, a business that provides for-profit private schooling.70 These activities notwithstanding, it is probably still the case, as the General Secretary of EI observed in 2001, that “most classroom teachers in the North have never heard of EI.”71
Social movement unionism as a model remains a project in need of considerable further development.
Teacher Union Strategies
Carter, Stevenson, and Passy suggest that teacher union strategies can be classified under three broad headings: rapprochement, resistance, or renewal.72 They acknowledge that such classification “inevitably involves simplification” and that the categories are not “neat and tidy” but involve “complexity and sometimes . . . contradictions.”73 Unions may deploy more than one of these approaches over time or even simultaneously. Bascia suggests that unions employ a “tapestry” of these strategies.74
Rapprochement strategies “go with the grain on the new educational agenda and seek to maximize gains for their members within that.”75 In employing a strategy of rapprochement, a union is not necessarily endorsing an educational reform but, rather, is making a pragmatic decision that it is better to “have a seat at the table” where it can exercise some influence on the extent and nature of the reform as it affects members. Teacher unions in Norway, Finland, Belgium, and Sweden, for example, have had ongoing participation in education policy forums.76 The “Teacher Accord” between teacher unions and the Australian government in the 1990s and the “social partnership” between some teacher unions and the government in England in the first decade of the 21st century are examples of less enduring arrangements.77 At the international level, EI’s involvement with organizations such as the World Bank, UNESCO, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), and the World Trade Organization (for example, its co-sponsorship with the OECD of the annual International Summit on the Teaching Profession) can be categorized as rapprochement.
A survey of seventeen teacher unions in sixteen countries carried out in 2012 on behalf of EI indicates the limitations of rapprochement as a strategy. Only three unions characterized their relationship with government as “highly positive”; three characterized it as “guardedly positive”; nine as “mixed”; one as “hostile”; and one as “minimal.”78
Resistance occurs where unions actively oppose and reject educational policy and reform, either because of their potentially negative impacts on members’ pay or conditions, or on educational grounds. Unlike in a rapprochement approach, where negotiation is the primary focus of activity, the “repertories of action” utilized by unions that adopt a resistance approach can include various forms of industrial action (legally sanctioned or unsanctioned) or legal/judicial challenges to the reforms.79 Resistance as a strategy has some built-in limitations. While it can be a powerful approach when utilized effectively, it requires a union to have sufficient “muscle” to sustain an adversarial position. Social and economic change and neoliberal policies have in many cases reduced the capacity of unions to wield this muscle. Further, resistance is an inherently reactive strategy.
Renewal strategies involve unions examining and modifying their own aims, structures, and practices in the light of emerging challenges. For example, a union may seek to take advantage of a decentralization of decision making to empower workplace representatives and to invigorate heretofore bureaucratic modes of operation. Renewal might also entail the proactive development of policy agendas, rather than simply responding to government/employer agendas.
Tactics that can be pursued across all three strategic orientations include research production and dissemination, media campaigns, engagement with other social groups and the public at large, and donations to political parties—though the nature of these activities may vary depending on the strategy they are designed to support.80 Workplace organizing can be a feature of both resistance and renewal strategies, but it is less commonly associated with a rapprochement strategy.
The strategic orientation of a union is determined by various factors internal and external to the organization that can be ideological, political, and practical. A hostile political climate may render rapprochement strategies unavailable, or, conversely, a climate in which the role of unions is acknowledged and facilitated, and which has delivered benefits to union members, may encourage continued rapprochement between the union and the employer/state (and discourage exploration of other options). Factors such as membership density and dispersion, the union’s financial situation, its history of success and failure, and whether the union competes for members with other unions may be key factors. In the English multi-union context, Stevenson argues that strategic decisions have often been informed by “calculations of individual union advantage” vis-à-vis other teacher unions (i.e., in relation to membership recruitment).81 The largest South African teacher union, the South African Democratic Teachers’ Union (SADTU), emerged during the struggles against apartheid and has embraced a broad social and political as well as educational agenda. It has been described as a “trade union social movement.”82 The second largest South African teacher union, the National Professional Teachers’ Association of South Africa (NAPTOSA), has generally tended to focus primarily on professional issues.83
The Perceived Legitimacy of Teacher Unions
Views on the legitimacy and power of teacher unions vary considerably. Factors contributing to—or detracting from—teacher unions’ perceived legitimacy (and thus to the power and scope of their influence) include: the legal and legislative framework within which they operate, which can range from recognition and even encouragement of their role to severe restrictions on their role and even their outlawing; public, media, and government attitudes to teacher unions (and to unions generally); public, media, and government attitudes to public schooling and to teachers; union community engagement; the extent and depth of coalitions that the unions have developed with other activist groups; and membership density and activism.
