Rearticulating the message: a lesson for teachers unions, by William C. Smith

Creative Commons image by Flickr user JeanPaulHolmes

As an anti-union message spreads across the country, teachers unions cling to the traditional message that a union’s mission it to protect its workers.  This is not surprising given that the American Federation of Teachers was created as a subsection of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO).  However, teachers unions have failed to articulate that the “products” in education are not inanimate objects; a failure that has left teachers unions open to harsh criticism.  The anti-union movement has feasted on this naivety, suggesting a mythical dichotomy positioning greedy teachers against innocent children, with teachers unions, more often than not, reinforcing this duality.  To combat the present wave of anti-unionism, teachers unions must remake their message.  In a politically charged context, with education as a focal point, the group that wins is the first group to convince the public that their primary concern is the children.

Membership in public employee unions rose sharply in the 1960s and 1970s after the creation of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) union in Wisconsin in 1958.[1]  Presently, public unions represent the dominant model of unions, having surpassed private unions both in terms of absolute numbers and participation.  In 2011, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that public sector workers had a union membership rate more than five times greater than private sector workers.  Of the public sectors workers, education had the highest unionization rate nationally at nearly 37%.[2] Teachers unions, then, represent one of the last politically powerful, publicly present trade organizations in the United States.

The National Context

Teachers unions have come under increasing attack since the 2010 mid-term elections which shifted ten states from democratic to republican control.  In the midst of an economic crisis, the new republican leadership prioritized a reduction in the government budget.  This emphasis on business conservatism converged with the present perspectives of the education reform movement which emphasize teacher accountability, via platforms that focus on standardized testing, teacher merit pay, and eliminating the ability of teachers to acquire tenure.  Central to this convergence was the role of public teachers unions.  Unions were targeted by republicans whose primary focus was reducing state spending and by reformers who wanted to make teachers more accountable.  The new momentum created by the combination of these two policy actors spread nationally following the 2010 election and has encompassed states ranging from Idaho to New Jersey.

Public employees, public school teachers included, have had a mixture of trials and triumphs over the past three years. In Wisconsin, republican governor Scott Walker pushed through an anti-union bill as part of his plan to address a $137 million dollar budget deficit.   The new law severely weakened the bargaining rights of all public employees, leaving them only able to formally negotiate for salary increases up to the rate of inflation[3].  No longer are they allowed to negotiate workplace conditions, health care, or other benefits.  After significant backlash, Governor Walker withstood a recall election, a victory for the anti-unionists[4].  However, the law was recently overturned by Circuit Court Judge Juan Colas who ruled that the differential treatment of classes of workers violated the state and federal constitution’s equal protection clause.[5]  Walker and his administration have appealed and the final outcome remains in limbo.

Following the example of Wisconsin, a similar piece of legislation was sponsored by State Senator Shannon Jones (OH-R).  Unions once again rallied to buttress the anti-union bill and in November of 2011 were able to put forth a referendum in Ohio to overturn the law.  The referendum passed with 61% of voters in support, a victory for the unions[6].

Prior to the recently concluded Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) strike, Illinois teachers unions had already been affected by this convergence of business conservatism and education reform.  In June of 2011, Democratic Governor Pat Quinn signed Senate Bill 7 into law.  The bill weakened the union by limiting collective bargaining to wages and benefits and requiring a 75% vote of the Chicago Teachers Union before CTU goes on strike[7].  The recent teacher strike was authorized earlier this summer on June 6th, when 90% of CTU members voted in favor of a strike if negotiations with the district were to fail. On September 10th, 10 days after CTU notified the district they were preparing to strike; the 26,000 members of the Chicago Teachers Union initiated a strike that lasted nine days.  The strike was declared illegal by Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, basing his claim largely on the limitations set out in Senate Bill 7.  Ultimately, CTU ended the strike a day before the local court was set to rule on the Mayor’s claim[8].

