Uh Oh: Teachers Unions Losing Money, Members, and Influence?

Daniel Doherty
Posted: Dec 09, 2013 11:00 AM
Uh Oh: Teachers Unions Losing Money, Members, and Influence?

Across the United States, unionized teachers will gather together on Monday, as Politico informs us, to “reclaim the promise of public education.” The reason, perhaps, is because unions are losing members and money at seemingly unprecedented rates:

It’s designed to be an impressive show of force: Thousands of unionized teachers plan to rally Monday in cities from New York to San Francisco to “reclaim the promise of public education.”

Behind the scenes, however, teachers unions are facing tumultuous times. Long among the wealthiest and most powerful interest groups in American politics, the unions are grappling with financial, legal and public-relations challenges as they fight to retain their clout and build alliances with a public increasingly skeptical of big labor.

“I do think it’s a moment of truth,” said Lance Alldrin, a veteran high-school teacher in Corning, Calif., who has split from his longtime union after serving for a decade as the local president.

Indeed, the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers are facing leaner budgets and diminished prospects in the years ahead:

The National Education Association has lost 230,000 members, or 7 percent, since 2009, and it’s projecting another decline this year, which will likely drop it below 3 million members. Among the culprits: teacher layoffs, the rise of non-unionized charter schools and new laws in states such as Wisconsin and Michigan freeing teachers to opt out of the union.

The American Federation of Teachers has been able to grow slightly and now represents 1.5 million workers — but because many new members are retirees or part-timers who pay lower dues, union revenue actually fell last year, by nearly $6 million, federal records show.

Worse, many teachers join both groups. Hence why the total number of people the unions say they represent is distorted, although the two organizations do in fact bring in $2 billion annually, according to Politico. But teachers unions are about to have their hands full in California, it seems. Former U.S. Solicitor General Ted Olson, whom you might recall helped litigate and overturn a law banning gay couples from marrying in California, is filing a lawsuit trying to strip teachers in the state of some of their long-held power:

Former U.S. Solicitor General Theodore Olson expects to go to trial in California next month with an audacious lawsuit that aims to overturn teacher job protections, such as tenure, that unions helped muscle into state law.

His work in the courtroom will be paired with a broad PR campaign painting the teachers unions as obstructionists who protect their members at all costs.

Olson has gathered hair-raising stories about a small number of teachers who sexually harassed students, refused to plan lessons, appeared on campus under the influence, yet held onto their jobs for years because of union-backed job protections. Exhibit A: The Los Angeles Unified School District, which spent a decade and $3.5 million trying to dismiss seven teachers for poor performance — and only succeeded in ousting four. Rather than attempting to fire Mark Berndt, a veteran teacher who pleaded guilty last month to lewd acts with his students, the district paid him $40,000 to resign.

Polls, meanwhile, show that unions are losing favor in the court of public opinion, too:

It’s not clear, however, that those alliances are deep or durable: Support for labor unions in general has fallen steadily, dipping below 50 percent for the first time in 2012 before rebounding slightly this year, Gallup polls find. Only 32 percent of Americans expressed a positive view of teachers unions (and another 25 percent were neutral) in a poll last year by the journal Education Next.

To be sure, unions still have the funding and the foot soldiers to be power players. The NEA and AFT spent more than $40 million last year on federal lobbying and electoral politics, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, plus tens of millions more in the states. And they can still splurge when it’s important to them: The AFT bought $1.2 million worth of TV, radio and print advertising this weekend to promote the National Day of Action.

The article further points out we should perhaps anticipate an ugly and divisive split coming within the ranks of teachers unions: according to one poll, younger, less experienced teachers (70 percent) are more inclined to support reforms, such as performance-based pay, whereas the Old Guard (41 percent) are less so. This will inevitably force unions to meditate between the two (largely generational) factions, while at the same time keeping their coffers full and their clout intact. This may prove very difficult indeed.