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Teachers Unions & Collective Bargaining

A teachers' union is a special type of labor union designed to fight for the rights of educators. With roots dating back more than 150 years in the U.S., these organizations play critical roles not only in securing benefits for teachers but also shaping the way education works. For instance, thanks to lobbying by the National Education Association, or NEA, in the late 1860s, Congress created the Department of Education.

What Teachers' Unions Bargain For

Like other types of trade unions, teachers' unions use collective bargaining agreements, or CBAs, to protect their members. Over the years, collective bargaining has helped educators gain many rights, such as:

  • Fair working conditions, compensation, and pay equality
  • Tenure mechanisms that prevented qualified educators from being punished for their personal biases, political beliefs, or other unfair reasons
  • Access to various benefits

When it comes to education policy, teachers' unions also work to ensure that educators can fulfill their job duties in the face of tough odds. For instance, the NEA played a critical role in shifting the focus from federal policies like the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which included 2001's No Child Left Behind Act, towards alternatives like the Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015. At the same time, education policy is a very politicized issue, and not every lawmaker is onboard with the kinds of changes that teachers seek. These differences of opinion mean that individual educators may be subject to a variety of laws depending on where they are in their careers.

State Laws and the NLRA

Some states prohibit certain types of collective bargaining for certain workers. For teachers, such restrictions usually come into effect in public schools, where educators are classified as public employees.

In Texas, Georgia, North Carolina, Virginia, and South Carolina, collective bargaining was entirely prohibited for public employees as of 2014. Only 11 states explicitly give teachers the right to do things like going on strike, and many states make it completely illegal for public employees to strike. In some right-to-work states, these employees may be allowed to strike, but the power of unions to compel them to join is often significantly limited. As major walkouts and strikes over low pay have shown, these rules aren't always successful at stopping collective action, and public opinion may be evolving about educators' rights as employees.

How are states allowed to prohibit teachers from doing something that many workers view as a fundamental freedom? The right to form unions, strike, bargain collectively, and take other actions are laid out in the National Labor Relations Act of 1935, or NLRA. This federal legislation also prohibits actions like unions trying to force people to join and stops employers from retaliating against workers who exercise their union rights. Although the NLRA can take precedence over many state laws, its protections exclude employees in the public sector, such as teachers.

Teachers' Unions and the U.S. Constitution

Labor unions aren't mentioned anywhere in the U.S. Constitution. At the same time, however, Article I of the Constitution grants Congress the power to regulate various forms of commerce among the states. The Constitution also protects people's right to assemble and speak freely, both of which are critical to common union activities, such as meeting, discussing employment conditions, promoting union membership, and collective bargaining.

Bargaining Units

Bargaining units are groups of workers who are represented by a common labor union when it comes to collective bargaining and negotiation. Employers or official bodies, such as the Indiana Education Employment Relations Board, recognize bargaining unit groups as being represented by labor unions. States that allow teachers to participate in collective bargaining may also mandate that schools clearly specify to which bargaining units they belong so that employees can take advantage of their rights.

Bargaining unit positions are jobs that receive labor union representation. Although all employees can hold these jobs regardless of their union membership status, only those who hold bargaining unit jobs gain the full benefits of being in unions.

Being in a bargaining unit position generally makes it easier to file complaints and appeals because unions outline specific grievance procedures. At the same time, all teachers can exercise non-union complaint rights and appeals. For example, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission protects current employees and would-be workers from discrimination based on certain protected classes, such as race, sexual orientation, gender identity, age, national origin, or religion.

Teachers' Unions and Charter Schools

As in many other labor fields, unions sometimes clash with employers, such as schools. Notably, these disputes have come into the public eye as certain states move towards voucher and charter school education models.

One key distinction in such battles is the fact that although charter schools receive funds from the government, they're often treated and operated as independent entities. According to the Emory Law Journal, charter school efforts to secure funding while retaining their independence has led to significant uncertainty. For instance, almost half of all states exempt charter schools from the collective bargaining agreements that public schools in the same districts must follow, and only around an eighth of charter schools have labor unions. Some charter schools have even argued that as “political subdivisions,” they don't count as employers under the NLRA.

Other Teachers’ Union Benefits

Joining a union might give certain teachers more control over their futures. Since the benefits they receive go above and beyond what many school districts would provide of their own accord, these teachers may enjoy heightened access to vital resources that make it easier to focus on their career development. Union members may receive:

  • Prescription medication benefits
  • Consumer discounts
  • Dental and vision health benefits
  • Pension plans

For teachers, the decision whether to join a union is a personal matter. Those who want to keep their options open, however, may benefit from learning about what kinds of allowances they enjoy in different states and distinct employment positions.

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