Jewish World Review May 23, 2003 / 21 Iyar, 5763
The bottom line for teachers unions
The Jayson Blair scandal at The New York Times has unleashed a
flood of media coverage. Hundreds of stories, columns, and editorials
have been printed and broadcast in the conventional media; dozens more
have appeared on the Internet.
Yet nowhere in this gusher of news and comment can you find the
views of The Newspaper Guild, one of the nation's largest media unions
and the one that represents reporters at The Times. Neither Google nor
Nexis turns up anything -- not a single article or transcript or Web
post -- quoting a Guild official on the scandal's significance. No one
seems to care about the union's reactions to the Blair affair, or its
recommendations on how to prevent such ignominy in the future, or what
it thinks the episode says about racial preferences in the newsroom.
And that is as it should be.
Because like all labor unions, the Newspaper Guild exists for one
reason: to promote its members' economic interests. Those include
higher pay, better benefits, easier work conditions, and less
discipline -- all of which rank higher on any union's list of
priorities than tightening professional standards or advancing the
public good. No one asks the Guild's views on the state of US
journalism for the same reason no one asks the United Auto Workers to
comment on federal highway policy: Anything they said would be tainted
by their vested interest in winning more money and better terms for
their members. Unions are special pleaders; no one mistakes them for
impartial observers or disinterested honest brokers.
Except when it comes to teachers unions.
If the UAW proposed that domestic automobile manufacturers be paid
a federal subsidy for each new employee they hired, or called for
making the interest on new-car loans tax-deductible, everyone would
recognize its self-serving aims -- to swell the ranks of auto workers
and increase its own membership.
But when teachers unions demand hefty increases in education
spending or mandatory reductions in class size, they get a respectful
hearing. Union officials are routinely quoted in the media and invited
to testify before legislative committees. And yet their aims are no
less self-serving and their interests no less mercenary than those of
any other union. So why the difference?
Part of the answer is that Americans think well of teachers, and
teachers unions take advantage of that good opinion. When the public
is asked to rate various professions for honesty and ethics, teachers
are always near the top of the list. Union officials are typically
closer to the bottom. "Given those results," asks Mike Antonucci of
the Education Intelligence Agency, a public-education research firm,
"which of the two words in the term 'teachers union' would *you*
That explains why the National Education Association, the nation's
largest teachers union, rarely uses the word "union" when describing
itself. Go to the NEA web site, for example, and click on "About NEA."
Nowhere in the long description does the word "union" appear.
But however much the NEA and its affiliates may try to downplay it,
they are union to the core. Indeed, they are among the most successful
unions in US history. The Manhattan Institute's Sol Stern observes in
Breaking Free, his engrossing new book on why so many public schools
are dysfunctional, that "teacher unions now dominate the American trade
union movement, accounting for almost 50 percent of all unionized
government employees and more than 20 percent of all union members."
Teachers unions work aggressively to shape public policy for their
own benefit. They "cast a giant shadow over American politics," Stern
writes, donating tens of millions of dollars directly to Democratic
candidates and supporting them indirectly through independent media
buys, union-paid campaign workers, and in-kind services such as phone
banks and direct mail. And this massive investment in political
influence is supplemented by lavish advertising campaigns. I wrote on
Sunday about the Massachusetts Teachers Association, which budgets more
than $2.3 million a year for radio and TV commercials that advocate
more public spending on education.
The unions do not spend all this money out of the goodness of their
hearts. Their goals are not better schools or improved student
performance. What they want is more income for themselves, and
teachers unions only collect more income when public-school payrolls
increase. That is why they constantly clamor for hiring more teachers.
And what they clamor for, they usually get. According to the
Department of Education, the number of public school teachers in
Massachusetts soared from 33,629 in 1991 to 70,236 in 2002, a 108
percent rise. During roughly the same period, public school enrollment
in Massachusetts grew by only 17 percent. The explosion in teacher
payrolls may not have led to better grades or more effective schools,
but it certainly gave a boost to the union's bottom line.
Teachers unions, like all unions, want to make money and amass
power. Those are the motives behind everything they say and do.
They're not in business "for the children." They're in business for
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Jeff Jacoby is a Boston Globe columnist. Comment by clicking here.
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