February 17, 2005

Teachers & Unionization I

Carroll Andrew Morse

Full disclosure first. My father was a high school teacher, and a good one, so I’ve been exposed to this issue from multiple angles.

There is a fundamental problem with unionization of the teaching profession. The fundamental assumption behind unionization is that, in certain kinds of jobs, any individual employee can be easily replaced, meaning individual employees have no leverage in salary or work-condition negotiations. When employees can be easily replaced, unionization is appropriate.

But this is not true of the teaching profession. Teaching is a talent. If a hospital severs it relationship with a superior heart surgeon there is no guarantee that the surgeon that replaces him will be as good. A hospital administration must factor this into its dealings with the surgeon. In the same way, when a school district drops a superior English teacher, there is no guarantee that the replacement will be as good.

Unions are not designed to deal with talent. Valuing seniority over ability is way of saying individual ability is not important. Just like management of jobs that do not require talent, unions view their individual members as interchangeable parts. And after a while, when teachers and their unions treat themselves like interchangeable parts, so does the society around them.

So what is the answer?

You know that professional athletes in the major sports are unionized, correct? Well, they are not, in a strict sense, unions. Each individual athlete negotiates his own contract, within parameters negotiated by the “union”. Good teachers, students and communities would benefit if they represented themselves via a "guild" or "professional association" instead of a union…