There are two main—and opposing—perspectives on teacher unions. One perspective portrays them as “special interests pursuing a self-interested agenda”; the other views them as “encompassing social movements advocating for public education.”84 As noted by a number of writers,85 in recent times the former view appears to be gaining traction: teacher unions have increasingly been portrayed as “illegitimate, unprofessional, simplistic and selfish.”86
The view that teacher unions are “encompassing social movements” must be said to express a potential rather than an inherent characteristic. As noted by Carter, Stevenson, and Passy, “there is nothing automatically ‘progressive’ about teacher union resistance and there are many examples of teacher unions mobilizing powerful forces in support of sometimes reactionary causes.”87 For example, Weiner argues that the AFT has “aligned itself with the right-wing of the labor movement in regard to [support for American] foreign policy, supporting military incursions from Vietnam onwards and the suppression of labor unions that appeared to be too left-wing.”88 She also claims that “acceptance of systemic racism has been a part of the union’s discourse and agenda,” arguing that “teacher unionism’s incapacity to name racism in schools—and teaching—has had very destructive consequences.” 89
Even though Article 23 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights recognizes the right of all workers to organize into trade unions, the legitimacy of teacher unions remains a matter of contention. Moe, for example, portrays teacher unions (in the United States) as very powerful “special interest groups” that have successfully exercised “provider capture” of policy determination and implementation at the expense of the interests of the general public.90 Their involvement in collective bargaining, political campaigning, and other activities on behalf of their members is harmful to education. In his view, they are not legitimate stakeholders in educational policy development since they always put self-interest ahead of any other consideration. They consistently act to slow down, subvert, or block necessary schooling reforms. His thesis is that public education would be in a much better state if it were de-unionized. Moe’s focus is on improvement of the (U.S.) schooling system; he is unconcerned about teachers’ pay and conditions, which he apparently sees as irrelevant to educational quality and which he portrays as much better than commonly thought.91
Moe’s conclusions relating to teacher unions have been challenged.92 Bascia notes that “it is both ironic and troubling that teacher unions’ traditional concerns about compensation and working conditions are perceived . . . as ‘self-interested’ . . . when these factors are so clearly fundamental to attracting and retaining individuals to teaching careers.”93 There are further criticisms of Moe’s positions: notably, his depiction of institutional decision making is oversimplified and categorical; he defines “teacher interests” very narrowly; he tends to let ideological preferences influence his interpretation of data; he overestimates teacher union power and influence, while failing to adequately account for the impact of other players and factors; he portrays neoliberal educational reforms such as vouchers, increased standardized testing, merit pay, and charter schools as unproblematically positive;94 and his position is antidemocratic. Importantly, Moe ignores the ideological dimensions of teacher union opposition to his preferred education reform agenda. As Casey (2012, p. 126) notes, teacher unions have a long-standing commitment to a conception of education as a “public good, essential to the development of an educated citizenry and to the democratic self-rule of that citizenry.”95 This stands in stark contrast to the market-based assumptions informing the reforms Moe supports.
