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Lesson 7.5

Teachers' Unions:
Don't Underestimate Them

What do teacher unions do, anyway?

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Updated April 26, 2017

Teachers’ unions have tremendous influence in America’s public schools, perhaps nowhere more so than in California.

This lesson describes the major functions of these unions, and summarizes varying points of view about their role in student learning.

There are two main national teachers unions in the USA: the National Education Association (NEA) and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT). Most California K-12 teachers are organized by the California Teachers Association (CTA), which is NEA-affiliated. California’s largest districts are dual-affiliated with both CTA and CFT, the state branch of the AFT. This may seem like detail, but it is an important one: there is more than one teacher union. Although teacher unions work hard to align their point of view (which maximizes their power) they are, in fact, complicated organizations containing many divergent interests.

Teacher contracts in California districts are negotiated between the school board (represented at the bargaining table by local district leaders) and the teachers (represented by local union leaders). The negotiation process, called collective bargaining, has been in place since the passage of the Rodda Act in 1975.

In California, virtually every school district uses collective bargaining.

In California, virtually every school district (Clovis is the largest exception) uses collective bargaining. Collective bargaining is not used in all US states, and in 2011 collective bargaining was the trigger issue for major demonstrations across the US. Teacher contracts can be complex agreements that address more than pay. In California, many issues related to working conditions are subject to bargaining.


School district finances and contracts are complex. Both local unions and school districts rely on state organizations for technical support. The state organizations of the CTA and CFT provide negotiating support to its local affiliates, while school districts seek advice from consultancies such as School Services of California. If you want to see what the contracts actually look like, check the National Council on Teacher Quality. It has posted copies of collective bargaining agreements for America’s 100 largest districts, and provides an orderly database to research the major provisions of these agreements.

Negotiating support is one of many services that the state teacher unions provide their affiliates. Another notable service is the state union's role in state education policy.

The Education Coalition

Both CTA and CFT are members of California's "Education Coalition," a group of education-related advocacy organizations. This coalition lobbies for education spending in the annual zero-sum budget battle with other budget priorities from prisons to health care to transportation. This is important work, particularly in California, which spends proportionally less of its tax dollars on education than most states do.

There is great sound and fury in education reform discussions about whether unions are “good” or “bad” for public education. Most old hands in the education arena (though not all) view this as a false dichotomy.

“Unions are Good”

Teacher pay is higher in states with strong unions.

There is no question that states with strong unions, such as California, pay teachers more than those with weaker unions. Teachers in strong-union states also generally have more generous health care benefits. For the big picture of how teacher pay in California has compared to other states over time, see the graph in Lesson 3.1.

Supporters of teachers unions also argue that these unions head off a great deal of potential mischief from state micromanagement of what happens in the classroom. CTA lobbyists generally oppose bills that create hard and fast rules about what teachers can or cannot do, favoring policies that place authority at the local level where districts and unions can work them out through collective bargaining.

“Unions are Bad”

Total union dues and fees come to about $1,000

Among critics of unionism in education, perhaps the most vocal figure is Terry Moe, who argues that unions’ interests are poorly aligned with those of students and taxpayers. In California, the most potent voice is probably that of Mike Antonucci.

At the local level, critics such as Moe argue that negotiations between districts and unions are structurally out of balance. The union’s power to call a strike is unmatched by any equivalent power from the district side. Districts cannot lawfully dismiss the striking teachers and hire replacements. Critics also note that unions make unapologetic use of the democratic process to influence the other side of the bargaining table by using their resources to support or oppose candidates for school boards. (This is sometimes called "capturing" the school board.)

At the state level, critics object to teacher unions’ capacity to raise funds for political action. A typical full-time teacher in a CTA-affiliated district pays over $1,000 in union dues annually. Of this amount, about 15% goes to the NEA, about 20% goes to the local affiliate, and the remainder goes to the CTA state organization. An important (but undisclosed) fraction of these resources support the unions’ political efforts. Districts, by contrast, are not permitted to use funds for political action.

