Losing Their Bargaining Rights won’t send Teachers to the Poorhouse

By 03/17/2011

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One of the most striking arguments made against Republican governors’ efforts to curtail the bargaining rights of teachers is that it’s an “attack on the middle class.” I’m more sympathetic to that line of reasoning than you might think; for all their evils, unions have been successful in giving millions of people a path to prosperity. And, as I was reminded at my grandmother’s (a.k.a. “Nonnie’s”) funeral this past weekend, many of my second and third-generation Italian-American family members benefited from employment in public-sector, union-protected jobs.

But is it true, for teachers at least, that unions are necessary to ensure good wages? That when collective bargaining is disallowed, teacher pay plummets? I was curious, so I dug into data collected by the National Council on Teacher Quality. The group collects information on teacher pay, benefits, and much more in its tr3 database for more than 100 of the largest districts from each of the 50 states. I broke out the districts in non-collective bargaining states (those where the practice is illegal–namely, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Texas, and Virginia)–and compared them to the rest. And I looked at the maximum salary a teacher with a bachelor’s degree could earn. (See the data here.)

The surprising finding? Teachers in non-collective bargaining districts actually earn more than their union-protected peers–$64,500 on average versus $57,500. (See the chart below.)

Click to enlarge

To be sure, this isn’t a methodologically sophisticated analysis. To explore this issue further, you’d want to consider the cost of living in each locale. And ideally you’d look at more than just the largest districts. Still, this is one indication that teachers, when stripped of their right to bargain collectively, rarely get sent to the poorhouse. Or consider affluent Prince William County, Virginia, where, sans union, teachers with a bachelor’s degree manage to earn almost $90,000 per year.

On the other hand, there is some evidence from the NCTQ data that non-collective bargaining districts drive a harder bargain when it comes to health care: Just one-third of those districts offer free insurance to employees, versus one-half of those with bargaining rights. As Governor Scott Walker reminds us today, that’s what the Wisconsin fight was largely about: reining in the out-of-control costs of health care.

All of this sheds a light on what the unions are really about: protecting benefits and seniority–not pushing for higher pay. If you’re a young teacher earning a lousy salary and paying union dues, that’s something to be very angry about.

-Mike Petrilli

Comment on this article
  • kathy abrahamson says:

    WE are not all Teacher that fall under the same rules. What about the the other members in the Union.
    If you where a Mom working with no help from there kids dad just making under 29,000.00 a whole year and the cost of health care goes up even 10 % more what is a Mom to do? Then I will have to turn to the State for help then it is going to cost the State even more. We all need to think about everyone everyone just talks about the Teacher again what about the rest of us???????

  • Anne Clark says:

    I find the data for Newark interesting. Despite rhetoric to the contrary, Newark pays more for a first year teacher than any district listed other than Memphis. So why do ed reformers say higher salaries are needed to attract teachers to high poverty schools? Salaries already seem to be high – certainly for Newark vs. my local districts. Maybe pay isn’t the most important incentive to address this issue.

    Second, for Newark, I see a very small difference between the salaries for a teacher with a bachelor’s degree and a teacher with a master’s degree. So why do ed reformers place so much emphasis on getting rid of the master’s degree premium? Does this really save enough money to fund an incentive pay program in those districts? The differences are only ~$1000 for a starting teacher and one with 5 years experience. The Nashville performance pay experiment paid bonuses of $5000, $10,000, or $15,000 – and it didn’t seem to drive change.

    Look at the numbers! Does the rhetoric match any reality? Doesn’t look like it in NJ. And this has been my conclusion many times over. The generalizations used for many arguments fall apart when you dig down into the details. What may be true for one district, may not be true for the district next door – which in NJ can literally be 2 miles down the road. It’s probably why people seem to know that “solutions” driven from Washington are less effective than those driven locally. So how to use federal or state power effectively? Race to the Top is a good experiment that we’re in the midst of. Let’s see what happens.

  • EPQ says:

    The author admits that his argument is flawed, yet still attempts to reach some valid conclusions. His own words defeat his hypothesis.
    Using the same metjodology, it is clear that teachers in states with collective bargaining produce students who score dramatically higher on national and international tests than do their counterparts in non- collective bargaining states.

  • Ron Burgess says:

    For Stanford to have published such a flawed “study” is remarkable. The author selects out one component of a survey, does a non-statistical analysis, and proclaims far reaching implications. The advantage of a non-peer reviewed platform like this is that utter nonsense can be pawned off as serious academic study. Embarrassing.

  • curious idle says:

    Is that maximum first year salary? Don’t you think the length of time that a teacher stays in a non union school should also be factored in? If they dump you every couple of years, that higher salary wasn’t worth very much. If your health care costs are high, you are likely to lose salary over time as you pay for much of your own care. There’s no evidence here that could support the assertion definitively.

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