A not uncommon allegation pertaining to the legitimacy of teacher unions is that many members are coerced into joining and/or are unsupportive of the agenda adopted by union leaders.96 However, surveys of American teacher union members have shown that the overwhelming majority describe their membership as voluntary and express support for the way in which their union represents their interests.97 Moe comments: “whatever the unions may do in promoting their special interests . . . these interests are the teachers’ own interests and the unions are generally doing things that teachers want them to do.”98
Bascia suggests that how teaching is conceived of as work influences how the role and legitimacy of teacher unions are conceived. Where teaching is seen as primarily “technical work . . . [rather than] as intellectual work,” the role of teacher unions is seen as exclusively industrial, and attempts by them to participate in policy are seen as “insubordination or irrelevance.”99
It is true that teacher interests do not necessarily coincide with student interests, but it is also true that the quality of the learning environment and the morale of the teaching workforce have significant implications for student learning. Teachers can play important roles in the development of “evidence-based” policy in various ways, including the provision of: data; practitioner perspectives on the design, resourcing, and implementation of interventions; and feedback on the effects of interventions. While “teacher professionalism” is a problematic concept, it does capture a key aspiration of most classroom practitioners: their commitment to making a positive difference in the lives of their students.100
It can also be argued that social movement unionism provides a basis for teacher unions to move beyond self-interest by specifically linking their agendas to wider struggles for social justice, rather than simply assuming that what is good for teachers is good for students, or exploiting the occasional opportunity to link self-interest and public interest.101
Bascia notes that the agendas of teacher unions in relation to educational reform are no less susceptible to wrongheadedness than those of other stakeholders and that a number of internal and external factors can keep them from participating effectively as partners in reform.102 Nevertheless, effective implementation of reforms in schools must involve the thoughtful engagement of teachers exercising their professional responsibilities to critically examine and improve their practices—otherwise, these reforms may “stop at the classroom door.” For Stevenson and Gilliland: “Teacher unions . . . as the independent and democratic organizations that represent teachers’ collective voice, are not only at the heart of a new democratic professionalism, but must be central to both making the case for it and mobilizing teachers to achieve it.”103
The view of Stevenson and Gilliland notwithstanding, the status of teacher unions as stakeholders in educational policymaking is “fragile and contested.”104 In some contexts, this role has been accepted and recognized by governments; in others, such interventions have been seen as outside of the purview of their role. Verger et al. depict union–government relations as occurring across a spectrum of models, traditions, and legal frameworks ranging from those that encourage “negotiation”—where “a non-imposing attitude by different stakeholders and a regular forum for negotiation . . . are conducive to the adoption of consensual reforms”—to “confrontational” frames—“characterized by overt conflict, the lack or absence of dialogue, and the hostility of standpoints.”105 While “models of engagement can vary in the same country with the passage of time and according to the ideology of government . . . these models usually enjoy some level of continuity.”106
Verger et al. note that, in relation to government privatization reforms, teacher unions are rarely able to adopt an agenda-setting role; rather, they are relegated to a reactive and critical role. This feeds into the public perception that they are inherently antagonistic to reform and affects their perceived legitimacy and credibility.107 Similarly, Bascia notes that teacher unions have sometimes reacted in kind when employers and governments have sought to portray their role as exclusively industrial—as a means of rationalizing their exclusion from educational policy forums—by “playing hard ball”: adopting aggressive industrial tactics, reinforcing the perception that they prioritize industrial dimensions of teaching at the expense of its professional and educational dimensions.108
The framing of a teacher union’s campaign in the public arena can be an important factor affecting its perceived legitimacy.109 Poole cites the example of a strike undertaken by the Nova Scotia Teachers Union in 1995 that was strongly supported by both the membership and the public at large; she concluded that “the public supported the teachers’ cause . . . because the issues went beyond teachers’ economic welfare.”110 Similarly, Johnston, in comparing successful and unsuccessful teacher union campaigns against charter schooling in Kentucky and Oregon, respectively, identifies the capacity of the union in the former state to frame a discourse that connected with public concerns as a significant factor in the outcome.111 The disastrous Newark teachers strike of 1971 demonstrated in stark terms the costs a teacher union incurred when it alienated local community opinion.112