The US Supreme Court approved mandatory union dues (usually known as "agency fees") in the Abood case in 1977. Opponents argued that these fees violate free speech. Some states passed "paycheck protection" measures to require that unions gather an "opt in" commitment from each member in order to collect certain forms of dues from them. In 2015 the US Supreme Court took up review of the matter in the Friedrichs case, but split 4-4 with one open seat. The Court seems determined to settle the matter. In September 2017 it granted review in the Janus case, which raises many of the same issues. The issue is of great consequence to teachers unions, because they collect significantly less funding when dues are voluntary.

“Unions Are. Period.”

Most education reformers view the “good union/bad union” conversation as a waste of breath. The unions aren’t going anywhere, they have tremendous power, and anyway there isn’t persuasive evidence that absence of a union is any more of a magic answer than any other one-shot education reform wish.

The leadership of teacher's unions is usually stable over time. School board members have limited terms. Administrators may change districts. Teachers, by contrast, work in a system that discourages moving.

It is worth noting that the leadership of teachers unions is usually stable over time. School board members have limited terms. Administrators may change districts. Teachers, by contrast, work in a system that directly discourages moving. They are rewarded with seniority and higher salaries when they stay with a district. The individuals involved in union leadership generally stay involved for many years.

The long experience and steady perspective of union leadership creates an opportunity for teacher unions to play a strong role in education change, if a consensus for change can emerge. The Teacher Union Reform Network (TURN) is an informal national organization of union leaders that meets regularly to discuss ideas for change.

Change is not a simple matter for a huge organization. CTA has more than 300,000 members and grapples with the operational challenges of any large organization. Its governing body is the 800-member State Council, a regionally elected body that meets quarterly. In most cases, the voters in these elections are current CTA members currently working as teachers. In some districts, controversially, retired teachers also may cast ballots. (This is controversial partly because retired teachers and current teachers may have different interests on issues like budgets and pensions.)

Nimbleness is out of the question.

There are only a few conference halls in California large enough to host a CTA state council meeting. Like Congress (for perspective, a policymaking body about half its size), the State Council uses a highly structured deliberative process that includes standing committees, speechmaking, and internal politics. Decisions are brought to the full 800 delegates for a vote. CTA staff and executive leadership are guided in their actions by a massive policy manual that the organization takes quite seriously and does not publish to the web (though it is available from

Changes to CTA policy must go through the State Council, a process that takes time. Many points of view exist within the organization, but it can take quite a while for ideas to bubble to the surface in the form of policy changes. Changes can happen, but nimbleness is virtually out of the question.

Updated August, 2017


Annual dues are the major source of resources for California’s teacher unions. About how much per year does each teacher pay in dues?

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Questions & Comments

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Jeff Camp - Founder April 5, 2017 at 3:27 pm
With the change in the US President and a new appointment to the US Supreme Court, new SCOTUS litigation about the rules surrounding teacher unions seems likely. Union watcher Mike Antonucci argues that the most existentially important policy for unions is NOT the ability to levy mandatory "agency fees" on all teachers (California allows it; Florida does not), but the rules that certify a union as the "exclusive representative" of teachers in collective bargaining. Full Article
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Jeff Camp - Founder March 30, 2016 at 10:24 am
In March 2016 the supreme court deadlocked 4-4 on the Friedrichs case, kicking the can until a replacement is appointed for Antonin Scalia. The case has important implications for the power and role of teachers unions.
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Jeff Camp - Founder October 23, 2015 at 9:30 am
Just how rare are teacher strikes? Depends where you live, according to data collected by EdWeek. The short version is that strikes are most common in Pennsylvania and Illinois. From 2010-2015, there were five teacher strikes in the state of California.
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Carol Kocivar - Ed100 December 2, 2014 at 12:33 pm
The CTA has just launched a new teacher training program. This is a joint effort with the Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education (SCOPE) and the National Board Resource Center at Stanford University. The project is funded by the S.D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation, Stuart Foundation, the National Education Association and the California Education Policy Fund.
©2003-2018 Jeff Camp
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