A Reflection on Public Unions

The Economics of Education Review has published a study that purports to show that student performance is inversely related to the success of teacher unions in a given state.  To put the matter bluntly, students apparently score lower on standardized tests in states where the union is strong.  I am sure that we shall see this debate continue.

However, when I read about the study, it helped me think about something that has been bothering me.  And the thing that has been bothering me is public unions.  

I have never had an issue with unions in the private sector.  They make perfect sense for people in certain situations.  Private business is primarily about making money.  There are many purposes that go along with that, such as technological innovation, serving customers, creating value, etc., but the bottom line is still the bottom line.  If the workers for a firm feel that they need to work together collectively in order to improve their negotiating strength, then so be it.  I agree with them, as long as they don’t go too far (as they sometimes have) by doing things like making it impossible for non-union members to find work in a particular industry.  

But unions in the public sector are a different thing.  The purpose of a union, no matter how you dress it up or present it to the public, is to gain the best working conditions and pay you can possibly get from the people who pay for your services.  The problem with this is that you have just introduced something that is appropriate to a discussion about what to do with profits into a realm where profits are not part of the equation.  Government services, such as education and policing, have a primary purpose to serve the public by educating children and protecting the innocent.  When a union enters the picture, a competing  goal enters the picture.  The competing goal is maximizing benefits for teachers or the police.  Those benefits flow directly to the teachers and/or other public servants with no guarantee that the citizens will receive better services.  

If this study can be believed, then there may even be an inverse relationship between the power of a teachers’ union and the quality of the education students receive.  Certainly, it would not be difficult to believe that teachers without a union perform as well as those with a union.  Indeed, teachers without a union are likely to do better as a group because there is less protection for poor performers.  In other words, in a non-union environment a bad teacher could simply be fired and quickly replaced whereas a strong union may be able to significantly drag out the period required for termination and may even create long term liabilities whereby bad teachers must be paid for doing nothing (as I once read about in a New York Times piece).

Something like public education is an inappropriate arena for a battle between labor and management.  If the state wants to be in the business of educating students, then it should offer the pay and working conditions that is required to hire teachers qualified to instruct students.  That pay should not be influenced in any way by the organizational skills of teacher unions or by their participation in the political process.  We struggle with a public pension crisis for many kinds of public employees in America today because the political support public unions could offer to state and local politicians was large enough to encourage office holders to make promises that would not come due until they had enjoyed their run in office.   

Stripped down to the essentials, I think I am trying to say that public education (and other services to the public) are so fraught with difficulty and unsatisfactory outcomes because the main thing is not the main thing.  As long as career, pay, and perks prove to be more important to the main players than the activity itself, then the activity will continue to be a disappointment.  The education of children was once almost exclusively a private sector activity.  The reason we built a massive public school system was because we decided that the market should not rule the question of who gets educated and how well.  And yet, we have managed to replace the market with something worse, which is a politically dominated activity that pays off union members and politicians in different ways without necessarily providing the best service to children and parents.