Verger et al. report that “the inclusion of TUs [teacher unions] in the discussion of education reforms is significantly linked to the likelihood of the TUs supporting and contributing to these reforms and, consequently, to a more successful implementation.”113 Gindin and Finger argue that, in some Latin American countries at least, teacher union cooperation with neoliberal educational reforms, such as teacher incentive schemes, has resulted in better policies.114 Similarly, Bascia and Osmond argue that “teacher union-government collaborative relations are of significant value to attempts to improve educational quality.”115
Where teacher unions have been involved in the policy development process, however, there has been criticism that they have been coopted by the educational establishment. Poole sees this cooption of unions to the cause of neoliberal reform as inherently in contradiction, and thus damaging, to their role of representing the interests of their members.116 As Fairbrother et al. note, management of the “twin risks of marginalization and incorporation” is a major ongoing problem for unions.117 Young considers the decision of unions to embrace neoliberal educational reforms (while attempting to reshape them) as an understandable and pragmatic strategy that allows them to “maintain the different resource dimensions of their niche and, in doing so, survive.”118 Bascia and Osmond identify three ways in which teacher unions attempt to balance their advocacy roles with involvement in collaborative policy development: identifying issues of mutual interest to teachers and governments; augmenting or extending government reforms; and engaging in parallel development and implementation of government-initiated and union-initiated reforms.119
The Challenge of Neoliberalism
Internationally, teacher unions face significant challenges in the early decades of the 21st century. Over thirty years of neoliberal social, economic, and educational polity have increased the stakes of debates about the nature and role of teacher unions. Neoliberal reforms have reduced the capacity of teacher unions to organize, significantly changed the conditions under which teachers are employed and work, and altered the nature of the schooling received by students.
While acknowledging that, as a project, it is “neither seamless or undifferentiated,” Fairbrother et al. describe neoliberalism as entailing a repudiation of a mixed economy in favor of a more robust “free-market” capitalism, encouraging marketized and international economic and financial arrangements, and reshaping government policies toward these ends.120
While the adoption of neoliberal policies has seen a dramatic reduction in the membership density of unions in the private sector in liberal market economies, in terms of membership teacher unions have tended to fare much better.121 However, teacher unions have not been unaffected. Teacher salaries and conditions have suffered, and, as is the case for other trade unions, the economic and industrial policies and legislation arising from neoliberalism have eroded the capacity of unions to collectively organize and bargain. Further, a key goal is to recast public institutions—such as schooling—on a market basis. This can include the introduction of competition, outsourcing, structural devolution, and privatization. Further, in the delivery of public services, economic considerations such as achieving fiscal savings and increasing productivity are to be prioritized. Employment within the public sector is less secure, and the scope of industrial relations is restricted to promote individual over collective decision making and foster greater flexibility. The latter goal can include marginalization of trade unions.
Governments have often sought to portray the imposition of neoliberal reforms as a “necessary and nondiscretionary” response to globalization.122 An important element of the appeal of neoliberal reforms is their capacity to be portrayed as ideologically neutral technocratic solutions to various problems.123 In fact, neoliberalism’s commitment to the market values and its subordination of social democratic ideals are deeply ideological.
The manifestation of neoliberalism specific to education has been called the global education reform movement or GERM.124 GERM has promoted, among other things, fiscal discipline in education funding, a focus on the economic role of education, competition, choice, accountability (including through high-stakes testing), corporate-style managerialism, marketization, and privatization.125 The GERM agenda is being strongly pushed by venture capitalists, corporations, corporate-connected philanthropies, and international financial organizations such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (which make its adoption a precondition for assistance to “developing” countries). It has been widely adopted by a range of governments of various political persuasions.
