Teachers nationwide aren't sure what they think as they fight for their rights as their driving force, unions, continue languishing with problems of their own. Tough economic times culminated in a worldwide financial crisis also hit the once trusted teacher unions as teacher layoffs and the rise of non-unionized schools have contributed to a change in union power.
As thousands of teachers rallied from New York to San Francisco last week to "reclaim the promise of public education", most are unsure of what the tumultuous times facing their unions will bring. The unions are grappling with financial, legal and public-relations challenges as they fight to retain their clout and build alliances with a public increasingly skeptical of big labor — among the wealthiest and most powerful interest groups in American politics.
"I do think it's a moment of truth," said Lance Alldrin, a veteran high-school teacher in Corning, Calif., who has split from his longtime union after serving for a decade as the local president.
Since 2009, the National Education Association has lost 230,000 of its members and is already projecting another decline this year, which will likely drop it below 3 million members. Teacher layoffs, the rise of non-unionized charter schools and new laws in states such as Wisconsin and Michigan freeing teachers to opt out of the union are among the culprits responsible for the decline. Ironically, as federal records show, the American Federations of Teachers has been able to grow slightly and now represents 1.5 million workers — but only because many new members are retirees or part-timers that pay lower dues. Union revenue actually fell last year by nearly $6 million.
According to Stephanie Simon of Politico, vast resources are still controlled by unions and their affiliates. Mostly from members' dues, they collectively bring in more than $2 billion a year. Yet signs of financial strain are visible. Partly by reducing its staff, the NEA has cut spending by 12 percent in the last two years, and the AFT has been running deficits despite years of posting surpluses. According to records filed with the U.S. Department of Labor, it wrapped up the most recent fiscal year owing $3.7 million on its line of credit, up from $916,000 the previous year.
Additionally, unions are facing a tarnishing of their public image. Theodore Olson, former Solicitor General, is expected to go to trial in California next month with an audacious lawsuit that aims to overturn teacher job protections, such as tenure, that unions helped muscle into state law. His work in the courtroom will be paired with a broad PR campaign painting the teachers unions as obstructionists who protect their members at all costs. Olson's focus on a few bad apples has been condemned by union leaders as it distorts the picture.
"Parents will see through that," NEA President Dennis Van Roekel said.
Problems surrounding unions have led to labor analysts seeing weakness and suggesting it's a whole new environment for the beleaguered teacher unions.
"They're much more on the defensive now," said Katharine Strunk, an education professor who studies labor at the University of Southern California.
"This is a very, very challenging time for unions," said John Logan, a professor of labor history at San Francisco State University.