On teachers unions, the devil is in the details

Robert Maranto

Here are the fiscal facts. Unlike most employees, few Wisconsin teachers have to contribute more than marginally to their retirement and health care costs. My colleague Bob Costrell, who has done substantial work in Milwaukee, calculates that the city’s public school teachers get a remarkable package of benefits equal to 74% of salary, roughly double the normal benefits for workers calculated by the Bureau of Labor Statistics but in line with other Wisconsin teachers.
And that’s not all. By collective bargaining agreement, the Wisconsin Education Association Council has a lock on health insurance coverage for members, not necessarily a great service for teachers but a wonderful profit center for the union.
What explains this? As one who has served in government and taught public personnel management, the answers are three-fold, and in combination explain why allowing a broad scope for collective bargaining undermines transparency and, ultimately, democracy.
First, teachers unions play a big role in politics, meaning that, as Terry Moe writes in “Teacher Unions and School Board Elections” (published in a Brookings Institution book on school boards), “the fact that school boards are elected means that the teacher unions can actually participate in choosing – or even literally choose – the management they will be bargaining with.”
In the California school districts Moe studies, unions fund candidates and mobilize voters in (low-turnout) school board elections and often recruit the candidates. Unions thus control both sides of the collective bargaining table. Surveys of school board members suggest that business interests, in contrast, have little power.
I have not seen comparable research on Wisconsin, but I suspect similar dynamics.