The effects of GERM on teachers have included casualization of employment, work intensification, and increased levels of scrutiny, governance, and control that have “stripped [teaching] of its pedagogical richness and complexity.”126 These reforms reduce working conditions and introduce vulnerability, “heterogeneity,”127 and fragmentation into the teaching workforce that undermine unions’ capacity to collectively organize and bargain. As evidenced by Moe, marginalizing the voice of the teaching profession in the development of education policy is often an explicit aim.128
The GERM has been criticized for its adverse and destabilizing effects on educational provision of its emphasis on defunding and restructuring schooling; its emphasis on schooling as a tradable commodity and marginalization or exclusion of its broader civic, cultural, democratic, and emancipatory dimensions; its support for corporate rather than democratic modes of operation; the increased social, economic, and cultural segregation arising from its market-based policies; and its prioritization of that which is directly and easily measurable and the consequent narrowing of the curriculum (i.e., an emphasis on literacy, numeracy, and science to the detriment of other curriculum areas) and standardization of educational practices.129
While neoliberalism presents considerable challenges for teacher unions, it is also true that teacher unions have been among the most important critics of GERM and of neoliberal social policy generally.130 The challenges posed and the strategies adopted play out differently across the globe,131 but engagement in educational policy debate is now generally a key feature of teacher union activity. To date, teacher union policy work has largely been confined to critiquing neoliberal reform in education. Attempts to formulate alternative visions of education that are more than defenses of the status quo, such as Evers and Kneyber’s or MacBeath’s explorations of possible futures for the teaching profession, are at this stage rare.132 Even in the absence of a coherent alternative to GERM, however, teacher unions’ defense of “teachers’ autonomy and the space this creates in schools for critical thought and for ideas of social justice” offers hope for a better future.133
Debates about the nature and role of teacher unions will continue. The future of teacher unions is by no means assured. Social and economic changes—in particular, industrial and educational changes wrought as a part of the ascendancy of neoliberalism—pose significant challenges. An important part of the GERM agenda will increasingly be to delegitimize and disempower teacher unions, a development that some commentators would see as not a bad one.
To survive and thrive in the face of these external challenges will demand adept responses and organizational change. There is evidence that at least some unions are now prepared to be far more flexible in adopting a “tapestry” of strategies, to examine their internal organization, to build alliances, and to develop alternative conceptions of the future of education.134 Researchers, however, have identified internal factors in many teacher unions that pose significant obstacles to these tasks.135 Many teachers cling to relatively traditional views of their profession and union, established unions are prone to hierarchical, bureaucratic structures that make bottom-up renewal difficult, and all unions face difficult choices that could one day lead to marginalization on the one hand or incorporation on the other.
For those concerned about building alternatives to GERM, securing the continued existence, renewal, and strength of teacher unions presents as an important part of that project.
- Bascia, N. (Ed.). (2015). Teacher unions in public education: Politics, history, and the future. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
- Carter, B., Stevenson, H., & Passy, R. (2010). Industrial relations in education: Transforming the school workforce. New York: Routledge.
- Compton, M., & Weiner, L. (Eds.) The global assault on teaching, teachers and their unions: Stories for resistance (pp. 177–191). New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008.
- Farkas, S., Johnson, J., & Duffett, A. (2003). Stand by me: What teachers really think about unions, merit pay, and other professional matters. New York: Public Agenda Foundation. Retrieved from http://www.publicagenda.org/files/stand_by_me.pdf.
- Kerchner, C., Koppich, J., & Weeres, J. (1997). United mind workers: Unions and teaching in the knowledge society. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
- Moe, T. M. (2011). Special interest: Teachers unions and America’s public schools. Washington, DC: The Brookings Institution.
- Peterson, B., & Charney, M. (Eds.) (1999). Transforming teacher unions: Fighting for better schools and social justice. Milwaukee, WI: Rethinking Schools.
- Weiner, L. (2012). The future of our schools: Teachers unions and social justice. New York: Haymarket Books.
1. Education International (n.d.). Website. Retrieved from https://www.ei-ie.org/en/. EI membership is generally available only to “national organizations composed predominantly of teachers and education employees” (EI website, emphasis added). Not all national teacher unions are affiliated with EI, and there are, of course, significant local and regional teacher organizations that are not in themselves eligible for EI membership—though they may be affiliated with a national organization that is.
2. See discussions below of the multi-union contexts of the United States, England, and South Africa.
3. R. Connell, Teachers’ work (Sydney, Australia: George Allen & Unwin, 1985), 69.
4. R. Connell, Transformative labour: Theorizing the politics of teachers’ work. In M. Ginsburg (Ed.), The politics of educator’s work and lives (pp. 91–114) (New York: Garland Publishing, 1995), 97.
5. A. Reid, Understanding teachers’ work: Is there still a place for labour process theory? British Journal of Sociology of Education (November 2003), 24(5), 559–573.
