Are changing labor laws silencing the teachers’ voice?

Many states have made significant changes to the laws governing public sector labor relations in recent years, changes that are already impacting teachers unions’ efforts to maintain membership. Most of the controversy in Wisconsin – and other states undergoing similar labor retrenchment – has centered on economic consequences such as government spending and worker wages. Yet, states’ ongoing efforts to redesign public sector labor law may prove even more consequential for the political power and influence of public employees unions in the years ahead.

As his critics are quick to emphasize, Gov. Scott Walker weakened collective bargaining rights for the public employees whose unions have historically been strong supporters of the Democratic Party (e.g., teachers and state, county, and municipal employees). This change leaves the state’s more Republican-friendly police and firefighter unions intact, showing that politicians believe union-friendly labor laws help enhance the political effectiveness of union interest groups. In a forthcoming article in The American Journal of Political Science, Patrick Flavin (Baylor University) and I examine just how instrumental one union-favored policy—mandatory public sector collective bargaining laws enacted in the 1960s and 1970s—have been to union efforts to mobilize their supporters in electoral politics.

In particular, we looked at data on the political participation of public school teachers from 1956 to 2004. During this time period, 34 states adopted mandatory collective bargaining laws for teachers, which enabled us to compare the political activity of individual teachers before and after their unions operated with the benefit of a mandatory bargaining law. Substantively, our quantitative analysis found that the effect of a teacher working in a mandatory bargaining law environment significantly influences his or her likelihood of participating in politics (e.g., campaign contributions, volunteering, attending political meetings).  The big surprise is that this effect of the bargaining law environment is greater than the effect of a teacher’s household income, education, and union membership status. We further identified increased contact (outreach) from organized groups (i.e. teacher unions) seeking to mobilize rank-and-file teachers as a likely explanation for this finding.

What specifically about mandatory bargaining laws helped catalyze political participation among teachers? For one thing, the onset of collective bargaining in the public sector conferred an assortment of benefits (often formal and contractual) to teacher unions at the organizational level, benefits that in turn made it easier and less costly for unions to focus on recruiting rank-and-file employees to participate in politics. To mention just two small examples: it is quite common to find collective bargaining agreements (CBAs) that provide teachers unions unlimited use of the school district’s internal mail service (the equivalent of congressional franking privileges). Moreover, many CBAs also subsidize the local union president’s salary so she or he can focus their efforts on union business. In other words, some school districts effectively subsidize the equivalent of a full-time political activist for the head of the local teacher union interest group.

Our findings speak directly to the growing debate about how to structure American public sector labor relations. Traditionally, unions have been relied upon as an antidote to upper-class bias in American politics, with many scholars pointing to the decline of unions as a major factor in the growth of representational inequalities between the working class and economic elites. As politicians seek to overhaul public sector labor laws, it is a strong possibility that membership and the political influence of labor unions will decline even further.

On the other hand, critics of public employee unions argue that they are the ultimate special interest group – uniquely advantaged in the public policymaking process by being afforded “two bites at the apple.” That is, public sector unions are able to lobby elected officials at both the ballot box and the bargaining table. For those who believe public employee unions have widely contributed to the current fiscal crises (namely, pension obligations) facing many state and local governments around the nation, the finding that these two bites at the apple (collective bargaining and political activism) work in concert with one another will likely confirm opponents’ convictions that the time to rein in public employee unions is long overdue.

Also, while it makes good sense that unions are concerned about losing favorable labor laws, a longstanding body of research has shown that the politics of policy retrenchment often differ significantly from the effects of new public policies themselves. That is, taking away collective bargaining rights and other union-favored labor laws may not have as powerful of an effect as granting those rights did in the first place. This argument will be put to the ultimate test in the upcoming U.S. Supreme Court case, Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, which will decide whether the U.S. adopts a national “right-to-work” regime for all state and local government workers. Interestingly, in 1995, Indiana eliminated the right of teachers unions to charge agency fees to non-members. Although the state’s major NEA-affiliate (ISTA) did not grow rapidly in the decade that followed agency fee elimination, neither did it see its membership disappear. What this portends for other state and local affiliates should the Supreme Court rule against the unions in Friedrichs is difficult to say.

In the end, irrespective of how one views all of these recent changes in public sector labor relations from a normative perspective, what’s clear is that even when it comes to the arcane intricacies of public labor law, these policy choices can often have enduring implications for interest group organization, public workers’ political participation, and, ultimately, the distribution of political power across American society.