As a bit of counter-contrarianism to some of this blog’s recent content, let me say that one thing emerges when you meld the AFT’s massive expenditures on the DC mayor’s race with an awareness of the nefarious antics of the locksmith’s association, the tour guide guild, and the barber’s cartel is a realization that the standard center-left critique of teacher’s unions is almost 100 percent off-base.
The simple fact of the matter is that in a democracy there’s no way to prevent a bunch of people in the same line of work from forming an association to advocate on their behalf. This is especially true when you’re talking about a bunch of college-educated professionals. The American Medical Association isn’t a “union,” but it sure has done a whole bunch of stuff over the years to shape public policy in a way that’s contrary to the public interest. And in general if you look at why teachers have clout it’s for the same reasons that every other professional association has clout—it’s an organized interest that can intervene in the political system. If DC teachers get their way over the next four years it won’t be because they hold a strike, it’ll be because they helped get a sympathetic mayor elected.
And if you look at America’s “right to work” states, this is just what you see. There are still professional associations of teachers and the still lobby for stuff that they think is good for teachers and that stuff isn’t always in the public interest.
The real impact of teachers being in a union I think is that in addition to whatever teacher-specific stuff they do they also partake of the broader union consciousness. American labor unions do things that are idiosyncratic to the industry they’re in, but they’re also the cornerstones of middle class political advocacy. They stand up against cuts in Social Security benefits and they push for tough financial regulatory control. They were at the core of the coalition pushing for universal health care, and tried in vain to push the United States to adopt sensible climate legislation. You don’t see the American Medical Association or the Associated Locksmiths of America or many of the million other similar outfits doing that stuff.