6. For the record, the author is sympathetic to teacher unions.
7. See, for example: N. Bascia, The next steps in teacher union and reform. Contemporary Education (Summer 1998), 69(4), 210–213; N. Bascia, Triage or tapestry? Teacher unions’ work toward improving teacher quality in an era of systemic reform: A research report (Center for the Study of Teaching and Policy, University of Washington, June 2003). Retrieved from http://www.education.uw.edu/ctp/sites/default/files/ctpmail/PDFs/TriageTapestry-NB-06-2003.pdf; N. Bascia & P. Osmond, Teacher union governmental relations in the context of educational reform (Brussels: Education International, 2013). Retrieved from https://download.ei-ie.org/Docs/WebDepot/Teacher_Union_Study.pdf; H. Stevenson, Restructuring teachers’ work and trade union responses in England: Bargaining for change? American Educational Research Journal (2007), 44(2), 224–251; B. Carter, H. Stevenson, & R. Passy, Industrial relations in education: Transforming the school workforce (New York: Routledge, 2010); and H. Stevenson, Teacher unionism in changing times: Is this the real “new unionism”? Journal of School Choice (2015), 9(4), 604–625,
8. See, for example: T. Moe, Collective bargaining and the performance of the public schools. American Journal of Political Science (January 2009), 53(1), 156–174; and T. M. Moe, Special interest: Teachers unions and America’s public schools (Washington, DC: The Brookings Institution, 2011).
9. Synott (p. 81) gives the following dates for the establishment of teacher unions: USA—1857; England—1870; Greece—1872; New Zealand—1883; Australia—1889; Canada—1890; to which might be added Denmark—1874; Scotland—1847; Finland—1893. J. Synott, Some recent developments in international teacher union studies. New Horizons in Education (November 2002), 107, 78–90.
10. N. Bascia, Perspectives on teacher unions: History, discourse, and renewal. In N. Bascia (Ed.), Teacher unions in public education: Politics, history, and the future (1–8) (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), 2–3.
11. A. Spaull, The origins and formation of teachers’ unions in nineteenth century Australia. Melbourne Studies in Education (1984), 26(1), 134–168, 146.
12. National Union of Teachers (NUT). Website, NUT history page (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.teachers.org.uk/members-reps/your-union/about-the-nut/nut-history.
13. R. Blackburn & K. Prandy, White-collar unionization: A conceptual framework. British Journal of Sociology (1965), 16(2), 111–122.
17. M. Murphy, Blackboard unions: The AFT and the NEA, 1900–1980 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1991).
19. See, for example, Murphy; and L. Weiner, The future of our schools: Teachers unions and social justice (New York: Haymarket Books, 2012).
21. Bascia (1998); B. Peterson, Survival and justice: Rethinking teacher union strategy. In B. Peterson & M. Charney (Eds.), Transforming teacher unions: Fighting for better schools and social justice (pp. 11–19) (Milwaukee, WI: Rethinking Schools, 1999); Stevenson (2015). The “industrial model” of teacher unionism and the alternative “professional” and “social justice” models discussed subsequently are, of course, ideal types rather than empirical depictions.
23. N. Wintour, Study on trends in freedom of association and collective bargaining in the education sector since the financial crisis, 2008–2013 (Brussels: Education International, 2013).
24. W. J. Urban, Collective bargaining. In T. C. Hunt, J. C. Carper, T. J. Lasley, & C. D. Raisch (Eds.), Encyclopedia of educational reform and dissent (pp. 179–180) (Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE, 2010a); and J. E. Koppich & M. A. Callahan, Teacher collective bargaining: What we know and what we need to know. In G. Sykes, B. Schneider, D. N. Plank, & T. G. Ford (Eds.), Handbook of educational research (pp. 296–306), American Educational Research Association (New York: Routledge, 2009).
26. Moe (2011). See also M. Lieberman, The teacher unions: How the NEA and AFT sabotage reform and hold students, parents, and taxpayers hostage to bureaucracy (New York: The Free Press, 1997); P. Brimelow, The worm in the apple: How the teacher unions are destroying American education (New York: HarperCollins, 2003).
29. R. M. Battistoni, Review symposium: Teachers unions and public education. Perspectives on Politics (March 2012), 10(1), 122–123.