The Target

The intensification of an anti-union context is coupled with a mythologized dichotomy, situating greedy teachers against innocent children.  The anti-union message, which stresses that children are victims of overzealous unions, indicates their understanding of the importance of target audiences in public discourse.  Schneider and Ingram[9] identify children as dependents, a target population that is socially supported because the public feels children need to be protected.  In contrast, the social construction of powerful unions tends to be negative.  Policies that benefit dependents while at the same time reducing the power of contenders (unions) will draw significant public support.  Examples of the anti-union message capturing the power of this targeting scheme can be found in largely conservative media, reifying the alignment of business conservatism and the school reform movement.  Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney has spoken openly about teachers unions as the core cause of the country’s education problem.  Following the CTU strike Romney commented on the decision of the union “to turn its back not only on a city negotiating in good faith but on hundreds of thousands of children relying on the city’s public schools to provide them a safe place to receive a strong education.”[10]  Fox news correspondent Wayne Allyn Root, reflecting over the CTU strike, suggested that the district should simply fire all the teachers, sarcastically stating, “These are such selfless people! It’s obvious they’re always thinking about the kids”.[11]  As previously mentioned, this greedy teacher/innocent child message is not new to the CTU strike.  In his 2011 book Special Interests: Teacher Unions and America’s Public Schools[12], Terry Moe claims that “America’s public schools are typically not organized to provide the nation’s children with the highest quality education.” (pg. 3) An issue conservative leaning Moe believes is “largely due to the power of teacher unions” (pg. 5).  Additionally, this rhetoric is often used in the hortatory tactics of policy makers.  For example, Representative Todd Rock (R-PA) maintains a website titled Stop Teachers Strikes in Pennsylvania, to support his Strike Free Education Act bill.  The site suggests that there are presently 162 districts in the state on the verge of a strike and that the notion of striking treats children like “second class citizens”.[13]

Unfortunately for teachers unions, instead of understanding the purported dichotomy, they cling to their rhetoric about bringing benefits to teachers.  Although they recognize that benefits may flow through teachers to their students, teachers unions fail to emphasize a child-first message in their public discourse, making it appear that unions see children as a by-product and opening them up to further attacks.  Public reaction, although mixed nationally, draws into question the effectiveness of the unions’ “indirect” message of student benefits.  One example of public outcry can be seen in the comment section of news websites.  After the declaration of an early June 2012 strike by the Neshaminy Teachers Union (situated outside of Philadelphia), over 90% of the comments posted in the five days after the story broke opposed the strike[14].  Two comments sum up the tone and illustrate the public buy-in to the anti-union message.

Comment 1: “Hard to believe that teachers could be so heartless and self-absorbed as to walk out on their students any time; but to do so in this economy when people are hurting and with 50% of these teachers making 6 figure salaries and benefits[15] most of us will never see regardless of our level of education, is just beyond the pale.”

Comment 2: “Neshaminy’s teachers have made it very clear, the students mean nothing just their pockets.”

 Chicago: An Aberration

Given the dual victory claimed by both Mayor Emanuel and the CTU at the conclusion of the Chicago strike, one has to ask whether teacher unions have finally bridged the teacher/child divide and elevated the rights of children to the forefront of their public dialogue.  The short answer is, sadly, no.  Although CTU leader Karen Lewis stated in her remarks at the beginning of the strike that “we must do things differently in this city if we are to provide our students with the education they so rightfully deserve,” [16] the real story in Chicago was one of a unique context with two charismatic leaders.  Historically, union membership in Chicago has not been reduced as drastically as membership in other mid-western cities, thus maintaining a strong pro-union presence.  Compared to the change in Cleveland (44%) and Detroit (40%), total union membership in Chicago only decreased 27% between 1986 and 2011.[17].  Additionally, the Chicago area has a significant minority population which has been shown to have greater affinity towards unions.  This may explain why one week into the CTU strike a poll conducted by We Ask America found that 56% of Chicago residents supported the unions’ decision to strike[18] . Personality also matters; with both former white house chief of staff Emanuel and union leader Lewis known as boisterous, respected leaders in their fields, public attention was often drawn to this personal contest, and neither side stepped aside to shine the light on the children.  This lead journalists, who were contemplating the significance of the strike, to emphasize its peculiarity and lack of replicability in other cities.[19] [20]

Given the unique positionality of Chicago, pro-union supporters must not be quick to label strike results a success.  As I stated in my previous post on State of the Unions[21]: “As long as the anti-union message revolves around the symbol of children’s rights, union supporters are destined to fail. What is needed is a fundamental restructuring from the defenders of unions. It must be coherent, positive, and glowing with the impacts on children.”









[9] Schneider, A. & Ingram, H. (1993). Social construction of target populations: Implications for

politics and policy. American Political Science Review 87 (2), 334-347.



[12] Moe, T. (2011). Special Interests: Teacher Unions and America’s Public Schools. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institute.



[15] Salary statistics for the district can be found at:  Although this does not include benefits it illustrates that, as of 2009, the average salary of Neshaminy teachers ($49,401) was below the state average ($52,913).








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