31. N. Bascia, Pushing on the paradigm: Research on teachers’ organizations as policy actors. In G. Sykes, B. Schneider, D. N. Plank, & T. G. Ford (Eds.), Handbook of educational research (785–792). American Educational Research Association. (New York: Routledge, 2009), 788.
32. L. Weiner, Reimagining and remaking education: Remarks to the NUT—Teacher Solidarity. In G. Little (Ed.), (2015). Global education “reform”: Building resistance and solidarity (pp. 113–119). Manifesto Press (ebook), 115. Retrieved from http://www.periglobal.org/sites/periglobal.org/files/Global%20Education%20Reform.pdf.
36. S. Farkas, J. Johnson, & A. Duffett, Stand by me: What teachers really think about unions, merit pay, and other professional matters (New York: Public Agenda Foundation, 2003), 17. Retrieved from http://www.publicagenda.org/files/stand_by_me.pdf.
41. C. Kerchner & D. Mitchell, The changing idea of a teachers’ union (Lewes, DEL: Falmer Press, 1988); C. Kerchner & J. Koppich, A union of professionals: Labor relations and educational reform (New York: Teachers College Press, 1993); and C. Kerchner, J. Koppich, & J. Weeres, United mind workers: Unions and teaching in the knowledge society (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1997).
43. B. Chase, The new NEA: Reinventing the teachers unions for a new era. Address to the National Press Club, Washington, DC, February 5, 1997. Retrieved from http://www.eiaonline.com/ChaseNewUnionism1997.pdf.
51. Teacher unionism: Bob Chase is attacked. Rethinking Schools (Summer 1997), 11(4). Retrieved from http://www.rethinkingschools.org/special_reports/union/unltr.shtml.
53. See, for example: Bascia & Osmond (2013); D. Vaillant, Education reforms and teachers’ unions: Avenues for action (Paris: UNESCO—International Institute for Educational Planning, 2005). Retrieved from http://unesdoc.unesco.org/images/0014/001410/141028e.pdf; J. Gindin, & L. Finger, Promoting education quality: The role of teachers’ unions in Latin America. Paper commissioned for the EFA Global Monitoring Report 2013/4, Teaching and learning: Achieving quality for all (Paris: UNESCO, 2013). Retrieved from http://scholar.harvard.edu/files/lesliefinger/files/gindin_and_finger_2013.pdf.
60. Unlike the “industrial” and “professional” models of teacher unionism, which draw almost exclusively on experiences in North America and the United Kingdom. Links with liberation movements have not proved unproblematic. In South Africa, for example, the ongoing links between the South African Democratic Teachers’ Union (SADTU) and the African National Congress (ANC) became strained once the ANC assumed government and initiated policies (such as neoliberal education reforms) with which SADTU disagreed. See S. Mannah & J. Lewis, South African teachers and social movements old and new. In M. Compton & L. Weiner (Eds.), The global assault on teaching, teachers and their unions: Stories for resistance (pp. 177–191). (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008).
61. P. Fairbrother, Social movement unionism or trade unions as social movements. Employee Responsibilities and Rights Journal (2008), 20(3), 214.
62. J. Kelly, Rethinking industrial relations: Mobilization, collectivization and long waves (London: Routledge, 1998), 2.
64. G. Little & H. Stevenson, From resistance to renewal: The emergence of social movement unionism in England. In G. Little (Ed.), 87.
65. H. Stevenson, & A. Gilliland, The teachers’ voice: Teacher unions at the heart of a new democratic professionalism. In J. Evers & R. Kneyber (Eds.), Flip the system: Changing education from the ground up (Abingdon, Oxon, U.K.: Routledge, 2016) (in association with Education International).
67. I. Kuehn, Teacher solidarity across borders is essential in response to the impact of neo-liberal globalization. In G. Little (Ed.), pp. 33–40.
68. Australian Education Union (AEU) (n.d.). Website, international page. Retrieved from http://www.aeufederal.org.au/our-work/international.
70. Education International (EI) and Kenya National Union of Teachers (KNUT), Bridge vs. reality: A study of Bridge International Academies for-profit schooling in Kenya (Brussels: Education International, 2016). Retrieved from: https://download.ei-ie.org/Docs/WebDepot/Bridge%20vs%20Reality_GR%20Report.pdf. Bridge also operates in Uganda, Nigeria and India.
72. Carter et al. (2010). See also L. M. McDonnell & A. Pascal, Teacher unions and educational reform (Washington, DC: RAND Corporation, 1988). McDonnell and Pascal classify union options as “resistance,” “accommodation,” or “shaping.”
79. A. Verger, C. Fontdevila, & A. Zancajo, The privatization of education: A political economy of global education reform (New York: Teachers College Press, 2016), 164.
89. Weiner (2012), 92. Books that examine American teacher unions and issues of race include W. Urban, Gender, race and the National Education Association: Professionalism and its limitations (New York: Routledge Falmer, 2000); J. E. Podair, The strike that changed New York: Blacks, whites and the Ocean Hill-Brownsville crisis (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2002); J. Perrillo, Uncivil rights: Teachers, unions and race in the battle for school equity (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012); and S. Golin, The Newark teacher strike: Hopes on the line (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2002).
92. For example: Battistoni (2012); R. D. Kahlenberg, Bipartisan, but unfounded: The assault on teachers’ unions. American Educator (Winter 2011–2012), 14–18; and P. Frymer, Review symposium: Teachers unions and public education. Perspectives on Politics (March 2012), 10(1), 124–126.
94. As Bascia (2003, pp. 27–28) notes, making unquestioned compliance with externally determined policy directions a criterion for determining fitness for participation in educational policy forums is a perverse and counterproductive assumption.
95. L. Casey, Review symposium: Teachers unions and public education. Perspectives on Politics (March 2012), 10(1), March 2012), 126.
100. Teachers who are in the game for the money and fame have made a serious miscalculation.
105. Verger et al. (2016), 160. Carter et al. (2010, 12) remind us that there are still places in the world where ‘activism within a teachers’ union is an act of courage and defiance that risks harassment, intimidation, and even assassination’.
110. W. L. Poole, The teacher unions’ role in 1990s educational reform: An organizational evolution perspective. Educational Administration Quarterly (April 2001), 37(2), 186.
111. J. B. Johnston, Resisting charters: A comparative policy development analysis of Washington and Kentucky, 2002–2012. Sociology of Education (2014), 87(4), 223–240.
114. J. Gindin & L. Finger (2013). Promoting education quality: The role of teachers’ unions in Latin America. Paper commissioned for the EFA Global Monitoring Report 2013/4, Teaching and learning: Achieving quality for all. Paris: UNESCO. Retrieved from http://scholar.harvard.edu/files/lesliefinger/files/gindin_and_finger_2013.pdf.
117. P. Fairbrother, J. O’Brien, A. Junor, M. O’Donnell, & G. Williams, Unions and globalization: Governments, management, and the state at work (New York: Routledge, 2012), 13.
121. J. Kelly, Trade union membership and power in comparative perspective. The Economic and Labour Relations Review (2015), 26(4), 526–544.
124. P. Sahlberg, Finnish lessons: What can the world learn from educational change in Finland? (New York: Teachers College Press, 2011).
125. F. Rizvi & B. Lingard, Globalizing educational policy (London: Routledge, 2010); and B. Lingard, W. Martino, G. Rezai-Rashti, & S. Sellar, Globalizing educational accountabilities (New York: Routledge, 2016).
131. Compare, for example, the situation in Myanmar where a fledgling union with coverage of less than 4% of teachers struggle to survive in a country with little experience of democratic governance or collective organization of workers, to that of Finland, where teachers are more than 95% unionized and are well-respected professionals whose place in education decision making is recognized.
132. J. Evers & R. Kneyber (Eds.), (2016). Flip the system: Changing education from the ground up, Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge (in association with Education International); and J. MacBeath, Future of teaching profession (Brussels: Education International Research Institute, 2012). Retrieved from https://download.ei-ie.org/Docs/WebDepot/EI%20Study%20on%20the%20Future%20of%20Teaching%20Profession.pdf.